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About Me

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Tucson, Arizona, United States
I work as Panther Peak Bindery and am a bookbinder, conservator and instructor working outside Tucson, Arizona for individual and institutional clients across the country. I am a two term President of the Guild of Book Workers, was a Fulbright Scholar, taught at North Bennet Street School for over nine years and was the fastest in my middle school class at running up and down a flight of stairs (really!).

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Don't step on my double wall box

People say stuff all the time.  Some of it sounds great and right and important, but not all of it is really true.

One thing bookbinders hear is the importance of stepping the walls of double wall drop spine boxes.  It sure sounds good and right and important.

Here's what I'm talking about.

When I make my double wall boxes, for large and heavy books I cut and glue together the walls of the trays.


They are glued together to make the trays.


What folks argue for is the need to step the walls like shown here. This would increase the glue area by one board thickness.


After I put the walls together I line the trays with paper.


Then cover with cloth. I've been using Natuurlinen the past seveal years, but use other materials as well.

We had someone come by the school one year ranting about how you had to step the walls of double walled boxes.  I have this view that all binders and conservators rant about six or seven things, but no two agree on which seven things they should be getting upset about. 

So we did an experiment where we made two trays and then tore them apart. Guess what? No difference. It was extremely difficult to tear either of them apart. They both were over engineered.  We didn't know which we were tearing apart until after the experiment so there was no cheating.

Obviously it's not just the joints that matter. The paper lining helps.  Bookcloth is difficult to tear, and remember that testing cloth strength on a box wouldn't be done by tearing the edge of the cloth but by grabbing cloth away from the edge and trying to pull it apart.  Hard to to do with any cloth.

So, don't waste your time with stepped joints. They look good, until they're covered.  It sounds good that you're using them.  They just don't make any real difference.





Monday, November 21, 2016

The Illegal Immigrant from Sweden

I love the mundane. I don’t find it boring or meaningless. I love all it tells and find what is common to be rich, interesting, and full of life. You just need to look beyond the words, read between the lines.

My Swedish grandfather, my father’s father, was an illegal immigrant who jumped ship in New York. He stayed in New York City for a while before bouncing around Colorado, Illinois, and Nebraska, always one step ahead of Immigration and their attempts to deport him. He didn’t accomplish any great things, but his life tells the story of immigration, or at least one immigrant who came here to escape a circle of poverty.

He came from a long line of tenant farmers who faced bouts in debtor’s prison and the like. It clearly was not a happy life in Sweden and he got out the only way he could, it seems. Worked on a boat and took off when it moored in the city.

He died before I was born, and I never heard much about him when I was growing up. He came from Linköping. His family had lived in that part of Sweden for centuries.

Never knowing him, and not hearing much about him, made me curious. My father had this book of his and it fascinated me when I was younger. It’s funny how much it says about him and his life, but not in words exactly.

To me this book says more about him, and his life, than a diary would have.


Here is the book. A limp leather binding, about 5 x 8 inches. It was not an expensive book, was meant to be an account book of some type, but he bought it to use as a notebook.

The book is filled with all kinds of writing.





He used this book for several years. The earliest writings are from his time in New York City, but on the front flyleaf he’s written his locations as Osceola, Nebraska, and Rockford, Illinois—two of the three cities he ran between to avoid being deported.








Many of his early writings are songs in Swedish. Some religious, some not. He was not a religious person but had attended the state church until his confirmation and I think he just liked music and singing.

One thing that’s interesting is that many of the songs are carefully written in nice handwriting. As the book progresses they are written in pencil without the same level of care and they are more and more in English. Of course they would be.



This one, as you can see, was written 14 months later in Nebraska, in 1911, and is in English.




This page sort of makes me laugh. It is a reference from the Michigan Avenue Garage and says two things that aren’t true. One is that he had worked there since 1902. He didn’t leave Sweden until several years later. The other is that he is a sober and industrious young man. From what I learned from my father we can say that he was a young man. Let’s leave it at that.

That date is either 1912 or 1913.

But he was an illegal immigrant and, after reading this, a fraudulent one as well! Maybe I should be deported because of his actions?






But there are also pages in there with financial records. Hours worked and money received. That’s a lot of 9 hour days and only one day off a week. And a grand total of 29.03 for the month.

I’ve never taken the time to figure out what year this was though it wouldn’t be hard to do based on the dates and day of the week.  And one could extrapolate where his wages fell, was he doing well or barely getting by?





The book also has contributions from my Aunts. I’d like to think they were children when they did this. Hopefully.




Towards the end of the book he wrote this song out. Was it only a song or was he missing Sweden? I understand from his niece, who I met in the 80s, that he only wrote back home a couple of times and then disappeared.

“Last night I dreamed a dream so sweet I thought I saw my home sweet home”






I think the fact that I was so fascinated by this book was an omen that I would enjoy doing what I do now. Preserving the small and seemingly insignificant stuff that can mean and tell so much. And often in a much more interesting way than the broad and “important.”

Folks ask what I’ve enjoyed working on the most and they want to hear it’s all the old stuff, but really it’s the stuff that has a story to tell that’s worth preserving. Even it’s the story of a poor Swedish immigrant who spent years running from deportation.

Eventually World War I began and he joined the army, and in so doing he became a citizen and his problem was solved. He served in Colorado and settled in Denver where my father was raised near Washington Park.

In 1980 I attended college in Linköping and was able to walk around streets that would have been familiar to him. In a way it felt like completing a circle for him.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Blocking powder



Gold leaf needs an adhesive. When putting gold on leather bindings the traditional adhesive, called a glaire, was egg whites. More modern glaires like Fixor or BS Glaire, use shellac. Here is a blog post I made on making your own glaire: you can find it here.   It was part of a struggle to figure out why I was being sent unusable Fixor (a modern glaire) without any real logical explanation and then figuring out how to easily make better glaire, that actually worked for less cost.

A hundred years ago gold leaf was used on cloth bindings as well. But you can’t use a liquid glaire on cloth because it would stain. You could, I suppose, make an impression and then carefully put the gold in that space, but if the impression was made using a blocking press, you’d have to fill the impression without moving the book in the press and . . . it would be pretty much impossible I think.

Blocking powder is a powdered glare. It is also made from shellac.

I first learned about blocking powder in Sweden where Per Cullhed used it when tooling. He would use Fixor for his gold tooling. But there are often losses in tooling, places where the gold doesn’t stick. You try again with the gold and if it doesn’t stick the second time often you have to re-glaire the spot. And then wait for the glaire to dry before proceeding. It takes time. Some might think it wastes time.

Per would use blocking powder in the spots that needed reglairing, which meant that he could re-tool the spot immediately and successfully.

When I returned from Sweden I tried to buy it from the usual suppliers, but no one had it. A while ago, many years after returning from Sweden, I asked around and found a few recipes.

I made this one and it’s worked really well. It’s from Pleger’s book, Bookbinding and Its Auxiliary Branches, Part 3: Blank, Edition and Job Forwarding, Finishing and Stamping, on page 234:

1 part gum arabic
1 part gum sandarac
1 part gum mastic

I mixed them in a coffee grinder to a very fine powder and ended up with about a third of a cup. Which is a lot considering how little is used each time.

David Lanning, of Hewit Leather, had another recipe:

25% French Chalk (Tailor’s Chalk)
75% Finely Ground Shellac

There is no question that would work as well.

It’s interesting to note that Pleger does not like using “gilding powder.” He writes, “. . .beyond the lettering of individual names in addition to the afore-mentioned materials it should not be used. . . .”

Pleger actually has two other recipes, one using gutta-percha which I wanted to use because it sounded like a fun thing to use, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. In spite of its use in dentistry, and that my sister works in the dental industry, I couldn’t find it anywhere.

His third recipe is:

1 part shellac
2 parts copal

I purchased the materials from Kremer Pigments. The cost of the three items in the first recipe was about $60 for what feels like a lifetime supply.

To use the powder you take a fine bristled brush and dust it evenly over the area you are filling in. You might have to vary the heat of the tool a little bit, of course. Then pick up the gold and tool it.

It really is just like any other finishing. I do think it would be a bit of a pain to use it over a whole cover, but I might be wrong about that. And we know that Pleger would have words with you if you did that.

Try it. You’ll end up thanking Per! And he deserves it.




Monday, November 7, 2016

Roll storage


It doesn’t do any good to have materials if you can’t store them correctly. Damaged goods are pretty useless. Wrinkled paper, even kinks in paper, make it useless for anything other than waste paper. And that can make some pretty expensive waste paper.

Book cloth is another item that can be ruined by improper storage. Sometimes it can be kept on the tube it came on, like the blue cloth roll in this picture, but that can waste space as well. No one has enough space and every inch can be important. But sometimes cloth isn’t in any shape conducive to being stored with other cloth on a shelf, though a bunch of unsupported rolls of cloth can be fine together.






It seems the answers to most of life’s problems can be found at Home Depot or IKEA. Well, sometimes the answers are duct tape and WD-40. I guess for bookbinding, it’s mainly the first two. For stuff around the house, it’s the tape and lubricant. Confusing, I know. What if the bindery is in a house? How do you decide? I’m getting dizzy here.

I went to Home Depot several years ago and bought a 4” PVC pipe, shown on the left below. It didn’t work because it was too flexible and distorted under the weight of stuff placed above it.





Next I tried a thicker, stronger tube. It was better but the tube only came in 3 inches and that was too narrow.




A few years after my search, I was in an Ace Hardware and saw these tubes. They are 4 inches and are sort of corrugated so they have plenty of strength. They come in 10 foot lengths, so I chopped them in half. I need to put caps on the back ends, because things are so dusty here in the boonies where there is no grass to hold the dust down.





Some materials are too large for a tube. For those I try to keep them in the box they were shipped in. 




It’s a particularly good system for small rolls of material. They’d get crushed and destroyed otherwise. And you’d never be able to find them.




No doubt there are tons of solutions for this problem, but this works well for me. Not only does it protect the cloth but makes it easy to keep it organized as well. And if you can’t find stuff, you might as well not even have it. If only I had room for more. . . .