Search This Blog

About Me

My photo
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!).



Monday, December 26, 2016

Panther Peak???

I stole the name. Unabashedly and without shame. I think Diane still resents me for it, just a little bit.

Her folks moved to Tucson in the early 1960s. They lived in the East side of town and bought a house in a development that went bankrupt. That meant there were many acres of desert around their house at the outset.

Over time it got more and more crowded and paved. Hilly roads were flatted. Dirt roads were paved. People came and built and came and built and came and built. Her mom got tired of it and all the people.

She looked around, thought about moving to Alaska, but instead found the property we currently own. The reason they moved here was the views of the mountains! The northernmost peak in the Tucson range is Panther Peak.

Diane was shocked they would move so far out of town. Strangely, folks that grew up in Tucson feel that the East side of town is the best place to live. Folks like me who moved here, think they’d rather live anyplace in Tucson except the East side. It’s too far away from everything, which is ironic because we’re pretty remote where we currently are.

As a joke Diane named their place "Panther Peak Ranch." She even painted a sign for them and I think she hung it up when they were away. The sign is about 20 years old and is now on the barn. It’s fantastic!

I loved the name and when we decided to wise up and move out here I wanted to call the business Panther Peak Bindery. It is a delightfully ridiculous name! Diane had aspirations of a publishing company using that name but relented. Eventually. Life isn’t fair.

Panther Peak is the northernmost peak in the Tucson Mountains, though it can’t really be seen from Tucson because Safford Peak is just on the Tucson side of it. Our secret, perhaps. It’s 3500 feet above sea level, and we’re at 2400 feet.

Enjoy the views of it from our property.

Monday, December 19, 2016


I can be kind of mean, but generally with good intentions.

When I was teaching the students would give me Christmas presents, at least they did for a few years until I told them to cut it out. They were paying a lot for their education and living in a very expensive city. There was no necessity to spend money they didn't have to give me a gift when, to me, it felt like hanging out with them every day was more than gift enough to me.

I did, however, want to give them gifts.  But just giving them a gift didn't seem right, either.  Not that it would sound like a bribe but the standard is to avoid the appearance of evil, not just not doing evil. And what's more evil than gift giving?  Well, now I'm just getting confused.

I had brought in a table hockey game during my first year at the school.  Lars had one at the radio station he worked at in Linköping and I thought it would be a great way to blow off steam and take a break from what could be a bit of pressure during the day.  It worked pretty well, at least to my mind.

There was a school tournament, created to force students to get to know each other throughout the building.  NPR did a story on it you can find here.

But there was also the Stanislov Cup for the bookbinding program, I think named by Stacie Dolin. We had a trophy and everything.  Or we did it might be in the trash by now for all I know.

I used to tell the students it was the most exclusive tournament in the world, only twelve were eligible each year!

But the point was that I would buy bookbinding related prizes during the year and give them away after the tournament.  Nothing crazy, mainly books, tools and posters but it was fun looking for them through the year.  And more fun giving them away.  I wish I could have given them more, they certainly gave me a lot.

So in the season of giving it's nice to be reminding of all the students gave me during their time in Boston, and am grateful most of them still liked me even after I made them play table hockey against each other.  Well, a few of them probably enjoyed it.  Hopefully.

Monday, December 12, 2016

drape, not drapes

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the flexibily of spines and regulating how much they throw up.  (That post can be found here.)  The other aspect of that equation in that post is the amount of drape in the paper being used in a binding.

This is an adhesive bound book where the pages don't drape.  This is a problem for adhesive bindings becuase it means that the spine has to flex a lot in order for the book to be read.  To my mind adhesive bindings need spines that barely flex in order to be durable.  But, and perhaps more importantly to the end user, it's not too much fun because it takes too much effort to hold the book open to read.

The reason for the lack of drape in the above example is because the paper in the book has the grain going the wrong direction.  One can think of grain in paper as minute toothpicks which align in one direction.  The paper will fold (or drape!) along the direction of the toothpicks but wouldn't if the page was folded against the direction of them.

So, clearly you could fold a paper with the grain in this orientation from left to right and it would go well but if you wanted to fold the top edge down to the bottom you would have some issues.

And this would be the result.  Here I am holding a group of pages with the grain running away from my hand.  Notice how the pages don't drape at all.

Here is the same paper with the grain going in the opposite direction - it's running parallel to the floor, or away from you in this picture.  You can see how the paper drapes, at least a bit.  The fact that the paper drapes even this much creates less stress on the spine when the book is opened.

Of course the weight of the paper is an issue as well.  With Bible paper it doesn't seem to matter all that much because it would drape well in either direction.  It does matter for other issues I won't go into here.

And heavy paper won't drape even with the grain, though it would fold more easily with the grain.

The problem we have as binders is that printers don't care about this, they want to print the paper in the most effecient way.  That causes many issues for binders in folding sections, rounding and backing, gluing up spines amongst others.

But that's pretty much the way the world works. When we built the house the plumber didn't care he was causing problems for the electrician. He did care when he would cause problem for the carpenter because that was me and my neighbor but if we weren't there it wouldn't have mattered to him.

We just have to learn to deal with it, and the first part of that is understanding the problem.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The evils of oversewing

I was asked to take a book apart so that it could be scanned.  Simple enough.

Except the book was oversewn.  If you read the post some weeks back you will see a discussion of "throwing up."  Book spines need to throw up to allow for all the elements of the binding to work peaceably and harmoniously together. Sort of like Woodstock, you know.

Oversewing is used mainly to attach loose sheets together, but I have also seen it used in rebinding broken bindings of serials.  They do not throw up at all so they have the effect of putting all the stress of the opening on the pages.  When combined with the fairly lousy paper found in 1950 era serials you end up with a disaster that is pretty much impossible to correct.

This is how the spine on this book reacted when opened.  Notice the spine is not flexing at all, so the paper is doing all the work.

The method is to sew gatherings of pages together and then sew those sets into one book block.  If you look at this picture you can see thread going up and down, following the spine. That thread is holding together a set of pages.

The key to taking a book like this apart is to find that sewing, cut and remove it and then you can pull that set of pages off the rest of the book.

You can see how the sewing goes around the gathering in this picture -- the thread heading down and at the angle.

As you pull those sections off the text block you see the threads which hold all the gatherings together.

The spine pretty much shows how it all went together.

In the end you have damaged pages, which show how awful this style of binding is, and how much damage it causes.

And the end result.

So why did they do it?  It was a fast and incredibly strong way to bind pages together.  Of course it put all the stress on the paper and even the best paper in a binding like this would fail eventually.  Really it was a horrible idea.

Do I oversew?  I do at times, when I have a large set of pages that need to be bound and I don't think a glued binding will be enough.  But what I'm doing can be fairly easily taken apart and not any where near the number of holes, or the level of paper damage, you see in these pictures.  Modern, hand oversewing, isn't an intrusive as what was done commercially a few decades ago.

So I can do it and still sleep at night. These folks? Not so much.

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. . . .

Monday, October 31, 2016

Artifact or Book?

A book and an artifact might look exactly the same. But they are completely different things and need to be treated differently.

A book is only important because of its content. The words on the page are all that matters. For that reason it is not all that important or necessary to save the binding and related materials.

An artifact is a book-as-object in which the book’s significance exists beyond its content, or even the physical object itself. Who owned it, how did they use it, where did they keep it, why did they have it, did they read it? What mattered to them?

What can be difficult is that what makes something an artifact is most often something outside the object itself.

You might have two books on a table that look exactly the same. What are they: books or artifacts? Let’s say that one of them was owned by me. The other one went to the moon. Or one book was in Jefferson’s library and the other one belonged to an Athenaeum someplace.

Knowing that information would greatly alter the approach to the repair of the object. An artifact requires that the repair be as unobtrusive and unintrusive as possible. It requires that all (ALL!) original pieces be saved and hopefully reused. If they can’t be reused they should be stored with the object, perhaps in a box with drawer.

But it doesn’t need to have been held by Lincoln to be an artifact! A book you used as a child and want to have repaired so you can gift it to your grandchildren would also be an artifact.

Why does it matter? Because the object itself tells a story.

How was it covered? In leather? Does that indicate the wealth of the owner? Does it indicate the culture they came from and what they valued in a binding?

What kind of leather? That might indicate the local economy, the kinds of animals raised around there. In might say something about the leather industry in that part of the world.

This can go on and on. What kind of paper was used? How was it printed? What was the structure of the binding? What techniques were used?

All of these questions tell stories, and all of them add up to paint a picture of a place and time and a person.

Removing an original binding erases all those elements and destroys the picture.

Of course with marginalia it’s clear how that contributes to the story. Seeing the notes of famous people shows what they were thinking when they read a particular passage. Their unguarded thoughts, who they actually were, and what triggered their reactions.

But a child’s marginalia, your marginalia from your youth, can be just as important and significant as Washington’s. It tells a story, tells something about you.

The sad part of this story is the movement away from books to mobile devices. No covers, no paper, no marginalia. No stories for them to tell.

But what is sadder is binders putting new, overly-decorated covers on old books—books which had very nice, functional, and usable bindings that told stories, told a part of history—and then calling that work conservation. It’s not. It’s the opposite of conservation. It’s the opposite of conservation!

I recently saw a tarted-up binding done for a first edition of The Book of Mormon. Lots of gold, lots of leather, lots of wow. The binder posted it as an example of conservation. I’m sure the owner asked for it to be done. I wonder if the binder talked to them about the value of conservation over rebinding. Of the history in the binding, perhaps of the monetary value of having the original binding repaired. Perhaps there was no cover and that wasn’t an option. Still it made me a bit sad.

As a private binder and conservator I often tell my clients the difference and then let them tell me if their item is a book or an artifact. Often they are not historically significant books in the traditional sense, but they are significant to them and their family. In that case the owners are the only ones who can make that distinction.

But at least the question is asked and discussed. And the decision is almost always the right one because the question has been asked. It’s when the question never comes up that unfortunate things
tend to happen.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A few airbrush lessons I've learned

A friend of ours, Chris Andrews, is a fine art airbrush artist.  When I started using an airbrush for leather dye I had him come out and give Bailey and me a lesson on how to use it, how to keep it from acting up and how to best clean it when it starts acting up.

Three main points he made were:

1. Use plastic bottles, because they weigh less.  They also don't break when dropped.

2.  Clean by spraying ten or fifteen seconds using an everyday cleaner which I keep in a bottle so it's always ready to use. Then I follow by spraying water through the spraybrush for another ten or twenty seconds.  I just spray into a garbage can.  The plastic bottles are cheap enough that it's easy to just have these two bottles filled and ready to go.

This has reduced the amount of maintence work I've had to do on the brush drastically.

3.  Use a mask.  Seems that using a dust mask is enough for leather dyes, but for the fixative I use a respirator since it seems to get everywhere.  Maybe the fixative is what ruined my glasses?

The brush should be taken apart and cleaned when it starts acting up, which isn't very often if you use  his cleaning regime.

He uses a larger, tool compressor. Sure, he's also painting for hours at a time, but they can be cheaper than some artist airbrush compressors and when up to pressure wouldn't need to run very often at all so they could be quieter as well.

I doubt any of this is revelatory, but to those of us new to the airbrush it was pretty helpful and time saving advice.