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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!).



Monday, July 25, 2016


Many months ago I got a phone call from a gentleman who wanted to talk about having some boxes made for some photographs he had. His name is David Taylor and he’s a photography professor at the University of Arizona School of Art.

If only it was a simple as that, but it was much more, and much more interesting.

It turns out he had photographed all the border monuments along the US—Mexican border. It is a stunning project. Absolutely stunning. The scope, the beauty of the photographs, what they represent. All of it. It was a privilege to be part of it.

There are, I think, 276 monuments. They needed four boxes and one lid. He was making a wooden box to hold the four boxes, I was making the lid for the set.

But he didn’t want the telltale signs of boxes, especially the paper wrappers most of us use on boxes to increase their strength. For the smaller boxes that wasn’t an issue but for the lid it was a problem. This lid was pretty huge:

Without using paper to support the edges it was a huge problem for a huge box. I tried paper but couldn’t sand away the seam to a degree that I was happy with so it was decided to do without.

To get some stability while covering I tried all kinds of things including getting out my pneumatic brad nailer. But the nails, even the size of brads, expanded the binder’s board and were visible. In the end I used non-permanent tape and augmented it with strategically placed weights. The walls were glued on top of the top of the lid, if that makes sense. It would have been easier to put the walls on the side of the lid but the top wouldn’t have been as clean.

Every time I’ve made them, I’ve been frustrated. It feels like I’m trying to balance pins on their ends, but in the end they come together. I shouldn’t be such a wimp, I know.

The bigger challenge, in some ways, has been to stamp two dies over each other and have them align properly. I never could have done this without the Kensol. But the lids are so much bigger than the table that all normal methods of alignment won’t work. In the end we made up a foam core jig and used that. The dies fit perfectly into each slot in the jig. Kreg clamps hold it in place while we stamp.

The final result:



The photos and the boxes are currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum. Go see them!

And what’s better is we’ve become friends, and it’s always a nice (and rare) thing when clients make the transition. Nicer, even, than the boxes I think.

Monday, July 18, 2016

years ending in 6 have been good to me... Part I

In the summer of 1986, I uprooted my life and moved to Boston, just for a year. At the time I was a high school social studies teacher and there were no jobs in Western Washington. I decided to take a year off, do something else, and then come back and get back into teaching.

I was hired in an archives. It turned out I really liked the work, so I stayed. I did a variety of things: copied glass plate negatives, rehoused some artifact collections, organized stuff, checked on some historic houses. It was a great job.

A year or two in they asked me to fix books. I was shown a manual on book repair by Jane Greenfield and I followed her directions. I loved the work and hated the result. She taught repairing books to make them structurally sound, but these weren’t beautiful repairs.

The repairs would end up looking like this.

In one sense they were perfectly good repairs. They made books usable again, books that had no value in the covers. Still, I hated doing those repairs. It felt like I was ruining the books unnecessarily. I think that part of my reaction was because the books were bound in leather, which filled me with dread and awe. I should add that the books I worked on were in much better shape than the one shown in this photo.

Looking at that book now, about 28 years after I worked on it, the repair is perfectly fine mechanically and the book throws up the right amount (that’s how much the spine of the book elevates when the book is opened). Greenfield was good and right in what she taught, obviously.

Still, doing work like this kept me awake at night. Seriously, it did.

I felt like this wasn’t really the level of work I wanted to do. But I had no idea what the level I wanted was, or even where it was.

I took at class at the Boston Center for Adult Education on bookbinding, but we made these books. It was, no doubt, a great class for what its intentions were, but my goal was something completely different.

I was disappointed because I wanted to learn to make a “real book.” I hadn’t gotten anywhere.

Next, I bought a bookbinding manual at Buddenbooks on Boylston Street, just across from the Pru. It was Bookbinding, Its Background and Technique by Edith Diehl. Turns out it is THE American bookbinding manual. I set out teach myself.

I’d been pretty good at making stuff in the basement of our house growing up. Learned a lot from my Dad, who could make and fix anything. As an aside his arms were about the size of my legs. One night, coming back from Bellingham, I got pulled over for having a broken tail light. The next day I bought a bulb and set out to remove the lens from the car. It wouldn’t budge. My dad came home and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he said, Let me try. He took the screwdriver and twisted and twisted harder and twisted harder until he broke the screwdriver. He broke the screwdriver. He looked at me, tossed what was left of it in his hand onto the ground, laughed, and went into the house. Try that sometime.

Anyway, Diehl, though probably unable to break a screwdriver, wrote a fantastic book. The first half is a history of binding. The second half is an instruction manual. A great one. But without any context, I got nowhere with it.

At work one day after that class and my self-teaching experiment, I called the Massachusetts Department of Vocational Education and asked where to learn bookbinding. That’s when I first heard about North Bennet Street. It’s a bit of a story as well, but I quit my job, enrolled the next year, and was able to sleep better.

After studying there, I was able to do work like this. And when I knew what good work was, it was a relief and exciting. And led me down a wonderful path that I’m still on. 1986 was a great year.

Monday, July 11, 2016

It's not the heat, it's the humidity

I don’t intend to shock anyone but it’s been pretty hot around here these past few weeks. Including a day of record heat in June:

When we were redoing the barn to turn it into a workshop, one of the decisions was how to cool the space. We decided to spend the money on a mini-split system.

The other option was a unit that mounts in a wall. We have one in the side of the barn that works fantastically well, but it sounds like a plane engine when it’s running. One time when it was on I thought I saw someone in an orange vest waving his arms like he was guiding a plane into its parking slot.

The wall unit is 240 volts and is probably overpowered for the space, but really that just means it cools the space quickly.

I think mini-splits are common in Europe and becoming more of a thing over here. The advantage to them is that there are no air ducts to run through walls or around difficult spaces. They work by having a compressor outside and then two copper lines pass the cooled, or heated, freon (or whatever is used these day) to a unit that’s mounted inside the space.

They are great for older construction because of the small size of the copper lines, which are about 1 inch or so. For that reason they have been very popular in Europe, where they can have much older construction to deal with.

One other big advantage is that they are very quiet, which is good for general sanity but also for teaching. Some units only cool, ours heats as well for those five days a year when we need it.

Do you notice the tape in the photo?  The downside to them is that the mechanics think of them as pretty much disposable, not worth working on. Part of ours has broken. There was the ability to move the air in certain directions but that broke after a few years. But the cooling works just fine so no worries. It’s been installed for about four years now. Maybe five? Whatever, it should have lasted longer than that. I get the sense that some cheap plastic part broke.

But we have been told when it breaks just buy another one, which makes me wonder what it would take to buy a reparable one. Hopefully the compressor is more reliable and when the time comes we’ll just need the inside unit.

Still, it’s been amazing. On the hottest of days it stays in the mid-70s, which frankly is a bit too cool. But the main thing is how quiet it is. Sure it shouldn’t break after only a few years, but perhaps that’s just the world we live in. A less sweaty world than before, and that’s good enough for me.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

What is that doing here?

Sometimes we see things that don't belong, or are so out of place it's just confusing.  Like this, maybe?

But this is a bookbinding blog so it's not about a deer on a porch.

A couple of days ago I was at a reclaim store in Ballard (a formerly cool neighborhood of Seattle that isn't so cool any more), a place where people drop off windows and doors and old toilets from houses or apartments they are demolishing.  And I saw this:

For those who don't know, this is an Italian board shear. A very large paper cutter, to the uninitiated.  In good shape they probably sell for six grand (?) when new. This, I should add, was not an old cutter but I'm not sure how new it was either.

It was selling for two thousand bucks, which is a decent deal. But it was also covered in chairs, almost buried which I found a bit humorous.  Where did it come from, and why didn't the original owner just sell it through one of the online bookbinding lists?

So many questions, and quite the surprise.  Like seeing a deer lounging on a deck with a couple of dogs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

cloth binding class

A few days ago I held a one day cloth binding class.  It was a flat back structure, the perfect introduction to bookbinding.

The students cut paper down from parent sheets (large sheets of paper), folded the paper into sections, trimmed them, sewed on tapes, made a case, stamped a title on the spine, put corners on, then decorated paper and finally cased the books in.  If you read that sentence very fast you'll be as winded as we were by the end of the day.

But it was one of the most enjoyable classes I've ever had.  The students were great, we had time to try stuff and probably did too much, but in a good way.  It's fun to have students who like having stuff thrown at them (metaphorically).

I have a few more classes this summer, as part of my "get out of the heat" program.  One more on books and a couple of box making classes.  They promise to be fun as well.  Christmas is only six months away, time to learn to make boxes worthy of your gifts.  (Well, probably not but it sounded good in my head.)

In the meantime here are the books made by the students.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Civil War diaries

On some level I don’t really think what I do is about books and paper.

To me it’s really about history and culture and people. I’m repairing books, of course, but they’re just the object that gets to the real point. 

And that is what I find exciting, fun, and challenging. How to keep a story alive for another 150 years or more.  How to better preserve a family history to show family members in the future what their great-great-grandmother was like. How did she live? What did she enjoy? Who was she? Look through an old family cookbook and you’ll find answers to all those questions.

In honor of the 4th I wanted to share this project:

Some time ago a gentlemen brought in two Civil War diaries. They were from the same soldier. The story is that the soldier kept up two diaries because he didn’t think he was going to survive the war. He could send home the larger sheets as he finished them and kept the smaller one in his pack. He assumed he would be killed and the smaller one would be lost.

I can’t imagine.

The smaller one no longer had a cover. Or end sheets. So there was no way to know what the original binding was, or how it looked. They came like this:

The first thing I did was to repair all the pages in the smaller diary and then sewed it back together. For the covering material I used airplane linen. I liked the look of linen as a cover for this and thought it fit the spirit of the book.

In the end it became a book again. The advantage of a binding, versus loose pages, is that it protects the pages of the book by covering them because it is easier to leaf through pages when they are bound versus when they are a pile of loose sheets.

For the larger diary I encapsulated the pages in mylar. Well, not really mylar because mylar doesn’t exist any more but let’s just call it that because I’m getting older and it’s a hard habit to let go of.  

The pages are not laminated! Lamination involves attaching the pages to a plastic. It certainly protects the item you are laminating but it also destroys it at the same time because it can be extremely difficult to remove the lamination. 

The work I do is all about reversibility! In a few hundred years, someone should be able to take apart a book I’ve repaired without causing any harm to it. This goal is not totally attainable, of course, but I think we get pretty close.

These pages are floating between two sheets of an inert polyester using a 3M double sided tape. No tape is touching the pages and they can be removed from their housings in seconds.

In the end I made a box to hold both items. The rebound, smaller diary went into an opening in the box, which left a shelf for the larger pages.

The box was a drop spine box. Sadly I don’t think customers really appreciate how important a drop spine box can be in preserving books and papers. When I offer it I get the sense that some think I’ve turned into a used car salesman, which is unfortunate. Or sad. The are many, many stories of items in these boxes being protected during fires or water incidents, let alone the general protection from sunlight, dust, and other nefarious things waiting to descend on books and papers.

Maybe if I could create a meme it would help with the acceptance and advancement of drop spine boxes among the general populace. But I’m not really sure what a meme is, so that’s a bit of a sticking point with that idea.

I tell folks that every book they care about should be in a box. And I believe it. I’m grateful that I’ve taught enough classes in drop spine boxes that I’m pretty much there myself. Otherwise I’m afraid it’d be like the cobbler’s kids having no shoes.

It’s a privilege and a thrill to work on objects like these. I wrote a post earlier that said that I feel like I’m working for the grandchildren of my clients rather than the clients themselves, which helps me make better decisions.

But in this case I think I’m working for the soldier who wrote these, who was the great grandfather of my client. I’m sure he would be happy to see his record preserved.

Happy 4th of July.