The Book Arts Web

The Book Arts Web
Search the Web


All volumes and a complete index online!

  • Please note that effective 4/2/2019 the archive is accessible to subscribers only. To gain access, click on link above and then using the email you subscribed under register a password towards the right hand side of the page.


  • Full FAQ with detailed instructions
  • Put ALL commands in body of message and send to:
  • To Subscribe send:

    subscribe Book_Arts-L "Your full real name"

    Leave out the "" . All subscription requests must include the full real name or they will not be approved by the moderator.
  • To post a message send to:
  • For daily digest: set Book_Arts-L mail digest
  • To unsubscribe: unsubscribe Book_Arts-L


The Future of Hand Bookbinding

By Sam Ellenport

To understand what is happening today, or what will happen in the future, I look back... - Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Future of Hand-Bookbinding was published in a limited edition of 150 copies by The Harcourt Bindery in 1993. The book was designed by Bruce Chandler in Janson typefaces, and printed letterpress on Magnani paper by Daniel Keleher. Several copies are still available at the publication price of $125.00 from Harcourt Bindery. Please send payment to:
The Harcourt Bindery
51 Melcher St.
Boston, MA 02210
617-542-5858 (fax 617-451-9058)

Although there have been periods of major development within the craft of hand bookbinding during the last six centuries, at no time have there been such fundamental changes as in the last 30 years. Hand bookbinding has undergone radical changes in almost all its aspects during this time. This is apparent not only in technique and design, but also in philosophy and outlook. Equally dramatic but less noticed have been the changes in how hand binders are now trained and how binding services are contracted and described.

A watershed in the field of hand bookbinding occurred in the 1960s. This watershed has been responsible for the renewed vitality now found throughout our craft. The consequences of activities quietly begun in the 1950s and made more visible and pronounced in the 1960s have been far reaching, and are still being made apparent. A meaningful discussion, however, must begin with the post-World War II period.

The craft of hand bookbinding was in steep decline during the two decades following World War II. It is no secret that the war had a negative impact on almost all crafts, including bookbinding. There were many reasons for this decline throughout Europe and America. A few were empirical: the death of many skilled binders during the war disrupted any semblance of a meaningful apprenticeship system; the growing dependence on technology throughout the war convinced many returning artisans to seek their future in fields other than handcrafts; many patrons of quality handwork (including fine bindings) placed renewed value on machine-made items or bought previously made items of quality for less than the cost of reproduction. Hard economic times forced many workshops to reduce staff or to close. Also, many older craftsmen continued to be secretive about their knowledge as they feared that their jobs might be jeopardized by younger workers who could be hired at lower wages-a continuation of a trend made apparent during the Great Depression. Those who have memory of the 1940s and 1950s can name a number of fine shops working for collectors, dealers, and the luxury or "carriage trade" that experienced these circumstances after World War II.

In the 1950s, and especially in the 1960s, a small and dedicated number of craftsmen worked to bring new life to hand bookbinding. Their names now read like a roll call of "founding fathers," and these binders represent what can be called "first generation." Men such as Edgar Mansfield and Roger Powell were soon to be joined by others, including Bernard Middleton, Ivor Robinson, Bill Anthony, Hugo Peller, and Arthur Johnson. Regardless of their age, these men shared similar characteristics that made them, perhaps unknowingly, a new and active core at the center of the craft. They worked to exacting standards and were highly conscious of past traditions and techniques. They continued to work "on the bench" and were not primarily managers. In some way all were involved in teaching and/or sharing their ideas with others. These men exemplified a new outlook in the craft as they usually labored alone or, at best, with one or two assistants, quietly working outside the larger workshops such as Sangorski and Sutcliffe, Bayntun, Morrell, Zaehnsdorf, and similar hand binderies. These individuals became surprisingly successful beyond normal expectations, and enjoyed a widening reputation and influence. Their impact on hand bookbinding has taken some time to be acknowledged, but as early as the 1950s this first generation was already creating change from within the craft.

The 1960s were more prosperous years in general, and larger existing shops as well as individual binders flourished. However, the developments of the 1950s were not reversed and became even more apparent. Although the larger established workshops seemed to be permanent landmarks, they no longer expanded; the true vitality of the craft was already concentrated in the smaller shops and individual ateliers.

One area of highly visible success was the excitement surrounding "art" bindings. Binders who created art or "design" bindings found new patrons who encouraged them. These patrons were bookmen and collectors who were familiar with quality materials and good workmanship. Binders such as Philip Smith, Ivor Robinson, and Tim Miura had to work not only to the highest technical standards of the craft, but also show artistry and originality in design. Quality materials, meticulous workmanship, and attention to detail from sewing to finishing were all traits that were appreciated and expected by most patrons. Design binding became a new and challenging extension of traditional training, techniques, and materials. Design bindings began primarily from within the craft as creative binders searched for new ways of expression, pushing traditional techniques beyond established limits.

Similar trends were at work in areas of repair and restoration, although binders working in these areas were motivated in part by a growing awareness of the marketplace. Collectors and librarians of special collections at universities and major libraries had both the interest and the funds necessary to attend to their valuable holdings. For the most part, these activities had previously been per-formed either by the larger binderies in a specialty section or in binderies within the libraries. During the 1960s the combination of tightening budgets and, especially, the lack of skilled binders saw many in-house binderies close. The British Museum, the Boston Public Library, and even the more mundane Registries of Deeds throughout America had employed hundreds of binders. Also during the 1960s the beginning of a trend to contract out book repair and restoration work to individuals rather than the established hand binderies became apparent. For example, after the in-house bindery of Harvard's Houghton Library closed, Arno Werner and then Courtney Sheehan and the late Emily Rizzo did most of the necessary work on the collection.

At first it looked as if a number of new companies would appear in response to this demand. George Cunha started what is now the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts. W.J. Barrow began the W.J. Barrow Research Laboratory in Virginia (which became the W.J. Barrow Restoration Shop), and Okie Hatcher founded his Archival Conservation Center in Ohio. There are, in fact, several companies flourishing today, although most concentrate on paper documents and art on paper rather than on books and bookbindings; indeed, the bookbinding areas within these firms remain small. The development of this field is now dominated by individuals who meet most of the needs of libraries, booksellers, and collectors for conservation, repair, and restoration services. Surprisingly, almost no established bindery with the exception of The Harcourt Bindery has made a successful transition from traditional leather work to repair and restoration.

A growing sense of responsibility toward collection maintenance by librarians, curators, and others outside the craft was especially heightened by the sudden destruction caused by the Florence Flood in Italy during November, 1966. The response to the damage caused by the flood, although institutionally organized, relied mostly on individuals joined in a common purpose rather than on an orchestrated effort by established hand binderies.

The Florence Flood was a catalyst for both bookbinders and librarians. It was a pivotal experience because the response did much to create and prove credible the field of book conservation for binders and librarians. Up to that point, conservation was intertwined with repair and restoration. The response to the flood confirmed an awareness that conservation, along with crisis preparation and prevention, was a new and distinct field apart from repair and restoration. Book conservation has become a recognized and independent part of hand book-binding.

Among binders, the response to the problems caused by the flood led to new techniques and ideas about binding. Peter Waters, for example, used the experience he gained in Florence to establish the Library of Congress Preservation Office, which has remained dynamic and is a highly respected program. Chris Clarkson and Anthony Cains, examining the structure of so many of the flood-damaged books, not only developed but proselytized "new" limp vellum bindings and the paper-case bindings that are so familiar today. Noted American conservators such as Don Etherington, Doris Freitag, Frank Mowery, and Joseph Newman, like their counterparts in Europe, still work autonomously even if in a larger institutional setting; others such as Nancy Schrock and Richard Baker, having spent many years employed by major libraries, now work on their own.

As more binders began working individually, they either willingly and consciously became entrepreneurs or were forced into that role by the power of the marketplace. Today's individual binder now orders stock, meets with clients to discuss technical options (sometimes based on price), sets a value on labor and overhead, and takes full personal responsibility not only for the actual work but also for the selection of techniques and materials. In larger shops and institution-al binderies, most of these decisions remained separate from the actual bench-work. Indeed, in those shops binders rarely worked on a single book from start to finish, often making a career out of mastering a limited number of techniques in either the forwarding or finishing areas. As early as the 1960s the basis for such an approach was being eroded in the world of fine binding.

Other changes in the marketplace altered hand bookbinding in fundamental ways. During the 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, firms that had specialized in edition work by hand or ledger and stationery binding saw more and more of this type of work being done by machines or being made obsolete by new technologies such as computers. These shops were forced to shrink. One result was that in-house training programs that had fed higher quality hand work by providing repetitive but careful bench experience became less and less available. Boston, Massachusetts-a typical city in many ways-saw no less than six firms fall in the 1960s and 1970s. These shops did not relocate or merge with other firms but totally vanished. This trend is still ongoing as the larger, established hand binderies continue to reduce staff, merge, or disappear.

One alternative for the larger binderies was to adapt by changing the type of work they produced. Market forces kept them from developing new outlets for existing skills and familiar types of bindings. Bay State Bindery and Pearl Bindery turned from edition to pamphlet and paperback bindings, but the Stan-hope Bindery, which did short-run edition work by hand, could not adjust and was forced to close. The Cambridge Bindery proved to be unprofitable and was liquidated, while the edition bindery of Robert Burlen and Sons could not successfully keep up with the changing technology and was forced out of business. A.M. Sulkin Company chose the path of merger, while New England Bookbinding Co. was sold to a stronger company heavily committed to the modern technology in the field of library binding. A similar story is told in London: Zaehnsdorf, for example, turned to machine production of special editions and began working for larger publishers rather than for individual clients. Bayntun simply retrenched and drastically cut its staff to a size that fit its order book. Morrell chose to align itself with a bookseller but finally was closed. Such major contraction within the trade is staggering.

What helped make the 1960s a watershed was not simply that the first generation of individual binders formed or revitalized associations to exchange and share knowledge and information about binding techniques and philosophy. This alone would not have been enough. There was also a phenomenon that affected all crafts in the 1960s: the counter-culture revolution. Although this article will not delve into the causes of the widespread dissatisfaction among younger people that swept through Europe and America, it is enough to say that youth in the 1960s challenged the values and politics of the larger society and that many intelligent young people sought to build a new set of values. This viewpoint applauded the virtues of handwork, self-expression, and creativity. There was a resurgence of interest in all crafts, even though there was little apprenticeship training or job openings available in any craft.

The new value placed by this counter-culture on handwork had little to do with either skill or aptitude. In most cases the quality of the actual work remained poor. The point, however, was not to produce work of excellent quality; virtue was already found in having chosen the proper alternative to what was perceived as a crass and materialistic society. Initially, sincerity and effort were goals in themselves.

As younger people became more involved with crafts, however, they soon wanted to achieve better than ordinary results. They would no longer be satisfied with mastering only a limited number of techniques, which was the basis of earlier training and production in the larger, already established hand binderies. They sought out the "first generation" and those few older craftsmen from whom they could learn; they read books, or they simply experimented until they learned some of the skills that had been forgotten or were no longer readily available. Those who stayed involved with the crafts challenged and helped redefine standards and techniques as they struggled to understand what they were doing and why.

Hand bookbinding was no exception to this explosion of interest and commitment, which happened within almost all handcrafts during the 1960s and 1970s. Although there were some experienced craftsmen willing to share their knowledge and a younger group of eager learners and avid practitioners, the existence of these two groups would not have been enough to create such a continuing energy throughout the craft. Another significant part of this formula was the lack of a middle generation of craftsmen that otherwise would have been an impediment to any rapid assimilation of craft skills outside the traditional learning patterns. The first generation of binders became mentors to a willing and capable younger audience.

Changes already described could have been muted, short-lived, or contained within a small branch of the craft if it had not been for another aspect of the younger generation of the 1960s and 1970s. In times past, people entered the work force at an early age and, after learning a craft through years of diligent and repetitious instruction, proceeded up the time-worn rungs of the ladder. In the 1960s and 1970s these younger people were actually able to push and encourage the first generation of binders to teach them in ways that seemed unfamiliar and nontraditional. Many of the younger people were college educated and now wanted to be "taught" as they had been in school. There was a new interest in books about the techniques and history of bookbinding. Lectures and an increas-ing array of articles and publications so familiar in the background of these younger people, became expected. As a result, the 1970s saw learning activities organized into what has become annual conferences, workshops, and exhibitions. It was becoming apparent that younger people wanted practicing binders to talk to them and teach them actual skills. They wanted binders to write for them and speak to them directly. No longer was information sought through the filtered experience of outsiders such as librarians, collectors, and book dealers. The number of binders from the 1970s through the 1990s who have lectured and written about their craft is incredible and exceeds that of any other period. Further, at no other time has there been such demand for reprints of earlier literature on bookbinding.

A separate word should be said about demonstrations of hand bookbinding techniques and hands-on workshops. Through the 1970s to the present, these demonstrations and workshops have replaced years of careful apprenticeship or on-the-job training and have augmented school programs. In the 1970s, the established bookbinding organizations were slow to organize such workshops and, in the United States; a few individuals formed the bridge between the "instructors" and the willing students. A circuit that spanned the country was established. This circuit, anchored in Los Angeles by Mel Kavin (Kater-Crafts, Inc.) and in Boston by The Harcourt Bindery with other places between these two cities, made it feasible to bring repeatedly to the United States binders such as Philip Smith, Bernard Middleton, Hugo Peller, Chris Clarkson, Tini Miura, James Brockman, and many others. The Guild of Book Workers finally provided an umbrella that established more places on the circuit, until the continuing demand for these workshops was formalized into the Standards Seminars. The informality of these earlier workshops encouraged a network of friendships with-in the craft that had never been seen before. The workshop/demonstration system was necessary in the United States, where distances are great and where no schools with bookbinding programs existed. In England and on the continent the need was less apparent as there was a relatively large number of training and polytechnic schools. Conferences are also a part of the English bookbinding scene now.

Existing organizations, such as the American Guild of Book Workers (long dominated by amateurs), took on renewed life from an influx of new members, many of them professional or aspiring bookbinders. Where no organization existed in which binders could encourage each other by meeting and sharing experiences, it came into being. Almost every country had a bookbinders organization by the 1980s: from Designer Bookbinders, which began in England in the 1950s, to Australia's Guild of Craft Bookbinders, to small enclaves of binders like the Miami Valley Guild of Bookbinders in Ohio. The "second generation," which matured so quickly in the 1960s, now helped link the first generation to a third. This was done by institutionalizing a system of workshops, seminars, conferences, and lectures in England, America, and on the continent. Although the first generation commanded respect and set a path, the second generation was comprised of people who could truly proselytize: Gary Frost, Don Etherington, Heinke Pensky-Adam, Deborah Evetts, David Bourbeau, Allan Thenen ... the list could continue at some length. These individuals joined their voices to ensure that the changes set in motion during the 1950s and the 1960s were not undone.

The trends begun in the 1950s continued to develop throughout the 1970s and 1980s in three vital areas: design binding, creative short-run edition work and traditional leather binding, and conservation, repair, and restoration. This period saw a renewed interest in training and education. Binding courses began to be offered in places such as The Harcourt Bindery in 1974 and the Creative Work-shop in New Haven under Polly Lada-Mocarski's watchful eye. The late Bill Anthony introduced a small and excellent apprentice program in Chicago. Library programs at Columbia University and Iowa began to include binding topics. In England, too, where binding had been available at a number of trade or polytechnic schools such as Bristol Polytechnic and the London College of Printing, new course selections grew, new standards were set, and more skills were demanded at examinations such as the City and Guilds examinations.

The proliferation of training programs is impressive and now includes the first two-year program in America devoted solely to hand-bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. However, there are still no objective standards by which to judge or compare the quality of training at, for example, New York's Center for the Book Arts and the Library of Congress Apprenticeship program. Credentials that show attendance at a series of workshops say nothing about the competence of those who come into contact with the teachers; a two- or three-day workshop on rebacking with James Brockman or on gold-tooling with John Mitchell does not necessarily lead to the mastery of these techniques.

The 1980s and 1990s have brought forward another generation of binders who have yet to make their mark. These are the binders who are now coming through the institutional programs and workshops and who are entering careers. Member-ship of the parent organizations continues to grow and to show the same spirit of those few binders in the 1950s: vitality and enthusiasm, willingness to share, commitment to excellence, and dedication to mastering basic skills. With the aforementioned as background, where does the craft go from here? How are these trends to be extrapolated into the future? With the trends outlined earlier firmly established, what are the factors that will continue to shape the craft?

In the future, the trends apparent in hand bookbinding will be influenced by a number of factors, and each will have a different effect on the three branches of hand bookbinding: design binding, hand-edition work and traditional presentation leather binding, and conservation, repair, and restoration.

Decisions in the marketplace and economic reality are two powerful external forces that will affect design binders. After a period of rapid growth, the market for these bindings reached a plateau during the recession of 1990-1992. There is also increasing competition for sales between traditionally trained binders and artists who are producing unique book art but who are not primarily binders. The lines between what had historically been two distinct markets are now becoming somewhat blurred.

Collectors already make a distinction between books in design bindings and art or creative printing in book form. The attraction of more binders to the field of design binding, especially younger and less technically adept ones, will create a market that offers more choice in the areas of design, technical execution, and price. As a result, prices will stabilize and there may even be a mild squeeze. At this time there is simply not enough interest or money available to adequately support numerous careers in design binding. Newcomers to this field will continue to supply "fresh" work for lower prices even as there is some sacrifice of high binding standards.

Binders will be encouraged to enter the field of design binding by both the allure of the market and by their own creative desires; however, the body of work that the marketplace will support is limited and will not grow quickly. With increasing numbers of exhibitions, competitions, catalogs, and shows, design binding per se has a strong future. Binders such as Philip Smith, Tini Miura, Michael Wilcox, and Don Glaister, who have been among those dominant in this field, guarantee a high level of workmanship. Unfortunately, because many younger binders who will be drawn to design binding will not always have mastery over the fundamentals of good technique, it will remain difficult for the growing number of design binders to achieve the various rewards enjoyed by a few.

The book trade continues to have a significant effect on trends in the second area of hand bookbinding. Historically, booksellers of rare books and fine bindings have provided stability and a financial backbone to the craft. Established booksellers have consistently used the services of binders. However, there are several factors at play here that are beyond the control of the binder. One is the price of previously bound books vis-a-vis the cost of new bindings. If books within a certain pricing tier are to be sold, the cost of rebinding or repair must be kept low in view of the retail selling price of the book. It became evident during the recession of 1990-1992 that the majority of rebinding work is available only to those binders who produce modestly priced work by lowering costs through skimping on materials and/or technique. More advanced levels of workmanship and technique are costly because they are so labor intensive.

Rebinding of books, so popular in the 19th and the 20th centuries, is no longer seen as a virtue in the used and rare book market,. Although classic titles in fancy dress are still brought by the "carriage trade," this market is a limited one. The contemporary fine binder finds that their greatest competition comes from those who have come before and have done good work. The common full or three-quarter leather binding, with traditional raised bands and gilt spine, is far less expensive to buy used than to reproduce today.

There will always be the need for a special gift book or presentation binding, a pulpit Bible or Book of Remembrance, as well as limited edition work in "extra" or deluxe bindings. However, the market for traditional fine binding will contin-ue to narrow, although it will not disappear. The shrinking fortunes of houses like Bayntun and Sangorski and Sutcliffe bear quiet testimony to this fact. The market they helped create and fill through bindings of consistent quality and workman-ship was great. Yet these shops and others like them continue to shrink and even disappear in a trend that seems irreversible. Bookshops that once advertised and sold "extra" bindings and helped build the market for such work by displaying it on a personal basis to a wide range of clients are also being replaced by different types of bookshops. Brentano's, Scribner's, Marshall Field, and Lauriat's are familiar names that have stopped selling books in extra bindings. The consolidation of bookshops into chainstores and the focus of modern business on the bottom line makes it less likely that bookstores will support such stock or train salespeople to sell books in fine bindings to a wide group of buyers. Also, a new and lower standard that imitates handwork has been introduced in a major portion of the marketplace by machine-produced "special" bindings. These are mass produced and marketed by such publishers as The Franklin Mint, the Easton Press, and England's Folio Society.

The strongest and most consistent area of growth within bookbinding from the 1970s into the 1990s has been conservation, repair, and restoration. This development has been driven not only by interest among binders, but by encouragement from libraries and institutions. As awareness continues to grow regarding the processes of deterioration within collections, there has been an increasing demand for the maintenance and preservation of collections. For many years collection maintenance was an area of benign neglect as acquisitions and information retrieval received primary attention. Because of this, books, documents, and manuscripts in collections quietly deteriorated. Bookbinding needs focused on three areas: books that showed abuse and needed new covers (the developing field of library binding); books that required attention after a major catastrophe (e.g., fire and water damage); and those books needing attention that were milestones in intellectual achievement. Today there is recognition of the importance of maintaining the collection as a whole. After the 1966 flood in Florence, binders were increasingly employed as institutions and libraries began to upgrade and maintain the condition of their collections. This trend continues to gain considerable momentum and is fed from many sources. The 1980s witnessed an increased interest in conservation, restoration, and repair, and the 1990s mark continued growth of the field with no end in sight.

Increasing awareness about collection maintenance has led to a number of practical consequences, including the following: a need to employ more skilled binders to do specific work; an insistence on using better materials, knowing more about them, and using reversible techniques; a higher regard among li-brarians and curators for binders and their skills; and an involvement in decision making by binders, librarians, and others who now see collections in a larger intellectual context and who must allocate limited resources wisely. Another consequence of increased awareness is that a growing number of institutions have established small workshops in-house, usually staffed by one or two binders, augmented by unskilled student help.

Although demand for skilled book conservators grows, only a rudimentary system of accreditation exists. Universal standards regarding skills, knowledge, and competence are also lacking. As this issue is slowly being recognized, it is being more vigorously addressed by binders themselves rather than by schools with librarianship programs. There are very few library school programs providing any specific bookbinding exposure in courses on collection maintenance and conservation. Training in areas of binding management is also very limited.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the trends within hand bookbinding during the past thirty years has been the drastic changes in the training and work habits of new binders. There has been a general collapse of the apprenticeship programs of the past. After World War II the apprenticeship system on the continent was largely disbanded and such training was no longer required by someone who wanted to become a bookbinder. England was one of the last European countries to eliminate all formal apprenticeship programs. Young binders beginning today receive a more sporadic training than did binders at any time in the past. Repetitious basic work that was the mainstay of an apprenticeship or in-house training is seldom seen either in industry or in educational programs. Even if there is a better understanding among students and a more conscientious instruction by teachers, these efforts can never replace the repetitive activity and bench time experienced by former generations of binders. Bernard Middleton has documented the decreasing amount of productivity when comparing binders of the last century to this. The trend of decreasing productivity has continued to accelerate during the past thirty years. One direct cause is the lack of disciplined, repetitive bench training, found in larger binderies where potential profit insured that there was pressure for productivity and consistency. It is this training that leads to confidence and dexterity so useful in the trade. It is rare today to find institutional and non-profit workshops providing this training.

Bench training was common to the dominant binders in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as to the innovators of the 1970s and early 1980s. Anthony Cains, Bernard Middleton, Peter Waters, Don Etherington, Bill Anthony, Doris Freitag, Greg Campbell, and Chris Clarkson among the earlier binders, and Joe Newman, Frank Mowery, Mark Esser, Deborah Wender, Peter Geraty, and James Brock-man among the later ones: these are some of the binders who started their careers "on the bench." Such disciplined, repetitive bench experience is almost impossible to find today. The results of this deficiency are just beginning to be felt in the 1990s, especially in the fields of conservation, repair, and restoration.

To compensate for the lack of bench training, binders entering the field today often get experience only in classes or workshops. In many cases they work for binders who have been trained in programs like that at Columbia, or the new programs at the University of Texas and the University of Virginia. Already there are some binders teaching today who lack the repetitive bench experience found among older binders. Such insistent training provided the basis for formulating new ideas or recognizing old ones which could be used in new ways.

Another change in hand bookbinding has been the replacement of large binderies by the explosive growth of individual or very small workshops. The prevalence of small workshops has several consequences: there is little or no chance for division of skills; production tends to remain relatively low even if the one or two binders have mastered several skills; and the infrequent use of skills is often reflected in slower, more deliberate technique. The few larger workshops still in existence continue to divide the skills needed to produce a binding, usually having one person sew the book, another forward it, possibly a third do assistant finishing, and a fourth perform the finishing; management is separate. This system ensures that a worker develops a small number of skills to an extremely high and efficient level. With such narrowly trained labor, a larger shop can produce books in various bindings to high standards even if no single binder in the shop could produce it alone. By contrast, in a small shop new skills are learned slowly. With only one or two people doing the work, there is a limit to what skills can be successfully mastered and practiced. In economically marginal workshops, binding techniques are usually those which are most familiar and comfortable rather than those that may be more appropriate. Economically marginal binders tend to mold the work to their skills rather than admit to their limitations.

Viewed in another way, contemporary binding styles exemplify the conditions of working in a small workshop. One must master the basic skills of sewing and forwarding to produce an acceptable piece of work, while the skills of decoration by traditional tooling and finishing can be minimal. This is, perhaps, as strong a reason as any why contemporary binders have adapted their binding styles and designs to different materials, the different handling of materials, and the use of more leather onlays at the expense of traditional finishing. If binders possessed more accomplished finishing skills, contemporary bindings might well include more use of gold, palladium, and/or blind design.

It is sad to say that there is more transfer foil being used in bookbinding today than ever before. Established design binders such as Tini Miura, Ivor Robinson, Michael Wilcox, and Joseph Newman use gold leaf in creative ways. European trained binder, Don Glaister, shows his finishing skills with excellent results using all kinds of metal leaf. American Dan Kelm, trained as a finisher, has experimented with and written about working with colored pigments (not foils) in finishing, although few have taken his work and suggestions further. The trend, however, is that small shops and individual binders will continue to produce bindings with less and less traditional finishing and will use more foil stamping for titling and simple design. Such techniques will further separate contemporary and future bindings from those of the past.

Today's binders may be more knowledgeable than their counterparts of the past, but most of them have become less productive. Those who have joined the craft most recently are being trained in an environment that emphasizes limited techniques and decision making, rather than speed and skill development based on repetition. It is surprising how many of the newer generations have failed to fully appreciate or understand the economic side of the craft, and continue to underestimate the hidden overhead found in any business. Many are willing to accept lower pay for the freedom of their own time and pace. For binders working in institutions, there is little guidance as to how much time should be allocated to a specific project. A book being repaired may take several days of elapsed time when one accounts for processes such as adhesive drying time. However, only a few hours of actual work may be required. If a supervisor has vague ideas about bookbinding, there is little guidance on how much work a binder can or should be expected to produce.

The managers in larger shops of the past had a clear sense of the length of time required for different operations. The rule of thumb used to be that the cost of binding was ten times the cost of materials. For example, binding an octavo in full morocco, with marbled endpapers, a gilt top, and panelled spine might require materials costing between $20.00-$25.00 or 10.00 to 15.00. The finished work might be priced at an average of $225.00 which, after deducting material costs, would leave $200.00 or 135.00. Another rule of thumb has been that overhead equals labor. Using this formula for our example, labor would cost $100.00, which equates to about 4-5 hours to produce a full leather binding. This production rate is reasonable by any historical measure, but it is doubtful that many contemporary binders could produce at that level today. The trend toward a lower rate of production will continue as shops stay very small or binders work for institutions where there is little concern or awareness about time and overhead.

At a 1989 conference in Nottingham, England, John Mitchell (a former teacher of finishing at the London College of Printing) gave a demonstration in preparing and finishing the spine of a book. Large audiences were enthralled as he marked up, laid gold, and produced a full-gilt spine within the 1 1/2 hours allotted to his workshop, while talking and backtracking with examples. In the 1970s, the finishers at The Harcourt Bindery could produce about eight to ten spines with panels and centers per day. Such output was not considered extraordinary, but it would be today. The point is, the proficiency of finishing skills today is so rare that traditional leaf decoration has simply become too time consuming to be practical in a monetary sense to the most recent generations of binders. As finishing skills diminish, the cost of decorative finishing work is judged to be too costly by clients. For many reasons the trend is toward simpler bindings with less traditional decoration, minimal tooling in restoration bindings unless demanded, and an emphasis on educating the public in accepting design bindings that often make simplicity a design virtue.

The craft of hand bookbinding has changed dramatically. In the future, binders will have less freedom to stay at the bench and perform hands-on work; they will be drawn more and more into the marketplace and decision-making process. More binders will work independently than ever before, relying on outside organizations such as Designer Bookbinders, The Guild of Book Workers, and the programs and conferences that these organizations promote. The general level of workmanship will continue to be raised in basic technique, the under-standing of materials, and the traditions of bookbinding. As current binders are generally better educated than their predecessors, there will continue to be more study and discussion of the history of binding.

Reliance by libraries on computers and scanned information rather than micro-film will result in larger collections of book artifacts. This trend will require binders with highly specialized conservation, restoration, and repair skills. This area of bookbinding will continue to be the fastest growing and most financially remunerative, the most highly competitive, and the least likely to be efficiently managed within the library's bureaucracy unless more preservation librarians are trained and appointed.

The binders of the first and second generations were "Renaissance Binders." Most were capable of doing edition work in leather, approaching the Renaissance goal of the mass production of "virtu," or excellence. They could skillfully produce a richly tooled presentation binding, or create a design binding. Their highly developed techniques and their historical perspective enabled them to successfully handle repair and restoration work.

In place of the Renaissance Binder, the new breed of binder will choose one of three disciplines. Although there will always be some overlap, the three areas of the craft are distinct and will continue to remain so. This new world is already well established. There are a growing number of training centers and programs that are supported by myriad workshops and conferences and overseen by competent organizations. With bookbinding positions opening up most rapidly within institutions, those binders whose educational background extends beyond training in a craft or a polytechnical education, will continually benefit. The key to power, money, and decision-making within institutions will be a college degree or a library degree, which will undoubtedly help binders feel most comfortable in that particular setting.

One consequence of living through a watershed is that there is never a clear break from the past. Without some vantage point in the future, edges of any event or movement become blurred. Those who bridge the past and the present often move into the future looking over their shoulders, mingling nostalgia with excitement. In the future, there will be only a minority of hand binders who will have the range of skills mastered and demonstrated by the first and second generations of bookbinders. The era that produced such Renaissance Binders is ending, but their legacy will remain.

This article is a reprint of the limited edition published by Harcourt Bindery, Inc., Boston, MA. Sam Ellenport is President of Harcourt Bindery, Inc., and has been bookbinding, teaching, and writing about the craft since 1970.

Sam Ellenport

 link to Bonefolder Extras & link to Bonefolder


The Book Arts Web 1995-
Contact the Book Arts Web
Last Modified: Saturday, 14-Sep-2013 12:08:41 EDT
URL: /FutureOfHandBookbinding.shtml
Creative Commons License