Dave Allen is a surviving member of an endangered species - a professional bookbinder. Pick up your Yellow Pages – there won’t be many listed. Bookbinding is a highly skilled craft requiring enormous patience, concentration and knowledge. It is also a profession kept alive by a few dedicated bibliophiles like Allen.
His studio, located in a workshop behind his house, is 15 minutes drive from the AbeBooks’ headquarters in Victoria, British Columbia, on the western coast of Canada. His firm is called Beddall Bookbinding, Conservation and Restoration, and he makes his living doing custom repairs and restorations, as well as contractual work for newspapers and other businesses. Much of his repair work is drilling and side-sewing books that have fallen apart after only one or two reads.
One of the main frustrations of a struggling industry is dwindling availability of supplies. For instance, Allen does monthly archiving of newspapers for Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper, and has a certain cartridge paper – thick, strong stock with a good tooth to it – that he has always used to do the endpapers and fly of the archive books. Now his supplier is offering something notably different under the same name and Allen says it won’t suffice – it cockles (crimps) when wet. So when he’s busy trying to dry one side, the other side buckles, and when he goes to smooth out the crimped side, you guessed it – the other side curls. He lets me touch the two sheets, and even to my amateur fingers, they feel significantly different. So now he must try to find another supplier for the preferred endpapers, but it’s going to be difficult.
Bookbinders have to be innovative. Take linen thread for example – an essential but expensive material. “I managed to find a source for it where they make it for something else. It’s made for mussel-growing,” Allen said.
Seeing my confusion, he elaborated. Mussel farmers found that getting the mussel seedlings to attach to the nylon line they originally used was problematic, as the seeds slipped off. If they used the linen thread wrapped around the nylon, the seedlings attach successfully, become mussels, and are firmly affixed by the time the linen rots in the water, leaving the nylon behind. This means the mussel farmers have a lot of the linen thread, which Allen can buy at affordable prices.
When asked whether he had ever bound books in unusual materials (beyond the usual leather, buckram, linen etc.), Allen mentions fish skin, and remembers restoring a book in salmon skin. He says the most frequently used fish skins are skate and stingray because of their size and flatness.
On the day I visit, Allen is at work on the repair of a first edition of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. The owners of the book want it to be strengthened and repaired, but interfered with as little as possible. Allen says this is a constant challenge. In some cases, too much material that wasn’t part of the original copy can detract from the value of the book.
He shows how he has already lifted the back cover of the book, and slid in Japanese paper and muslin, a cotton fabric, to use as a hinge. Many bookbinders use linen cloth, but Allen prefers the texture of the muslin. Linen tends to be mercerized – a process wherein the material is pressed very flat with a hot metal piece – which renders the cloth shiny and less porous, and less able to hold adhesive well. Raw linen is very expensive.
He demonstrates how to repair a small tear in a page of the book. He slides thin, transparent panes of flexible plastic between the surrounding pages to protect them from moisture. Unwanted moisture can be the enemy when working with old books. These barriers were historically metal, usually zinc, called pressing tins, but nowadays that can be prohibitively expensive.
Allen does have stainless steel pressing tins, but for smaller jobs, the plastic dividers work fine. Metal pressing tins have many uses, and can even be used to add a high-gloss finish to a surface, like the leather cover of a book.
Allen lays a very thin film of lens tissue paper over the tear. Using a pre-mixed adhesive from a small blue-and-white pot, he paints lightly over the tissue, over the paper, with a paintbrush. The tissue disappears into the existing paper of the book, and the rip in the paper is virtually gone. It’s reminiscent of papier mâché. Between every step like this, the book must be left to dry. It’s a wet, rainy winter day and what might take a week in the summer could take three weeks now. In its drying stage, the book is pressed between heavy boards, which help the book dry flat, and because of their porous, absorbent composition, help wick moisture away from the book.
When it comes to adhesive, Allen maintains that while you can’t be too careful, a lot of it comes down to not only the nature of the project, but also the preferences of the bookbinder. Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA – a plastic resin glue, which is cold set, meaning it sets with heat not being necessary) on its own is incredibly sturdy, and has a strong-hold tackiness even in the wet phase, which is useful when transporting projects not yet dry without fear of slippage. But it is also almost entirely irreversible, and Allen believes strongly, particularly for restoration and repair jobs, in not doing anything that can’t be undone.
“There’s the maxim that I think new bookbinders who are doing binding or repairs should have. And that is: I do nothing that can’t be taken apart, can’t be reversed,” he adds.
Allen shows me some of the other pieces he will work upon. Next up is a probable first edition of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Published in 1899 or 1900, it has an inscription dated 1900. While the book has definitely seen better days, flipping through it (carefully!) is a real treat – it’s gorgeous and full of color illustrations. He shows me two pages of handwritten notes recording every flaw or repair that he will work on.
He then shows me a groomstick. When he mentions a groomstick, I imagine something very different than what he produces, which is a sticky, grey-white lump of what looks like rubber. Groomstick is a kneadable, pliable sort of eraser, used to pull particles of dirt or soiling from a surface.
The cover of the Wizard of Oz has a number of soiled areas (wouldn’t you if you’d been around 108 years?). There is a pen mark, there are a few unidentified stains and a child decorated the cowardly lion’s glasses. Allen first tests the groomstick on an inconspicuous corner of the back cover to be sure it won’t pull up too much color or damage the integrity of the cover. When he’s satisfied the book is a good candidate, he carefully rolls the groomstick over the soiled places on the cover. While the pen marks are too stubborn, we both notice an overall brightening of the cover, and a lightening of some of the dirt spots.
By the time he’s finished with this edition, he will have ripped off the spine (it is barely attached), reattached it, oversewn where the pages have come loose while maintaining as much original thread as possible, repaired numerous rips and tears, and more. When he tells me what the book is valued at, how long he will spend with the book and what he charges, his services seem like a bargain.
Above all things, Allen believes in a book’s readability rather its art. He shows me a cover of a book called The Penland Book of Handmade Books as an example. The cover depicts a large book which has been carved into a draped, cascading shape like a giant collar or a cape. It’s beautiful, artistic, fascinating - but not readable. “At what point does a book stop being a book?” Allen asks.
It’s clear from talking with Allen that he loves reading books as much as repairing them. Allen’s love of and passion for books may be genetic; his sister owns and operates Gulliver’s Quality Books and Toys in North Bay, ON (www.gulliversbookstore.com).
What if someone is passionate about bookbinding and wants to learn more? In Canada, Allen is a member of CBBAG (Canadian Bookbinders and Book artists Guild, affectionately known as ‘Cabbage’). In the UK, there is the Society of Bookbinders and the Designer Bookbinders. In the US, a good place to start is the Guild of Book Workers. Bibliophilic organizations and associations such as the Grolier Club and the Alcuin Society also support and promote bookbinders.
There are bookbinding courses available, some via correspondence. Allen appreciates these long distance courses but says person-to-person tuition cannot be beaten. When he was learning bookbinding, he remembers, something as simple as being told to slightly adjust the placement of his finger made all the difference, and those nuances are lost in distance learning. There used to be a bookbinding apprenticeship available, a standard seven-year scheme, but it no longer exists.
Allen learned much of his craft at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, in the late 1970s, where he worked as an audiovisual technician and photography teacher, and learned bookbinding from master bookbinder Yehuda Miklaf, who still practices in Israel. Allen also spent many years in the high-tech industry, which paid better, but his time and happiness are more valuable, now. He is quick to state that bookbinding is not easy and nobody should do it for the money, but rather for the opportunity to work with books.
“I love books,” he smiled. “I mean, I know when I walk away at the end of the day that I’ve produced something that has value. Something I can hold in my hand. When a product goes out the door, I know it’s going to last a generation at least, if not three or four. I’m proud of what I do.“
Dave Allen currently resides in Victoria, BC, and at www.bookbinder.ca.
Do you have or know of a beautiful, handmade, rare or unusually bound book? Are you a bookbinder yourself? Have you tried and loved it, or tried and given up immediately? Share your stories with us, and we might promote your books and experiences in an upcoming feature.