Bookbinder: The tools of the bookmaker

We really should state up front for anyone following along at home that you don’t really need All The Fancy Tools™ to bind your own books. My first foray into this craft used a pile of ad hoc tools that I cobbled together from found bits and bobs. I’m not even sure I went to the hardware store so much as rummaged through the junk drawer and used whatever I found.

115 Into the press
Whose junk drawer doesn’t contain lag bolts plus a brick or two?

If you’re planning to do this in public, purporting to be demonstrating how it was done in your time period, please try to get your tools as accurate as possible. In the privacy of your own home… go nuts.

By the way, that first time out I did just about everything wrong (or rather I skipped at least five important steps) and still ended up with a perfectly serviceable sketchbook for my troubles. When you’re using modern adhesives, bookbinding can be an incredibly forgiving sort of craft.

Note: We’re not going to use modern adhesives this time.

Where we’re going, there’s no forgiveness.

How we’re going to set up our 16th century bindery

I’ll be making the tools as close as I can manage to what I see in the historical record mostly because I can. I have the tools, I have the 500-year-old technology.

In this picture from Jost Amman’s Book of Trades we see a pretty standard bindery. Because Amman worked in the book trade, the publishing and binding images are nice and detailed; we can rest assured that he was actually familiar with the tools and tasks depicted as opposed to some of the other images in the book that are a bit sketchy on the details.

"Der Buchbinder" woodcut from the Jost Amman "Der Standbuch". A red aura highlights the sewing frame, a green aura highlights the finishing press, a purple aura highlights the book plough and laying press, and a yellow aura highlights the finishing tools which hang on the wall.
Image: Der Buchbinder, woodcut from Das Ständbuch (1568) by Jost Amman, edited, highlighted, and generally cleaned-up by yours truly; original image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

In the image, I’ve color-coded the four key toolsets we’re going to focus on, in this order.

  1. Red: Sewing Frame

    • A sewing frame is used to hold the chords/tapes that the book will be sewn to. The tension in the frame keeps the cords taught and out of the way during sewing.
    • Mine will be slightly smaller than Amman’s and based on a sewing frame depicted in other period and near-period woodcuts, but they all operate approximately the same way, just varying on how large/adjustable they are.
  2. Green: Finishing Press

    • This twin-screw device lives on in the woodworking shops as a vise (mine pictured in the headline of this post). In bookbinding, this press holds the item you’re working on during gluing, for work on the spine, or while sewing headbands.
    • A bindery would probably have more of these on-hand than are shown here.
    • My finishing press will double as a backing press, so the edges will need to be reinforced to withstand hammer blows.
  3. Blue: Binder’s Plough & laying press

    • The laying press is just a heavier version of the finishing/backing press.
    • The plough is a blade in a frame, somewhat akin to a woodworker’s plane. It rides on the edge of the laying press, using the straight edge as a guide to trim the edges of the book block flush.
  4. Yellow: Finishing Tools

    • The finishing tools shown here are wheels, which are made from brass or bronze and used after heating to incise straight lines in leather with or without additional gilding
    • Additional finishing tools are smaller and handheld, impressing everything from individual letters/titles to fancy designs in the leather.
    • This is going to be the hard part.
  5. Additional (not shown)

    • Standing press
      • A standing press is a large, heavy press with a topscrew similar to a small printing press used to hold the book flat while drying, among other uses.

Problems that I foresee:

  • Storable/collaspible: Sadly, I don’t have all the storage space in the world to keep a bookbinding studio set up all the time. These items all have a largish footprint and will need to be made in a manner that knocks down or folds/stacks out of the way. (Except the standing press, which has the benefit of being useful for other things like veneering and even letterpress printing, which is nice, since they’re pretty darned heavy and I’d hate to have to move it very often.) My workshop is crowded enough as it is.
  • Brass: Brass is primarily made of copper, and the rising price of copper has made throwing brass around more expensive than it used to be. I’ll be limited by budgetary constraints, but will do my best to recycle brass from wherever I can find it. (Remember that I had to promise my wife not to mortgage the house to complete this project.)

So anyway, that’s what’s on my workbench just now.

More soon, as always.

~ Scott


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