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Art & Culture

various essays on, well, art and culture

Bookbinding & Conservation

Binary Dreams
16th C. Breviary Project
I am a Bookbinder
Mold Problems


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circa 1995
Featured 8 May 2007 on Doug Stowe's blog Wisdom of the Hands


I was first entranced by bookbinding because of the tools, I think, and the joy that came from watching my teacher work with them.

I have many tools, from the large guillotine which stands in the corner patiently, to the small lifting knives that I have made from an old hacksaw blade, the edge carefully beveled and rounded so that it will separate paper or leather from board without cutting or tearing.  I keep most of my small hand tools in an old optician's cabinet, the thirteen drawers each no more than a couple of inches thick and about eight inches square.  The drawers are labeled, hand lettering over little slivers of marbled paper, each held carefully in a little brass plaque, though I almost never have to look for the label to know where the tool I need is.  My hand reaches out, opens the drawer, almost automatically.

This sometimes surprises me, because by and large I am a clumsy man.  But in my shop I can achieve a level of grace that could make an athlete envious.  It is extremely rare for me to hurt myself at the shop, even though I am regularly working with scalpels sharp enough for surgery.  Mostly, this is because I'm concentrating on what I'm doing.  But partly, I think, it is because of my love of the tools themselves, and the respect with which I handle them.

This isn't a respect borne of fear for their sharpness.  It is something more . . . something that is almost spiritual.  When you use a tool, it tends to take on the shaping of the use, and of the user.  It will conform to your hand, wear in such a way that it actually becomes more suited to the task, until in some ways it is easier to use the tool correctly than to use it incorrectly.

I think that this is why old tools, well made and well loved tools, are so valuable.  When you take them to hand, you can feel the right way to use them.  Some of the time that went into shaping that tool, training it for use, can be shared from one craftsman to the next.  So long as the tool is loved, cared for, and properly used, it continues to accumulate knowledge, storing the wisdom of the hands.

Recently I have acquired some tools designed for applying gold foil to leather, a technique considered by many to be the height of the bookbinder's art.  I wasn't properly trained in gold tooling.  This was my own fault; I had not taken full advantage of the time that I had with my mentor, diverting my attention to other matters, not knowing (as he did not know) that he had cancer which would take him from this life when he still was young at heart and had much to teach.  After he was gone, the love and affection I had for this man made me greatly regret my limited vision.  I had poorly used the time I had with him, missed the opportunities he offered me.  It was a hard lesson to learn.

So all I have is a rudimentary knowledge of gold tooling.  But I have these tools.  I got them from another bookbinder, a man who retired some twenty years ago.  He had heard of me, and contacted me to see if I was interested in buying his leather tools.  It is noteworthy that he didn't actually offer to sell them to me until he came to my shop, met me, and saw what I did.  I think I passed some sort of test, because he quoted me a price for those tools which was just enough to be sure I was serious about wanting them, but still well below what he may have gotten for them elsewhere.  He told me that he didn't know how old the tools were . . . he had bought them used from a retired bookbinder himself, when he was a young man.  I suspect that at least a couple of them are quite old.

So these tools have passed into the hands of another generation.  It will take me some time of training myself, perhaps getting some guidance from other bookbinders who are familiar with this aspect of our craft, before I will begin to understand all of the lessons that the tools have to offer.  But the tools are patient, and I have a lifetime to learn.

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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