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On a bookbinding adventure in Pohnpei

I don’t “do” tourism very well; I can’t lie still on a beach for more than a few minutes. Four of us had decided earlier in the year to visit our friend on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. As the time approach, I wondered how I would amuse myself for 2 whole weeks.


I can tell you now that I re filed over 10 000 photos of ornaments and initials. That took up a bit of time.

We knew that the island would be small, and that our movements would be limited. So when a colleague from work reported that there was a library on the island, it occurred to me that I might be able to teach bookbinding on my off-excursion days.


I sent my CV and bookbinding workshop proposal to the Pohnpei Public Library (PPL), and with a bit of help from the Australian Consulate,  three morning workshops began to take shape. I had also visited their website and found that they had a wish list of books to complement their holdings. So the girls and I decided to bring a few kilos of Australian children’s and youth fiction with us.

I had hoped that teenagers or children might be involved, but I had not reckoned on how the island works. Let me say here that this blog is not so much about the bookbinding aspect as it is of  social ramifications of a visiting teacher might engender in a small community.


This is Lester Ezekias, the director of the PPL. He contacted his local librarians group, the equivalent of ALIA in Australia,  in the hopes of creating interest. Even on the Friday before the start of the workshops, he was emailing people to gauge interest.

Things on the island work by word of mouth or social media. Therefore on the first day we had 6 people who didn’t know what to expect. IT was lucky that Lester had attended a previous book repair workshop as he had bone folders and a few bits and pieces that were to come in very handy.

I’d come prepared with electronic notes and a presentation, but not the correct hardware. On that first day we had to crowd around my laptop to view some power points. I had made up small shows about the various different exhibitions, of Pacific and Islander material, that I had chanced upon during the year. One was a visit to the Museum of New Caledonia, compact exhibition space, but full of interesting information and artifacts relating to Kanaka culture as well as Pacific cultures in general. Another was a glimpse at the Tapa exhibition at the National Library of Australia, where the conservators had cleverly used camouflaged magnets to hold up a long tapa cloth.

And of course, a power point on a very brief history of the book in images.

My friend Kath, we whom we were staying, saved the week by providing her laptop and hardware to connect to the big screen. And as we bound books and had morning tea, the shows ran on a loop. But enough of electronic things, let’s get back to the meat of things, learning bookbinding.

Waiting for students, and Kath and Lesley helping out on the first day

I introduced the students to the wonderful uses of the telephone book and the versatility of pamphlet sewing.

At the end of the first session everyone had a few small booklets.

Bush telegraph and the next session was full; librarians from public schools and the Micronesian community college turned up to learn how to make simple housing. Wallet, four flap folders, phase box, using material locally available.


By the third session we were overfull; but no matter I was happy to share my knowledge with those I hope would be sharing this , in turn, with their students.

On the third and final session we made sewn board bindings. Everyone happened to be skilled at sewing, even the men. What pleasure to see surprise and smiling faces at the end of the day, book in hand, students marvel at the immediacy of the result and at having gained an understanding about the construction of books.


My friend Lesley H. had been my assistant throughout, and for a complete novice she was a great help to others.

I have to thanks Kath Grant for her invaluable insights, as well as for inviting us for a visit. Thanks also to Lester Ezequiel for his unfailling support and to his staff who were completely in the moment, in between answering phones, checking out books to patrons and helping with passport applications.

On our penultimate day the four of us trouped over to the library to donate Australian books we had brought with us.

img_9039I think that carrying 20 kilos of books was very worthwhile.

The whole experience was all about the people; how we interacted, how different cultural views can be, how adaptable humans can be.

Perhaps I hope to go back and teach again.


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A hollow, a hollow, my kingdom for a hollow!

I get fantastic writing ideas when I am driving between Canberra and Braidwood. Unfortunately I don’t have a voice recorder.

I’ve been thinking about large, heavy books, about my students learning how to round and back their 17 section A4 size textblocks. They are making a case binding, because that is one of the methods I am most comfortable teaching, and they are adding a hollow to the spine.

There has been much debate in the literature about the usefulness of the hollow. This has confused me because when I was learning book repair I used the hollow quite a lot to re-attach cover. However what I call a hollow (for Oxford hollow), I also call a tube (which it is). My mentor calls this something else entirely.

In my mind, the hollow is a tube that is made after the spine linings are on, traditionally from kraft paper, but now form more archival material. It is stuck to the spine and the spine cover is then attached to it. It can be made on or off the book. My personal preference is to make it on the book.

Left: how to make a hollow                                        Right: the result of a hollow (BTW this is not what the original image was for)
Left: courtesy Cornell University Library –                                           Right: courtesy Cool Conservation

Here is what I have read:(paraphrasing )

According to Jane Greenfield, hollows started in mid to late 18th century. Boards were attached to textblock and a hollow added to spine to provide smoothness for spine upon which tooling can more easily be applied.

Douglas Cockerell bemoaned the fact that hollows were used too often, and made the spine stiffer.

During five years of repairing large books, many of these had broken at the spine. All that had been holding the book together were the spine linings and the endpapers. A hollow would have helped these heavy tomes, but I can imagine that the vagaries of bookbinding production line do not encourage time out for details.

Hollows are neither necessary nor suitable to small thin books, and perhaps there is an argument for the case of unnecessary usage in such cases. However I do believe that certainly for large case bound books a hollow would be useful, and even for laced in books, the hollow would take strain away from the supports. If we want large, commercial hardback volumes to remain strong, then adding a hollow would make the book and the end user much happier.

NB: To my shame I only realised this year that hollows only work with rounded books. They do not work with flat backs. So don’t try it on a large university test book unless it has a rounded spine!



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Driving force of research: strange watermarks and beautiful vignettes.

During the past few years I concentrated my research on books mainly from France, Italy and England. Luck of the draw really. However as my research draws to a close and my book on watermarks is now at the printer, I find myself with nothing to do. Haha , says she! Actually, when is research ever finished?

I have decided to turn my research data into a series of books called the Booksleuth Series. Why not?After all I as a rare book detective I am detecting strange and or usual marks in rare tomes.

These marks, although not that rare in the scheme of things. were all found in books by Spanish authors. The research needs some sort of focus, some sort of purpose. So I will be seeking examples of early Iberian writing in Australia.  I’ll be looking for early texts on theology, probably from Jesuit collections. These are more likely to be bound in vellum, and I can’t wait to see what watermarks are hiding in them.

From NLA collection RBq MISC 179.

I won’t just concentrate on watermarks and bindings. Now that I have a little nit more experience, and curiosity, I will be looking at the chapter headers and the motifs and vignettes used by printers.  Watch this space.

If you know any books worth examining, please send me their titles. Sharing information is one of the main reasons that drives me.


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New Oriental binding – project 4

I first read about the New Oriental binding in the Bonefolder. (as an aside I really do admire that magazine). Sometimes I do believe I am set in my ways: why invent something that is nearly oriental? I suppose the answer is: because we can. Anyhoo. I didn’t give it much thought until I was searching for a new way of putting together single section pamphlets.  I also wanted something relatively quick. Monique Lallier’s instructions were easy to understand and I had a project that required pamphlet sewing. This is the result:

Tango manual

Tango manual

At a recent Canberra Craft bookbinders’ Guild meeting we were discussing how to pull down a book. We had also been asked to bring some previous work so that members had the opportunity to view different work. I brought my little tango manual in its orange New Oriental binding. Being inspired to try something new, a few weeks after that meeting Beverly sent me these pictures of her own book:

This year however I had a project for which I was lacking in ideas. My friend Andrea obtained an eBook version of my favourite children’s book. I reprinted it to my own specifications. It now has many sections. I have a penchant for making dos a dos bindings. After 3 projects runs, I settled on New Oriental binding.

Each section required a guard to be sewn with it.


The guard is then filled with compensation card to the thickness of the pamphlet; using calipers is good for this. What you are making are stubs that you will then glue together to form a block.  The next stage is to cover them before glueing on the cover. Add an endpaper. This is glued onto the stub. You could add the end paper to the stub before covering. I think that is neater.(and more secure)

The covers are the oriental part; spine part and cover held together with a thin strip, about 5 mm apart to allow for joint movement; you would then cover and infill at leisure before glueing onto spine stub I made these paste papers for the covers and the end papers;


At this stage I would recommend piling the whole thing together and trimming in an electric guillotine if available. If not, trim by hand now so that you know that everything is square and the correct size. I found out the hard way that my covers were not quite square or the right size. If your stubs are slightly uneven they will show under the covering and won’t look so neat. I like the idea that there is no square.


This is called project 4 because it has taken me this many times to get it right before I undertake the final version.

To finish this post, here are some details of project 4:

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Not much happening outside my own head

I’m happy at work, and since I have finished all the books that are going away for competitions I am a bit slow in the home bindery.

This is what is exciting  me at the moment:


Horn watermark

Horn watermark

Perhaps not this one is particular, but certainly this one: two griffins? found in a book about Spanish royal lineage.

Two griffins around shield

Two griffins around shield

I posted about searching for watermarks a few months ago. Well I am still obsessed by them. However given that I now have so much data, I’ve decided to consolidate by using the light sheet on books that I have already examined for their binding structure.

Take a look at this:

Watermark in Albrecht Durer's head

Watermark in Albrecht Durer’s head

I was so excited to discover this watermark in a self portrait by Albrecht Durer. Unfortunately I can’t quite make out what it is. Amongst the same set of images here is a tower watermark:

there is a crenelated tower in there somewhere.

there is a crenelated tower in there somewhere. Can you see the doorway?

This is the best image I can take. I think there is a tall crenelated tower, with perhaps a smaller secondary tower next to it. I can’t find this in any resource.

So as I consolidate data, I am also searching books and online databases, such as Piccard online and Le Briquet online. These take hours to sift through and at the end of the day all the watermarks end up looking the same.

I mean, how many grapes can you possibly have as watermarks? Well I read somewhere online that Germany once claimed to have had 25 million watermarks attributed to their country before the 1800s!

I have found French pots; they can have one or two handles, lid or no lids.

Pot, one handle with flowers

Pot, one handle with flowers

Recently I found a snake, with shield?


Here we have grapes in a circle

2015-06-24 14.14.58

a hat,

this is a hat believe it or not

this is a hat believe it or not

and here is an axe:

An axe

An axe

As I sift through all my photos I see some marks that resemble each other. I suppose the biggest part of the job now is to compare all the similar photos and find them on the databases. I can’t tell you how  excited I get when I find a mark. It is such an overlooked item in a book. Even with the lightsheet, the printing can make the mark hard to decipher. I think I have trained my eyes to find them though.

In the libraries of Europe and America, these marks must seem so inconsequential; but in my small world here they are amazing to my colleagues and myself.


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A year of teaching

The end of the school year is looming; this week is my last class at CIT (Canberra Institute of Technology). I inherited a class of my very own at the beginning of the year. How lucky am I?

Neale had actually thrown me in the deep end last year when he suggested to the vocational course co-ordinator from tech that I could so some casual replacements. Neale, colleague and mentor, was my first teacher in 2006. I’m still a newbie myself and so it was with some trepidation that I did a few replacements for Sally, and when she decided to hang up her bonefolder, the college offered me the job.

My inheritance included messy cupboards full of half finished work from bygone students, some sad looking brushes and glue pots and a jumble of papers and book cloth. This space is shared with the screen printers, and more often than not there is ink left on the tables.


Cleaned out cupboards

Every Thursday Bookcraft services experienced binders who come in to do their own projects and beginners who come bright eyed to discover how a book is made. It’s been going for years, and has more or less remained in the same format. Unfortunately we are now in separate rooms and the newcomers don’t get the benefit of watching the more experienced binders at work.

I’m new, keen and have a plan. Actually, it’s Neale’s plan; I basically devised an eight week course that mirrored what he taught me. I had found his teaching schedule useful and great because it took me slowly from the basics, like finding theIMG_0548 grain of cloth and paper to making a book of my very own, like a bought one.

In my first class I inherited 2 new students. I simply continued from where they had started; the next term I had a full class of 7 plus more return students. My class plans aimed to get the students to go home with a finished product at the end of every week. The tasks get progressively harder, building on skills learned the previous week.

I love teaching beginners; I love showing them basics ways of making a book, of sewing a few folios together and getting something worthwhile.


Throughout the year I get a different bunch of students; I teach them a bunch of stuff from my plan; I hone down the teaching palaber until I find the correct words, the words that they will understand, that will make them do the task more easily. Teaching makes me better understand what I am doing.

Mostly I enjoy meeting new and different personalities. I try to remember their names; I think the more new people you meet, the easier it becomes. Bookbinding attracts a certain type of person: not so much fussy as patient and who pays attention to detail. Some people have more hand dexterity than others; some are more artistically inclined.

I’ve learned that I can’t push the students too fast; they will work at their own pace and the class plan seems to grow organically. IMG_0550

Alf waiting for his book

Historically bookbinding was a man’s trade. Now it seems this art is, in this country at least and in my classes, dominated by women. We’d like to have more men, I think it changes the dynamic. Ultimately though, the tasks at hand make us silent. There’ll be a brief flurry of conversation, and before concentration takes over once more. Cheese is de rigueur at teatime. Here we gather with the more experienced clan: Peter and Helen reminisce over the good old days with Neale, and I talk about the future. Over cheese and a cup of tea we find out how each of us came to binding, what makes us tick.

I have further plans for this course. I’d like to start a continuing class on another day, where I would have the occasional guest teacher showing them something wonderful. I would like to make an excursion to the Canberra Bookbinders Guild (who meet on Thursdays!). I don’t want to keep just teaching beginners because I know I will reach a saturation point; if I see that they are heading in a direction, that there is a better goal for them to achieve, then we will have more and better skilled bookbinders and the art won’t die. The powers that be just need to give me a classroom.


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High tea at Claridges with Hannah Brown, Design Bookbinder

Going to a course is all very well, but I wanted something more out of this trip than simply networking with people with whom I may or may not share interests. From the outset I was determined to meet other bookbinders. Many of the bookbinders I have met in Australia are of the older persuasion; there’s nothing wrong with that, and I know there are younger bookbinders in Australia. I just wanted to meet some young book artists, designers who worked in private practise.

I heard of Hannah Brown through an online article. She had won the 2008 Designer Bookbinders Competition.

I contacted Hannah via email and invited her to High Tea. She had told me that her studio would be in a state of flux by the time of my arrival; I’d never been to High Tea, and neither had she. So upon the advice of some expat friends I booked into Claridges Hotel for a treat and a talk.

I didn’t know what to wear; I wanted to look nice but not too formal; I wanted to be comfy.

I arrived early and was seated towards the back of the room. The service was friendly, but the decor left me a little….underwhelmed. I had expected chic elegance;  it was rather  gaudy for my taste, plush but lacking in finesse. Anyway…

Hannah and I at Claridges High Tea

Hannah arrived and after a few tentative minutes we got on like a house on fire. We talked about ourselves and from where we had come, creatively speaking.  Hannah had a degree in Three Dimensional Crafts, and had come to bookbinding through evening classes. I used to make small wooden boxes, and wanted to leave the saw dust behind and find a more malleable medium. I too went to a vocational course. While Hannah continued to more formal education at The Institute in London, I learned most of my skills on the job.

She had brought samples of her work: a current commission, a small box with inlay and a sampler box, as well as a project journal.

The sampler box was filled with maquettes of her big projects; smaller versions where she tried out her designs. Because I don’t do any binding of my own, it hadn’t occurred to me to do small samplers. In my box making days, any prototypes might have been made out of cardboard. Here Hannah had the whole design mapped out on a smaller card version. When she brought out her project journal I felt very privileged to get a glimpse into a working artist’s mind. As a woodworker I had a diary or journal into which I jotted down ideas to be played with later. Maybe dimensions, ideas for wood, eventualities. In my hand at high tea in Claridges I had the birth of a book’s design right to its completion. Talking with Hannah made me realise how much there still was for me to see, to experience, to do.

For over two hours we chatted over champagne, exquisite sandwiches, scones and cream and cakes, while the tea went cold.

It was simply a lovely experience; to meet with another binder and find out about them as artist and human being. I hope to meet Hannah again should I go back to the UK or should she visit Australia one of these days.


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After the course: the British Library and its conservation laboratory.

Why is it that cultural institutions world wide seem to feel the brunt of funding cuts? Who gets funding increases? Is it that the administration of things has gone viral and we are now paying more for bureaucrats than for the people actually do the work, who create the interesting stuff?

Exterior of entrance to British Library

On Sunday after my course finished I went on a bit of a reconnoitre. I knew my apartment was close, and since I didn’t want to be late for my appointment at the preservation lab on the Monday morning, I thought I’d take a closer first look at London’s foremost book repository.

King’s library near the cafe

Its exterior belies what treasures can be found in its interior. I wandered around the large empty halls, not really knowing where to start. I thought a cup of tea might be the place; and on the way I found the philatelic collection. They had stacks of pull-out drawers with English stamps. The café was located at the base of the King’s Library collection. It stands behind many feet of glass, extending beyond where I could see. Unfortunately the café was closed.

So I wandered around the building, looking quickly over the displays in the treasure galleries. Without a purpose I feel quite listless in cultural institutions. At least I knew my way there for the morrow.

Monday morning: after croissants at Les Deux Amis, I made my way in the drizzle to the British Library for my first laboratory visit of the trip.

After such an intense week in the dark looking at books and bindings, I was keen to get back to the bench, anyone’s bench.

Before the walkthrough, Robert Brodie, their public relations officer, took me through their workflow procedures: how items get to preservation, and the processes through which they go in the department. To begin, various departments whose collections need attention, work through a bidding system for time in the laboratory; based on time, a worth number is assigned to each bidder. On this basis the whole year in conservation is planned and different collections get assigned a certain amount of work time and priority. This was significant because within our library we are looking for ways to prioritize our work.

Within the library they use the PCMS (Preservation conservation management system), which keeps track of jobs and books electronically throughout their journey from one department to another.

The Conservation department consists of 6 teams of about 5-6 people. Each team has their own station and their own wet area. Each team deals with a particular collection or department within the library. The teams are made up of paper conservators, binders and all rounders, both paper and book conservators.

The conservation lab at the British Library  is located on a spacious two floors. In the two floors that Preservation cover there are specialist rooms such as the paring room for leather work,

the finishing room, with many drawers of type and tools and the expert finisher

the finisher

and the stores room.

After Robert’s whirlwind tour, he left me in the capable hands of Chris Day.

Chris and I discussed the intricacies of binding repairs. As I am fairly knew to this business I was keen to see how others did spine repairs; I was curious to see if other labs also used commercial paste, or if they solely used starch paste. Most of the repairs that passed through the lab were on major items. The British Library is also a legal deposit library, so they received  paperbacks and all manner of books.  Repairs to such items are not necessarily done in the lab.

In essence, the way they look at books is the same as us, except that their books are so much older than ours. By comparison, some of our treasures would possibly be just an average, alright  perhaps more than average, book in their collection.

Chris took me to meet with the finisher in the tooling room. Unfortunately there were visiting Russian librarians and I did not have the opportunity to talk with him. As we walked around the separate rooms that made up the laboratory we talked about binding repairs and and the state of binding in the UK.

At the end of the day, life in the bindery wasn’t so different to the one at home. It’s bigger, better equipped and has more staff. The binding techniques remain the same; the paperwork is slightly different.

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