Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Adventures in Bookbinding: The Birth of Big Pink

My interest in bookbinding began in high school.  I worked a few hours a week in a used bookstore, and I became fascinated with the construction of older books.  For a period of several months, I was certain my wonderful future life would be spent making amazing hand-bound books.  I would do it professionally, and I would be world-famous.  Unfortunately, I caught this bug in the 1970s, when the adults around me had no idea how anyone would learn such a thing and there was no internet for research.  The local library had nothing.  My youthful bookbinding career was over before it began.  

I caught the fever again several years ago.  I made a simple pamphlet.  Okay, that was easy.  Then, while pursuing other art forms, I began collecting old books for their interesting covers, and I put them in a box.  Every now and then I'd buy something bookbinding-related, an awl or some waxed linen thread, and it would go into a drawer. 

One day I noticed a lot of new books at the store.  Most of them were about altering existing books, and I needed to learn how to do that.   There was a project that had been kicking around in my head for years.  

Pages from The Book of Isaiah
The subject of my altered book, The Book of Isaiah, was a mysterious family document.  I now know quite a bit about a young boy who was briefly adopted by my great-great uncle, then was given back to his birth parents.  He had a difficult life and became a Jehovah's Witness, although the two are not always related.  The project was intense and emotional and fun while it lasted.  I'm glad I did it, but it took a lot out of me.  I have to be very inspired for a very long time to do something like this.  All in all, it took a month of constant work.  

I own these.
After getting this family-related altered book out of my system, what I wanted to do was actual bookbinding.  This time, thanks to the march of progress, I was able to find much more information.  I studied methods online and I purchased several books about how to make books (now there's a lucrative enterprise).  I read about how very difficult the coptic stitch is, to the point that people need to take classes, and "even then, I can't remember it. . . ." I strongly suspected that Coptic stitch was just a chain stitch, and that turned out to be right.  I amassed the needed supplies and tools. I stirred up my courage. I began.

Big Pink is Born

Meet Big Pink

Inside cover

For my first endeavor I decided to use an old children's book about nothing much, a library discard.  I cut off the spine, leaving enough cover to turn under and glue along the long edge.  I covered the insides, front and back, with crumpled brown paper bag material, stained and sealed.  After drying the covers under weight overnight, I began.

Showing the pages
I chose some high-quality ivory laser paper for the pages.  This was going to be a blank book, maybe a journal or what we old-timers call a diary.  This project was about construction.  I cut the paper instead of laboriously tearing it.  I doubt I will ever have the inclination to tear all the edges off 45 sheets of paper just to make it look arty, but I might.

The signatures
Then it was simply a matter of following instructions, carefully and thoughtfully.  I wasn't used to working with such a long length of thread in the needle - over 100 inches for this book - and I found it tedious.  The thread kept tangling, even though it was supposed to have been waxed, and I had to run it over beeswax a couple of times.  I had anticipated that maintaining the correct thread tension would be a chore, but it really wasn't, even without using a specialized frame.  I did all the work on my lap and on the table.  I found out very early that the holes I'd made with the awl weren't large enough.  I should have stopped and made them a little larger, but I resorted to force instead.  It worked out fine, but I hope I do the mature, responsible thing next time.  

I very much like the look of the midnight blue papers cradling every other signature.  I have a large collection of endpapers now, which I cut from books I was recycling or donating.  I used a piece of heavy vintage twill tape for the ribbons, and I wish I had more of that, because it behaved wonderfully.  

I was a nervous wreck throughout.  At one point I overheated so much that I had to rip my shirt off.  It felt bizarre to be half naked while working, but after a while the task pulled me in so far that I was unaware of my body or my surroundings.  

Showing the stitches
And it all turned out fine.  The coptic stitch is no big deal, and I discovered that I do not need the recommended curved needle, because I can just open the book and go between the appropriate signature and back again (this will make sense if you do it).  The "true kettle stitch" is a no-brainer.  Like so many things, the diagrams and instructions I read made the process seem much more complicated than it actually was.  

The end result is outrageously and overwhelmingly pleasing to me.  I love the color of the cover.  I made no attempt to repair the cover's worn edges, other than to color them black and dab them with sealant.  Big Pink is 180 pages of ivory-colored goodness, and I think it's beautiful.  If it were offered for sale, I'd buy it.  For me, that is the acid test.

I now have several books in the pipeline, and many more in my head.  At some point I'll start thinking about adding content.  There are so many formats I want to explore.  There are papers and threads and stamps and inks and all kinds of wonderful binding stitches.  I love all the possibilities, the variables, and it seems to me at this moment that the sky is the limit.