Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tricks of the Trade, Confessions of a Bookbinder

Jamie Kamph. Tricks of the Trade: Confessions of a Bookbinder. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2015. 6 x 9 inches. ISBN 9781584563341. 144 pages. Hardcover $39.95, softcover $24.95.

Reviewed by Karen Hanmer*

Cherish each step along the way and perform it as completely and gracefully as possible.

Jamie Kamph’s Tricks of the Trade: Confessions of a Bookbinder is part memoir, part how-to, and part a collection of essays on the engineering aspects of binding, all gleaned from this design binder/conservator’s forty years of experience.

Kamph clearly and generously shares her process, though this is not intended to be a step-by-step manual, and the book is written with the experienced practitioner in mind. Binding, repair, design, and finishing are all addressed. Well-illustrated with diagrams and in-process photos, plus images of forty of her completed design bindings, the book also serves as a catalog of Kamph’s work.

An introduction provides Kamph’s philosophy of binding. Her process is one of both prudence and decisiveness: “At each step of a binding or rebinding I evaluate my work and decide if it is good enough to continue.” Throughout the book she echoes a sensible rule-of-thumb to bind by and to live by: “Don’t do anything you can’t undo.” She ends with a reading list of her go-to sources for binding history and technique.

M.F.K. Fischer, Deux Cuisines en Provence

The book proceeds with Kamph’s career transition from publishing to bookbinding after writing an article on hand bookbinding in New York City. Kamph had an ulterior motive in accepting the assignment: a book collector since her college days, she hoped to find a local source for repair of her own collection. Interviews with numerous binders led to an invitation to a one-evening “try-out” class with Deborah Evetts to determine if she had potential as a binder, then weekly lessons with Hope Weil, and finally establishment of her own Stonehouse Bindery.

Kamph continued her study independently, offering to examine every binding in nearby Princeton University’s rare book collections, and to report to the curator on bindings of note. The objective of her survey was twofold: research not only historical finishing design but also how various binding methods had withstood centuries of use. Kamph was seeking a structure that would support the designs that have become her trademark: elaborate tooling and onlays on the spine extending across the joints and onto the boards. A tight back spine might not be smooth enough to take gold tooling well, and the flexing from opening could cause the gold to flake off. The opening of a hollow back can exert enough pressure on the joints to cause the boards to detach over time. She found the engineering solution she was seeking in a 16th century Swiss binding: a tight back with a leather spine lining. With further refinements, this is the structure she still uses today.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, vol. 1

Kamph next address her signature design style, illustrated by photographs of her completed bindings, sometimes shown alongside the period works she used for reference or inspiration. Her broad design vocabulary draws on a variety of mediums: visual and decorative arts, maps, architecture, and garden and textile design. Typography and decorative elements from the text often inspire a pattern which might be repeated, rotated, reversed, exploded. She also draws on historical book decoration, fragmenting or exaggerating elements to provide a more contemporary, often playful feel.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

She gives us a window into her design process, whether searching for just the right antiquarian image of an angel, finding an astrological map for the night Captain Ahab’s ship left Nantucket, or borrowing watercolor techniques to capture the play of light on a tableau of fruit.

This introduction to Kamph and her work is followed by twenty-some brief chapters, arranged roughly in the order a book is bound or by complexity of repair, followed by finishing techniques and tips on developing a design. Though Tricks of the Trade is not a step-by-step manual, much how-to information is provided in the narrative. Each chapter is a stand-alone essay on one step in the binding process, peppered with tips and anecdotes. The feel is that of the conversations binders have following a lecture or demonstration: colleagues swapping their personal techniques and the tribulations that got them there.

Topics covered include humidity in the studio, useful bindery items borrowed from the medicine cabinet and toolbox, adhesives, paper repair, board attachment, zig-zag endsheets, backing, spine lining, the inseparable actions of sharpening and paring, headbanding, headcaps, and corners. Later chapters address repair: inner and outer joints, cloth cases, rebacking. A chapter is devoted to the repair of a set of three nineteenth century novels in their original but very damaged paper bindings. Before and after photos show new bindings that retain the spirit of the modestly elegant originals.

Throughout, Kamph shares her preferred materials and suppliers, and describes equipment of her own design: a brass-edged recasing press, her tool-polishing set-up, a holder for rolls of gold leaf. I found numerous tips I may or may not have ever arrived at on my own: using tweezers when I might have reached for a thin folder, substituting thin Reemay where I would have used Japanese tissue, using book cloth matching the case for a hollow where I would have used paper, application of glair with a refillable water brush when I would have used a brush or the much more difficult to maintain technical pan, silicone release paper when I would have used Mylar.

 She offers a multitude of possibilities for altering new plain or decorated paper to match old. She addresses making endband cores and reveals a clever method for anchoring the core to the text block to ease the awkward initial wraps before the first tie-downs.

Particularly welcome are chapters addressing the dual nemesis of many fine binders: headcaps and corners. She notes that a well-formed headcap is in fact the convergence of numerous steps properly executed: not just covering but also spine lining, leather paring, headbanding, and attention to the appropriate historical style for that particular book. Kamph provides three options for forming corners, all illustrated with step-by-step diagrams. The most interesting, borrowed from Swiss binder Gerard Charrière, oddly resembles the historical tongue corner but with a shorter tongue pared very thin and folded beneath the two side flaps, which meet seamlessly above it.

A chapter on repair of the brawny, brittle family bible acknowledges this quotidian mission that binders love to hate. Kamph describes her method of washing and drying the text pages in “clumps,” repairing pages, and resewing to control swell, followed by backing to fit the old boards, or if new boards must be selected, the luxury of selecting a thicker pair to comfortably fit a generous shoulder.

Another chapter is devoted to a case study of Kamph’s treatment of a dilapidated first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. The two volumes bought at auction by a long-time client came with detached boards, some missing pages, and no leather remaining on the spines. However, the sewing was mostly intact, and rubbings of the spine reveled that the old glue still held impressions of the original tooling. Scans of the missing pages were acquired, printed onto paper toned to match the text and sewn on, new cords were attached to the old and the boards reattached, the books were rebacked. Using the spine rubbings as her guide, Kamph drew a design for a decorative tool to be made to match the original and purchased the 24-point Times Roman Condensed that was a reasonable match for the original titling font.

First edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, before treatment

First edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, after treatment

The greatest strength of Tricks of the Trade may lie in the final chapters on finishing techniques and generating design ideas. First Kamph describes the process of transferring the design of onlays, gold lines and titling to the binding by tooling through a pattern on translucent graph paper. This process is illustrated with photographs of a full pattern, a close-up of the pattern showing the numerous line segments marked to designate each tools that makes up each segment of the design, and the completed binding. Further instructions are given for cutting onlays to the precise size and shape required and setting them in place.

In just fourteen, highly-efficient pages, Kamph presents design possibilities, tools, and techniques for gold tooling. She discusses the optimal binding structure and choice of leather to lay the foundation for tooling, how to form an intricate design using just a few tools, how to modify tools to build the desired pattern, and when blind tooling might be a better design choice than gold. She outlines each step of the process: blinding-in, applying glair, polishing the tool, applying the gold, cleaning the impression, applying additional gold as needed and troubleshooting. Kamph uses ribbon gold, a roll of gold wound on a spool, interleaved with thin tissue. Ribbon gold is not applied directly to the book like leaf; instead it is picked up with a greased, heated tool which is then applied to the blind impression. The chapter concludes with a very useful matrix laying out methods for managing the interactions of leather, gold, glair, heat and pressure, tools, patterns, humidity and boards when conditions are “bad,” better,” or “best.”

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

In “How to Cheat at Gold Tooling,” Kamph offers suggestions for replacing missing tooling or refreshing damaged tooling on the fragile leather of antiquarian bindings, or adding tooling to a reback that will be a reasonable match to that on the remnants of the original spine.

The final chapter addresses generating design ideas. First, look to the book itself: read the text, look at the images. What is it about, where and when does it take place, what are the larger themes, and what items might be associated with any of this? A quick Web search will yield numerous possibilities, which can spur many additional ideas.

Kamph presents multiple techniques for onlays, some unconventional. She often repeats an onlay shape as a frieze extending across the spine from foredge to foredge. Instead of using these leather shapes themselves as onlays, she sometimes applies the strip of thinned leather they were cut from to the book, with the negative space making shapes appear in the leather the book is bound in. Kamph ends with a reminder to include the title in the design process. Freedom from traditional placement and content can reinforce themes in the text while enhancing the design.

Walt Whitman, The Half-Breed and Other Stories

A photograph of Kamph’s Stonehouse Bindery wraps from the back to front cover of Tricks of the Trade. Her New Jersey farm is visible through bench-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the studio. This scene completes the profile of the binder, her methods, and her work.

* Karen Hanmer was an early reader of this book.

Karen Hanmer’s artist-made books are physical manifestations of personal essays intertwining history, culture, politics, technology and arid wit. Her work is included in collections ranging from The Getty Museum and the Library of Congress to Yale University and Graceland. She is winner of the Jury Prize for Binding in the 2009 Helen Warren DeGolyer American Bookbinding Competition and is one of only eight graduates of the American Academy of Bookbinding’s Fine Binding program. Hanmer is a leader in the book arts community, having served on the editorial board of The Bonefolder, as Exhibitions Chair for the Guild of Book Workers, and as frequent exhibition curator and juror. She offers workshops and private instruction focusing on a solid foundation in basic binding skills. www.karenhanmer.com

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