Saturday, December 17, 2016

Contemporary Paper Bindings - A Guide to Bookbinding Techniques, Tools, and Materials

Hanmer, Karen. Contemporary Paper Bindings: A Guide to Bookbinding Techniques, Tools, and Materials. Glenview, IL: Karen Hanmer Book Arts, 2016. 130 pages, 11 x 8.5". $55 + s/h from Lulu.

Reviewed by Abigail Bainbridge

I’d been watching Karen Hanmer post images online for some time: a square carefully lined up to mark sewing stations on a spine, each step of tying a weaver’s knot, folding paper for yapp edges. When she eventually started posting images of a book cover, and then links to the self-published book, I realized what they were for. Contemporary Paper Bindings: A Guide to Bookbinding Techniques, Tools, and Materials (self-published through Lulu) goes through bookbinding fundamentals before giving step-by-step instructions for ten paper case bindings. Photographs and occasional diagrams throughout the book illustrate the text. The cover’s white-on-green grid references the ubiquitous green cutting mat.

The first sections (“Parts of a Book,” “Studio Essentials,” “Sewing Fundamentals”) explain everything to the novice, so that someone with enough motivation and hand skills but no experience at all could understand the basics. In fact, although the introduction bills the book as appropriate for all range of experiences, I’d say that it’s mainly aimed at this inexperienced bookbinder given the vocabulary and how much of it focuses on concepts like the names of parts of the book, how to use tools and set up a work station, and so on. There are some nice tips here, like flattening a thread with a folder to make it easier to pierce when locking the thread onto a needle, or the use of a thick catalogue as a makeshift support when piercing sewing stations in gatherings.

Instructions for the ten bindings follow, beginning about halfway through the book. A sentence or two of introduction and a few finished photos provide context that I wish was a little more detailed in terms of history and use. It would be nice to have more images here that show the full character of each binding, although some of the in-progress images in the instructions help construct a picture of what the book would look like. Instructions for the binding follow, with step-by-step text and photos to guide the binder through making the book; I would imagine this would be really helpful particularly to beginners and easier to understand in many cases than diagrams.

The structures themselves are mainly based on the idea of a multi-section textblock with limp covers made of heavyweight handmade paper, although there are variations such as paper over very thin boards, or thin paper wrappers around a thin volume. Some are more appropriate for decorative or artists’ books, while others could be useful as conservation structures.

The book would appear to be drawn from a compilation of workshop handouts, expanded and fleshed out to form a coherent and cohesive text. With this context the book makes more sense (the US letter paper size, Word-style formatting, credits on the bottom of every page) and I have to say, as class notes, they’re the most amazing I’ve ever seen. Assuming it to be a standard bookbinding manual written and designed as a complete book, however, might lead to some confusion, as it misses some of the polish one might expect in editing and photo quality—generally they’re a little dark and low on contrast, and there are typographical errors throughout. Long lines of text the entire width of the page are difficult to follow in general but particular in a scenario like this and could have been broken up into columns or otherwise made more easy on the eye. In terms of content, I think it’s great; my one quibble is with the vocabulary, which I wish followed a standard lexicon such as A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology (Etherington & Roberts) or Ligatus’ Language of Bookbindings, particularly if beginners will use the book. Otherwise I find it a useful resource and would recommend it to my students.

Abigail Bainbridge is a book & paper conservator at Bainbridge Conservation in London. She is the conservation science lecturer for the MA Conservation program at Camberwell College of Arts and is Associate Tutor (Books) at West Dean College. She also teaches short courses at the London Center for Book Arts and Women's Studio Workshop (US). Abigail is a member of IADA and the treasurer of the Icon Book & Paper Group. She can be found online at