A HAND-BOUND BOOK is two works of art: the writing on the pages, and the design and craftsmanship on the cover surrounding it. A hand-bound book is hard to find and expensive to buy--but it is not impossible to bind yourself.
A warning: This is not the hobby for a dilettante. The array of equipment needed is great, and the availability of materials in Southern California is rather poor. Mail order looms large.
Nevertheless, anyone who cherishes books for their heft and color, size and shape, the feel of the cover as well as the diversions within, will be fascinated by the craft of bookbinding. At its very simplest, it is sheets of paper stitched together and encased with a binding of board, paper or leather that is glued at the spine and tidied up on the inside with endpapers. But the pages and covers must be carefully measured and cut and then squeezed into a piece of medieval equipment called the lying press, which not only gives the book its tight shape but also makes that little ridge where the spine curves around to become the cover.
Depending on the size of the book and style of the binding, there are many different ways to stitch the pages together; there are even different types of adhesives and spines. Veteran hand-bookbinders can turn out metal, wood, plastic or velvet-covered bindings that rival the Hope diamond in flash and substance. “Bound to Vary,” a designer-bookbinding exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington (up through the end of July), includes various bookbinders’ editions of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” (with handmade papers and handprinted woodcuts) in dazzling nautical styles. If anything can inspire courage to try this craft, this collection will. You don’t have to fly to D.C.; there is a book of the exhibit.
The Collings Bindery in Los Angeles is perhaps the only source of hand-bookbinding instruction in Southern California. Charles Collings gives three-hour classes every Saturday; the cost is $75 a month, open ended; students can stay one month or longer. Much longer--one student has been going for 15 years. “A lot of people don’t have the space at home,” Collings says, or the lying press. Collings says there is no local source for general bookbinding supplies, but they are available from Talas, 213 W. 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10001-1996 (catalogue $5); Bookmakers, 2025 I St. N.W., Room 502, Washington, D.C. 20006 (free catalogue), and Colophon Bindery, 1902 N. 44th St., Seattle, Wash. 98103 (catalogue $2). Several books are available in varying levels of instruction; Collings recommends “The Craft of Bookbinding,” by Eric Burdet, and “Bookbinding and the Care of Books” (Taplinger Publishing); they are no longer in print, but copies might still be circulating. He also recommends “The History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique,” by Bernard C. Middleton (available from Oak Knoll Books; write 414 Delaware St., New Castle, Delaware 19720). Oak Knoll Books has just issued a new catalogue, “M511 Bookbinding”, that lists new titles and rare books about bookbinding.
On a more accessible level are three Dover Publications books, “Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique,” by Edith Diehl, “Basic Bookbinding,” by A.W. Lewis, “How to Clothbind a Paperback Book,” by Francis J. Kafka, and “Hand Bookbinding: A Manual of Instruction,” by Aldren Watson (Macmillan Publishing). “The Practical Guide to Craft Bookbinding,” by Arthur W. Johnson (Thames & Hudson), is not for beginners. The last five books, as well as “Bound to Vary,” can be ordered from the Renwick Gallery Museum Shop, c/o Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560; telephone (202) 357-1300.