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Book-binding with a Pittsburgh Bookbinder
By Connor Sites-Bowen
I sat down with book binder Kayte Rose of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recently and asked her a few questions about book binding.
When did you become interested in books? Not just binding, but books themselves?
I've been reading since I was 2 and a half, according to my mother. I used to sneak books into bed and hope my parents wouldn't sit down, because the bed would be COATED in books under the covers- and they'd bribe me with books to behave when I was getting shots at the doctors.
I've always loved reading- but the object of a book, with pages and a cover and the smell and heft has always been one of my favorite things. It speaks of wisdom, of an item refined over thousands of years that doesn't need electricity or winding or anything else to be entrancing. A book can sit somewhere for a hundred years (or more), and as long as the language is still around and hasn't been destroyed, it can be read and shared. It is a vessel for knowledge and ideas, and that is as close as I can imagine an object being to the true definition of awesome- inspiring awe.
How did you become interested in book binding?
Well, I'd been meaning to learn it- I like to learn older crafts and hobbies like tatting, weaving, etc- and some time in April or May 2011, I read something by Gaiman about books (which I forget right now) and Doctorow's short story "The Right Book" (which is about a corner store that also sells books people bind) and decided that I was just going to try it. I read all the websites, started getting all the books out of the library and buying them from Half-Price Books. Not long after that, my AmeriCorps term ended, and I went out and bought a bunch of supplies to try to sell them. I found employment before I could really spawn my business, but I'm still trying, just slowly. I also give them to people as gifts and just enjoy making them for myself.
Is there a full-blown book binding subculture?
There is a culture around it, and it is getting more popular, but I am not really immersed in it. Bookbinding is a legitimate activity and pursuit in BIG cities (NYC, Philly) and atypical cities (Iowa City is the best example), but there isn't a strong presence here from what I've seen. There is a Guild of Book Workers, several masters' degree programs around the country, and discussion over whether we should focus on making grand, time consuming, intense books or quick but well made and stately books or artists' books, but I haven't had enough experience in artists' books yet, and I am not fast enough to try for the second and not patient enough to try for the first, so I'm kind of in the middle of all three! I can't imagine there would be drama, the closest I can think of is the discussion inspired by the Kindle/Nook/other e-readers that leads people to discuss and ruminate upon the role of the physical book in today's culture.
Where did you learn how to bind books? When did you start?
I taught myself, using books, websites, and videos, starting in Spring 2011.
Are there masters in the field?
A resounding yes. My books look like child's play (and kind of are) compared to the works of truly amazing binders. For examples of a wide variety of books, check outhttp://www.philobiblon.com/bindorama10/index.html . If you want to look up binders who consistently impress me with the work they do, look up Bill Minter, Peter Verheyen, William Anthony, Keith A. Smith, and Dennis Yuen.
I know that there are commercial processes, and time consuming by-hand processes. Is there a modern in-between? A style of binding for small independent runs?
Not all by-hand process are time consuming. If someone wanted to print something less than 100 pages or so, there are ways to bind up several books rather quickly. I bound up a book that was around 140 pages in an hour with poor tools on a carpet floor once, and it turned out pretty well and I just was told that word of mouth has spread about that book (A 9th edition NERO rulebook) and that at least one person wants to get a few copies like that.
Almost every hand binding is also going to be a better quality than something you get off of a print-on-demand shop like Lulu or a generic cheap paperback you buy in Walmart, because hand bindings sew the papers together, whereas print-on-demand and cheap books are "perfect bound," which means glued together. The glue will eventually crack or spread too far, the pages will fall out, and your cheap paper pages will disintegrate. However, if you're concerned about cost and time and want to get a book printed, Lulu and other print on demand shops are the place to start looking.
What is the coolest binding style?
I like a LOT of different bindings. I'm personally a fan of non-adhesive bindings (see many of Keith A. Smith's books), the Crossed Structure Binding (the ones with straps I have pictures of), and button hole bindings (which I haven't made yet). I also tend to gravitate towards the traditional Codex binding (preferably on cords rather than tapes) for books that aren't intended to look unusual, since it stands up well and it both shows off your strengths and hides a lot of flaws
In terms of straight up hip, suave, sleek, gently atypical modernist binding styles, Wire Edge Binding is pretty sweet. I haven't tried it yet- I want to get the right wire and make sure that it's a book people would want or use- but it's AWESOME. You can use it for traditional-style books as well as really hardcore sculptural books that are flexagons or Moebius strips.
What have been some of your favorite binding projects so far?
Definitely Apocalypse World. AW is an AMAZING roleplaying game by Vincent Baker, and it's definitely my favorite rpg. I went to a convention centered around AW and Burning Wheel (another indie role playing game) and decided I wanted to bind the rulebook for Vincent. I did a more traditional binding, with hand-sewn mismatched headbands, and I took a dremel to a piece of fake diamond plate metal to carve out "AW" really roughly and glued that to the front cover. The book is SUPER neat- I don't bind a lot of books with content in them, largely because I'm worried about copyright- and it fits on a shelf without being out of place, and can survive accidental exposure to drinks, and fits the tone of the content. I've gotten a lot better at binding since then, and I regrettably don't have a picture of the book, but it's definitely my favorite.
What do you need to start binding?
To just start messing around with it, you probably have everything you need already! You need a thread-like material (I've seen people use dental floss), paper twice the size of your desired pages (I mostly bind letter size paper), 2 pieces of not-corrugated cardboard (think cereal box or thicker), a needle, and some glue. My first book I didn't even use cardboard- I folded paper on top of itself and glued it down! My first book is pretty awful- I still have it, and if anyone wants the world's ugliest copy of Getting Things Done, I'll give it to them.