The Bookbindery: Teaching the Historic Trades

After some time exploring Williamsburg on our own, the Winterthur Craftsmanship class made its way to the Bookbindery at Colonial Williamsburg as our last stop. We were eager to learn more about the tools of the bookbinding trade, and were greeted by Dale Dipree and Don Mason, who kindly offered their time and expertise during our visit.

1-BinderyThe corner of the bindery shows Don and many of the tools Dale and Don use to decorate the leather bindings. Note the colorful marbled end papers on the bench in the foreground.

Dale explained from start to finish how a book would be assembled in early America. We viewed an array of pamphlets and books, from sewn pages with no boards to quarter, half, and full leather bindings. This variety highlighted Dale’s point that the lines between printer and bookbinder were not always distinct. To be competitive in a community, a bookbinder would have to know local interests and produce relevant texts and blank account books, and understand what materials should be imported versus made in-house. We learned about the economics of choosing leather, based in part on the abundance of certain animals, and were able to feel a selection which varied in dye, softness, and durability. We also viewed endpapers, and learned that most marbled papers would be imported to Williamsburg rather than made on-site.

2 Tooling

Emily watches Don using a heated wheel to tool the dampened cover.

While we visited, Don tooled the cover and edges of a book with a wheel and stamp. He frequently checked to see if his tools were the right temperature, cooled them with a sponge, and wiped water away on his clothes. Tools and temperature work in harmony in the process of leather tooling. If a tool is too hot, it will burn leather, and if too cold, it won’t make enough of an impression. Don emphasized that while he was being careful with his project, precise symmetry was not the ultimate aesthetic goal for eighteenth-century American bindings.

3 Corners

Don stamps the corners of the newly tooled binding.

Bookbinders had to be steady, careful, and strong, and the energy requirements for this job were evident from watching the work. It is easy to imagine getting calloused fingers from sewing on a frame, tired arms from applying pressure to a shaving tool while cutting the edges of pages, as we saw Don do, a sore back from leaning over a tooling project, and tired eyes from squinting to gild a small surface. While the skills to produce a basic binding were achievable in the early parts of an apprenticeship, developing the muscles, memory, sensitivity, and skills to determine materials and make long-lasting and highly ornamented bindings could take years.

4 Bookbindery

With little or no artificial light, many trades kept fine work close to windows to help them see what they were doing.

Visiting the Bookbindery revealed the complicated relationships between the tools, talents, and decisions associated with making books.

By Emily Pazar, WPAMC, Class of 2016

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