If you work with your hands or rely heavily on a few specific tools for your job, you’ll know where I’m coming from when I say that bad tools make work so much harder.
When I first got into book restoration, I had bought a minimalist English style skiving (1) knife. Skiving is a very important part of leather preparation- it is thinning down the leather for certain areas of the book where you need to fold it over, or make a smooth transition between the leather and paper or fabric.
Leather skiving can be tricky though- a dull knife can tear your leather- especially if you have softer goat or sheep leather. You need a very sharp instrument for very careful, detailed work. Needless to say, my first knife was adequate, but not ideal. I found myself having to sharpen it regularly, and stopping work every 5 minutes to strop (2) the edge. In other words, it was cheap, soft metal that wasn’t holding an edge for very long.
Now, my work with the Virginia Renaissance Faire has over the last 12 years put me in touch with some really incredible people with interesting jobs and talents. When I decided I was not going to tolerate my English skiving knife’s issues anymore, I contacted my friend Carson Sams.
Carson (in my estimation) can make anything. My husband and I own several of his pieces- axes, knives, chisels, and other tools. I let Carson know what I was looking for, and we arranged a visit to his blacksmith shop to work on it.
Modifying leather is a craft dating back to prehistoric times, and people in just about every location of the world have developed their own tools for the purpose. There are loads of designs out there to choose from, so I worked with Carson to have a design that was custom for me- one pointed edge, one curved edge, a large hollow ground bevel (concave), and a short and straight bevel for the cutting edge. This was more of a French skiving knife design, differing greatly from the English style.
Carson is known for making knives out of unlikely sources- railroad spikes and chainsaw chains are frequent sources of metal for him. For my request though, he chose his metal carefully- a good thick piece of tool-quality steel.
We worked on the dimensions, and he used his power hammer to get the tool stock into shape.
Once the basic shape was achieved, we moved on to the grinder- where apparently, the majority of a blacksmith’s work takes place. Grinding a tool down into its final shape, cleaning up edges, flattening surfaces, polishing and sharpening is no joke- we spent most of the day doing that.
I’d like to thank Carson Sams for inviting us out to his forge and for taking the time to make our custom skiving knife. If you’re ever in need of a particular tool and just can’t find the right one, Carson is excellent at working with you to make and alter it as needed!
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Posted on January 9, 2019
1900 Family Bible
This is a client’s piece, only recently discovered after languishing decades in a trunk in the attic. Working with the client, we agreed on rebinding the book, limited conservation intervention, and as much repair as I could manage.
The clasps were missing from the back, but they remained on front cover. The iron nails holding them in place had rusted and the corrosion damaged some of the brass.
The gilding was really dirty, and was the primary reason why I had the bible in my possession for so long. It took months of trial and error to find a cleaning method that didn’t lift the gold. Some kind of protective cover had been applied to the gold and had gotten dirty and trapped 119 years of grime in place. I tried (in order): water, isopropyl alcohol, leather detergent, soap and water, metal de-corroder, and Brasso; none of which were successful. I consulted a professional gilding studio with over 40 years experience working with gold gilding, and they were stumped, because gold shouldn’t tarnish! I’d already tried all of their suggested fixes, and spent months trying to research a solution- all to no avail.
Ultimately, I found the solution in the book The Restoration of Leather Bindings by Bernard C. Middleton, 4th Ed. Discussing cleaning the leather binding, the entry says “When all else fails, Vulpex, a liquid oleate soap will often work wonders in cleaning grimy gold tooling. A 10% solution in water may be strong enough to brighten dull gold when ordinary soap achieves nothing. In the case of gold tooling which almost looks like blind tooling a 25% or stronger solution may be required… But care should be exercised if the leather is colored because the soap may shift it.”
Vulpex is a soap I use when washing paper- I never considered trying to clean gilding with it, as it is pretty intense stuff, able to clean grease and dirt from paper without any agitation or physical interaction. I had the cleaning agent in my cupboard the entire time! I ended up using a 20% solution and finally seeing what the lovely gold was supposed to look like!
The leather on the covers had been quite worn, and where it rubbed against other books or shelves, the leather dye had been worn away/faded. To fix this, I mixed up a solution of watered-down black watercolor paint, and put a few coats over both front and back, darkening the leather. I didn’t want to use 100% opaque black, because we didn’t want the bible to look completely new; the watered down solution darkened the leather enough to give the design the dramatic contrast it was meant to have, but not completely darkening the leather.
The bible came to me in pieces, and with no spine. I completely re-bound the book by hand, trimming up the edges, cleaning, and mending all the tears and filling in gaps.
This paper was (and mostly still is) highly acidic, which has caused the worst damage to the edges of the paper. The client and I worked to find a good solution on the conservation work to fit their budget, and so I only deacidified the pages that contained handwritten data. The rest of the book remains subject to further deterioration, but I trimmed the edges and reinforced weak points with acid free asian papers, to help the bible last as long as possible. I neglected to get an after photo though!
The paper in the beginning and end of the bible had completely come unbound and had been mixed together. Unfortunately the printers who put the book together didn’t seem to have the process figured out, because each new section (index, Animals of the Bible, etc.) started with page number one- so putting it back in order was particularly challenging, especially the sections that were missing a page or two. I did some research and found a completely digitized version of this bible, and was able to reassemble the book thanks to this reference!
In old books, and especially in large books a binder finds many interesting things; hair, bugs, dirt, seeds, death certificates, old greeting cards, and… Bees? Oh, Bs. It was especially funny to run across these in the binding! Purple bees and their pollen.
This is the hand-binding section. Up to this point in my career, this is the largest book I’ve ever had to re-bind by hand. I think the total amount of time sewing each signature into the book totaled approximately four full days of labor, and this book’s spine was over nine inches wide.
Sadly, the leather had really taken a beating over the years, and had come unglued from the formed cardboard cover- but hadn’t come completely unglued. Only certain parts had come unglued, and I had to come up with a good solution for delivering the glue to the right place, without pulling the whole cover off and risking further damage to the leather. I sent out a query to friends and family, asking how I might get some hypodermic needles- to some predictably wary responses! Thankfully, several friends stepped forward to donate old pet medication needles and unneeded insulin needles to a good cause. This ended up being the best solution to deliver adhesive to the hard-to-reach places.
And here is the finished product! I learned so much from this project, and it was extremely satisfying to bring to completion. My client is happy; I am happy; this book will last many more years to chronicle the life of its family.
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Posted on December 26, 2016
Rock Magazine Ads for… Crabs?
In our volunteer work at the Library of Congress (Packard Campus), there was apparently much to be gleaned about American culture from the 1970s rock magazines we inventoried.
One of many ads for A-200 Pyrinate gel.
Initially, it seemed a bit absurd. Why would rock magazines be advertising a chemical solution for lice and other body parasites? Could this be related to the “free love” movement of 1960s and 70s? Was there an outbreak?
A bit of research reveals that up until 1972, DDT was the preferred insecticide for body lice. It was widely used, most famously in prison and military situations. Come 1972, research suggested that DDT might not be the best to use on humans, as it builds up in adipose (fat) tissue rather than passing out of the body. Too much DDT buildup is toxic to humans, and was eventually blamed for increased risk of developmental delay in children, increased cancer chances, and male infertility- not to mention the serious environmental hazards.
Gratuitous screen shot from the incredible movie Shawshank Redemption (Copyright Columbia Pictures and Castle Rock Entertainment)
In 1972, the EPA issued a “cancellation order” on DDT use. With DDT out of the picture, there was a significant gap in the market for treating body lice. It appears that A200 Pyrinate was simply capitalizing on the opening in the market at that time.
Having an archives of rock music magazines from the 1970s enables us to rediscover medical research history and unique cultural “gems” like this one!