Communion Of Dreams

Binding Beowulf

For many years, whenever I’ve given lectures, or taught classes about the history of the book, I would discuss the incredible value of books before the advent of the printing press (1454). I’d tell people that there was a reason such books were carefully guarded, even chained to a library shelf: they were about as valuable as a new car would be today, and you didn’t want them walking off.

Well, I was partially correct. Now, having done my part in creating a completely hand-made, hand-calligraphed edition of Beowulf, I can say that the value of such a book is AT LEAST that of a new car. An expensive one. Maybe two. I don’t actually know how much this book is worth. But I know that I put over 60 hours of labor into it. And I have a good idea of the cost of that much calligraphic-quality vellum. And I’m sure that Cheryl Jacobsen, who did the beautiful calligraphic work, must have hundreds or even thousands of hours of labor in the project.

What follows is documentation and explanation of my contribution to this incredible work of art. It’s photograph-heavy, so I’m going to put the bulk of it after a break, but here’s a glimpse of the finished product, to entice you:

It begins with the text block, of course. Ms Jacobsen worked with the client to develop the style of the calligraphic hands used (the original text is copied as closely as possible from the original English Vernacular minuscule), as well as the overall aesthetic of her work. She decided to use real vellum, and further to make use of the inherent qualities of the skins, with color variations, flaws, and the natural edge of the skin wherever appropriate. This resulted in a text block that feels authentic, not as though it were a hoax or re-creation of an historic artifact, but in that it reflects the methods and materials of the Beowulf culture. Here, have a taste of that:

Unveiling the text block.

A peek inside.
Sample text.

I received the text block last Spring, and spent some months with it. I knew the story, of course, but wanted to get a real feeling for the beauty of this copy, to appreciate all that had gone into its creation, so that I could respect the work of my collaborator.

Over the Summer, the opportunity presented itself to get together with Ms Jacobsen and with the client who commissioned the work. We discussed some ideas I had about the approach I wanted to take in binding the text block. And we looked over some materials I considered for the cover, settling on a piece of absolutely gorgeous reclaimed wood which had a deep, rich figuration from the natural grain having been eroded by weathering. Here that is, rough-cut into two suitable pieces:

The depth of the grain erosion is more than half an inch, though it is hard to tell from this image.

The idea was that this could be reclaimed wood from a Viking longship, as figures in the story. And once I had the actual wood, I had some ideas about how to develop that connection.

But first, I wanted to get the binding executed. Given that the pages were natural vellum, in the style of Early Medieval England (previously known as Anglo-Saxon), I wanted the binding structure to reflect that. A fairly simple non-adhesive structure was indicated, and I decided that sewing onto straps of vellum+goatskin leather made the most sense. I chose a black goatskin for aesthetic reasons, knowing that the black would fit in with the decorative elements I intended. Here are the straps:

Support straps, approximately 10mm wide.

Next, I constructed a punching jig, to punch the sewing stations. Then I proceeded to punch each two-sheet section of the text block. But given that none of the sections had a smooth, uniformly-trimmed head (top), I needed to make sure that I allowed for the natural variation while winding up with a fairly consistent and compact text block. This was a little tricky, but accomplished:


Finished punching, ready for sewing.

Then it was a fairly straight-forward matter to sew up the text block. I used a heavy linen thread, since I wanted to reduce the stress on the sewing stations (a thinner thread would be more likely to tear the vellum), and it came together nicely:

Sewing starts.
I thought I had accounted for the variation in all the sections, but the kettle-stitch on this one was just a little off …
Sewing completed.

Next, it was time to turn to cover preparation. First, I had to remove the accumulated dirt & decay from the surfaces of the boards. As noted, I had no idea of the history of this wood, but it was clear that some substantial cleaning was needed:

Material removed with brushes and metal picks.

And that I didn’t want to be breathing in whatever that stuff was:

That N95 was bright white when I started.

After cleaning, I cut them to width:

Compare to the color of the uncleaned boards.

And here they are with the goatskin chosen for the other elements of the binding:

I’m reasonably sure that the wood is oak. The leather is Hewit Chieftain goatskin from Talas.

The next step was to carve slots into the cover boards. The leather/vellum support straps of the text block would be laced through those slots, providing the primary support/attachment for the covers. These slots needed to be positioned correctly, and minimally larger than the straps themselves. The slots went approximately 25mm into the wood, then angled inward, emerging on the inside of the covers. As so:

Simple jig made to mark the slots and protect the wood while drilling the initial holes.

Masking the wood to protect while carving/filing the slots and aid in positioning the exit slots on the back.
Where the slots emerge on the inside of the cover.

When finished, light from the other end was visible.

Once the slots were sanded smooth on the inside (using strips of sandpaper), I needed to bevel the spine edge of the cover interior. That’s because I wanted to have a gradual transition from the thickness of the text block at the spine (where it was swollen because of the folded vellum and the sewing thread) to the thickness of the spine at the fore-edge. It’s necessary to bevel the cover board so that the vellum will be less stressed (and prone to cracking) where it meets the edge of the cover board. This was accomplished with a rasp and sandpaper:

It’s about a 45 degree bevel, with the edge slightly rounded.

Next, I needed to inscribe a shallow area into which the strap end would be inlaid. That would prevent it being lumpy, and distorting the text block over time. Here that is:

The white spotting is where excess polyurethane from the front had come through. Note where it has done so on the knot in the middle; that showed how deep the knot was. It all disappeared when the back of the board was treated with polyurethane.

Now the time had come to do the additional decorative work on the cover boards.

The concept I came up with, after extensive design discussions with Ms Jacobsen and the client, was to treat the cover boards not just like they were from a Viking longship, but to suggest that they were once decorated with a dragon’s head motif, as from the figurehead of a ship. Perhaps the boards had once been used on a hall, or to mark a grave. This was suggested to me by the figuration of wood, part of which suggested an eye:

The initial idea suggested by the wood.

So I did a mock-up:

Image inspired by Viking longship reconstruction.

The problem was, any such early decoration would have been eroded over time, as the board itself aged and eroded. So how to achieve a partial decoration of the extant wood on the covers?

Well, the idea I had was to use my Glowforge laser and mask most of the board from the effects of the laser, so that it would only lase the upper parts of the wood grain. After a great deal of experimentation* on off-cuts of the cover material, I found the proper combination of surface prep (with clear polyurethane), lasing power/speed/focus, and masking with sand to achieve the effect I wanted:

Front cover in the laser, in process.
Rear cover in the laser, finished. The blue bits of tape on the edges were reference points so I could align the rear cover image with the front cover image.

After the laser work was done, the boards had to be cleaned again, with all the sand removed along with the excess char material from the lasing. Once this was finished, they were given a second coat of polyurethane to seal them. This was the result:

The finished cover boards.

Since it’s really hard to get a good understanding of just how much erosion there is on these boards, here’s a look at them from above:

The next step was to create the leather ‘wrapper’ which would finish the binding. This would protect the text block on all four edges (spine, head, tail, and fore-edge), as well as give a barrier between the boards and the flyleaf pages. The first thing to do was to create a rough template:

Paper wrapper.

Then position it and rough cut it from the leather:

Next, I positioned that rough-cut wrapper, marked it up, and trimmed it to a better fit:

The bubble wrap under the book is to protect the figuration of the wood while working.

Once I had the more-or-less final fitting of the wrapper done, I added pieces of vellum to reinforce sections of it, just as I had wedded together goatskin and vellum for the straps onto which the text block was sewn. These were on the spine, on the head & tail, and along the fore-edge. This would stiffen the leather, and make it move/protect the text block correctly. I also added pieces along the spine, which would cover the inlaid straps on the cover interior.

Then I positioned and marked where the straps needed to come through the leather so they could lace into boards. Once marked, I cut small slits in the leather, then marked the outside with blind tooling to indicate where the straps would be.

From here, it was time to do the additional decorations to the wrapper. This needed to be done flat, because my laser will only accommodate material that is a maximum of about 2″ thick, so it couldn’t be done once the wrapper was mounted.

In discussions with the client and Ms Jacobsen, we settled on four additional design elements, all drawn from the Beowulf text and Viking/EME tradition: a longship, a sun, a strip of runes, and Grendel’s Arm. In addition, I wanted to have a small but complete image of the Dragon’s Head, since the eroded cover image was difficult to visually understand. Because historically books were stored flat until just a couple hundred years ago, it made sense to orient these images on the wrapper so they were visible when it was resting on the rear cover. And we wanted them to look as though they had been drawn on by hand at some point in the book’s history, so perfect positioning or execution wasn’t needed:

Head of the book decoration. This also shows the vellum panels, and how the slits were positioned to accommodate the straps. Note that the slits are right at the juncture of the panels; this was to provide support, but meant that the wrapper would fold properly along the shoulder of the spine of the text block.
Spine decoration.
Design drawn from the Ramsund carving of the Sigurd Stones.

Where’s Grendel’s Arm?

Well, I decided that it was the perfect thing to use for the front closure of the wrapper. So I cut it out of a different goatskin leather, and added a carved bit of antler as the ‘bone’ protruding from the top of the arm:

The monster’s arm suitable for display.

All this complete, it was time to mount the wrapper and finish the binding.

First, I laced the straps through the wrapper:

Then positioned the covers and marked them:

Then laced the straps through the slots:

The trick in getting the straps through the tight slots is to use a strip of sandpaper. You put it through first, then lay the strap on and feed it into the slot. The sandpaper will grab onto the strap, and it can be carefully drawn through.

Once the straps were through the proper amount, they were trimmed, and mounted in the inscribed areas:

Note the bevel color; I dyed the fresh-exposed wood with leather dye to match the color of the outside of the covers, before sealing with polyurethane.

These were then set with weights and allowed to dry overnight, resulting in:

After both cover boards were so mounted, and I confirmed that everything was positioned correctly, I then mounted the leather wrapper to the inside of the cover boards. This would do two things: one, protect the text block from the wood; and two, stiffen the position of the boards relative to the spine, since otherwise they would have a tendency to slide along the straps, and open a gap between the wrapper and the spine.

As with mounting the straps, this needed to be done with a mild amount of weight and time. That’s because the heavy texture of the covers would not withstand using a press, as I typically would for a conventional binding.

Once completed:

All done! Note the minimal gap along the spine.

The last two things to do were to complete the closure, and add just a little gold leaf to the deep recess of the Dragon’s eye on the front cover:

Grendel’s Arm, with the ‘buttonhole’ for the top of the bone carefully positioned. This keeps the wrapper in the proper location around the text block, but is easily opened.
An ancient glint of gold.

It’s hard to really get good images of the finished book. For one thing, it’s substantial in size: about 11″ tall, 9″ wide, and 4.5″ thick. For another, I’m not much of a photographer. But these will give you an idea of how it turned out:

Front cover, book flat.
Front cover, standing.
Front cover, standing, showing fore-edge.
Rear cover, standing, showing fore-edge.

An incredible project, and I am proud to have had a hand in bringing it to reality.

Jim Downey

*Experimentation: yeah, I did extensive experimentation at just about every stage of this project. As I tell my conservation students, you have to deal with the real artifact in front of you, not some abstract ideal. That means that you need to work with the actual materials of the piece before you, not in theory, but in practical fact. So before I did anything to the text block or covers, I tested things. I tested cleaning techniques. I tested wood preservatives/coatings. I tested the laser settings. I tested how to keep the sand in place during the laser process. I tested adhesives. I tested the wood to see how well it would carve/rasp/sand. I did all of that, even though I have 30 years experience as a binder/conservator/book artist. Because you never know everything, and testing/making mock-ups helps to avoid costly mistakes.

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