Communion Of Dreams

Proving title.

“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

So, a couple weeks ago I had an idea … which, if you know me or have followed this blog for a while, can sometimes get me, well, not exactly into trouble, but can lead to things not entirely intended. Anyway, the idea was to build a climbing tree for our cats, which might take advantage of the 12′ ceilings we have in our historic home (ours is the next-to-last in that article).

Here’s the (probably) final result:


Now, for those who may be curious about the process of making this cat tree, there’s more below.

We have a huge slump of an ancient catalpa out in front of the house, near the road. Here it is:


It’s been a favorite of photographers and children for generations, and overall is doing pretty well. But one large part of it died a couple of years ago, and we’ve delayed removing it. That part is the pair of major mostly horizontal limbs which come out from the tree towards the viewer in that image.

After some discussion, my wife and I decided that the lower limb could serve as the basic structure for our cat tree. So I cut it off, and then trimmed it and started removing the bark, as seen here:


It’s a little hard to tell scale in that pic, but that limb is about 12′ from base to either tip, and about 12′ from tip to tip.

After removing most of the bark, we somehow managed to get the thing in through the front door and then into our living room. Without breaking any windows. Or bones. This was trickier than it might sound. And did require a bit of additional editing with a chainsaw on some of the various extensions. Of the tree, I mean.

So, we got it into approximate position, then braced it with a couple of chairs. Here it is, with Greystoke (our younger cat — he’s not quite two) investigating:


Next, we got it mounted to the wall securely. This required some stacked-lumber spacers in order to make sure that the branches cleared the windows and curtains safely. The way I mounted it was to mount the lumber to the wall, then I added heavy hook brackets to the lumber, and cinched the tree down with rope. That way, if it was ever necessary, we could detach the tree fairly easily. Here it is mounted, with a 12″ cardboard concrete tube I intended to use for part of the ‘furniture’:


Almost as soon as it was secured, Greystoke was wanting to explore:

That's an 8' ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

That’s an 8′ ladder, by the way. Both of our cats love climbing on it anytime we get the thing out.

Hello, there!

Hello, there!

I started adding elements to the tree: a couple of simple platforms, and a horizontal bridge which would support a carpeted tube. These (and all the subsequent elements) were mounted using a combination of metal shelf brackets and rope.



At this point I also started wrapping cotton rope around the branches, to make them more cat-claw friendly/safe:


The branch on the left was at enough of an angle to let the cats climb it easily. On the right, I decided to put in steps similar to a ladder, but spiraling as they went up to make it easier for the cats to climb:


Next I settled on a final design for the tube:


Then it was time to carpet it, as well as add carpet to the ladder steps and the platforms:


Covering the steps and platforms just required a rectangle of carpet the correct size and some double-sided carpet tape. To do the tube was a PITA using a combination of carpet tape, construction adhesive, and hot glue. I recommend checking YouTube for instructions. And gloves. Definitely you want gloves.

Here’s the semi-finished tree, before I added a final platform on the upper right, or some ‘interactive’ toys/elements:


The (probably) finished final result again:


Complete with a suspended ‘bird’, a dangling rope, and a couple of simple wood spinners. Note that Greystoke, instead of being on the tree, is snoozing in his favorite chair below. Typical.

But he has already started climbing on it, playing with things, looking out the windows, climbing *into* the windows …


Silly cat. But that’s why we built it.

So, all of the wood and most of the hardware used in making the tree was stuff which I already had leftover/recovered from other projects. The tree as shown in the final version (which may get tweaked a bit over time as we see how the cats use it) has about 800′ of rope on it, and that was the biggest expense. All together, had I had to buy both rope and all the wood & hardware, the out of pocket costs would have been about $200 (I actually spent about half that). And it took me a total of about 30 hours labor, in 2-3 hour sessions over the last couple of weeks.

Fun project. I was a little concerned that wrapping it with so much rope would detract from it feeling like a ‘tree’, but it has maintained that organic feeling, even with the other elements I added. I’m pretty happy with the final product.

Jim Downey

A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:


That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:


This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:


Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:


Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:


Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:


That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:


Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:


Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:


Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:


Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:


Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:


It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey

No escape from reality.*

For fun, and to make someone’s year a little better, I recently rebound a friend’s SF novel, converting the paperback edition into a hardcover binding.

With my bookbinding skills it’s a fairly simple and straightforward process, but not a cost-effective one (so don’t ask me to rebind your favorite paperbacks). The result is usually very satisfactory and striking, and makes for a nice little present when I am in the mood to do something different from my usual conservation work.

Anyway, I made this book and mailed it to my friend where she works. She opened it and shared it with her co-workers, who thought it was “pretty darn cool.”

Which, you know, is cool and all. But consider: making that book, that physical object, took me maybe an hour and a half actual labor time. But I’m sure that it took my friend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor to write that book. To conceptualize it. To make notes. To research. To stare at the blank computer screen in abject terror. To write the first draft. To edit.  To stare at the words there in horror and disgust at how horrible her writing was (I assume this happened anyway, since almost every serious writer I’ve known goes through this multiple times with any book). To write the second draft. And then the third, after getting feedback from friends and editors. Et cetera, et cetera.

But what her co-workers thought was “pretty darn cool” was a simple physical object.

Now, I’m sure that if you asked them, her co-workers would say that her book — the written words — was also pretty darn cool. And maybe some of them have even read it.** Still, the fact remains that for most people written work is mostly an abstraction, one which takes real effort and time to understand and enjoy. Whereas a tangible artifact like an artisanal hardcover book can be handled and appreciated as reality.

People are funny, aren’t we?


Jim Downey


**A confession: I haven’t yet myself, since I am still in the middle of doing battle with St Cybi’s Well, and I just can’t read long fiction when I am trying to write it, since it just messes up my own writing. But you can bet I will when I finally finish this book.

Making an impression.

My, how time flies …

I’m a little startled to discover that it’s been three years since I last posted about doing the leather bindings for the custom edition of Communion of Dreams. No, I know it’s been a while — but I have been giving this binding a lot of thought, so it seems like it was still a recent ‘pending’ project. I liked the idea of using the sewing structure to incorporate classic raised leather cords on the spine of the book, but I just didn’t like the sparseness of the rest of the cover design. The initial tests were OK, but the more I thought about them, the less satisfied I was with what the final product would be. The problem was that while the cords under leather gave a nice tactile effect, there wasn’t enough detail possible.

So I kept trying to figure out how to keep the relief I liked but to get more definition. I won’t go through all the different iterations of ideas I considered, but there were a lot, mostly along the lines of trying different ways of mounting different weights of cord/string or molding/engraving the board under the leather. But each approach failed to give me the definition I wanted. Worse, each one felt further and further removed from the image of the “Williamson Oak” by Peter Haigh I had used for the paperback/printed hardcover/website.

Then recently another bookbinding project got me to thinking about using something like a woodcut as a way to make an impression on a leather cover, and I realized that I had gotten so set on the idea of using the raised cords of the sewing structure as the basis for the rest of the cover texture I hadn’t considered the possibility of impressing the leather rather than trying to raise it. What would be required would be to make a plate which would press down most of the leather, leaving the design I wanted alone so that it would stand up (and out).

So that what I tried today. Here’s how I did a quick test:


That’s my high-tech, fancy “polymer plate” … also known as a plastic cutting board. I did a quick sketch on it with a marker, then carved into it using a couple of different cutting heads on a Dremel tool.

Then I mounted a piece of goatskin and a piece of calfskin onto some bookboard, got it good and damp, and then pressed it quickly in one of my book presses. Here are the results:

20160529_160343 20160529_160355

This was just a trial to see if my press would generate sufficient pressure, and if the plate would hold up to it. I am very happy with how well they turned out, and I learned what I need to change for the final version (such as smoothing out the surface of the plate, adding more detail and title, and — oh, yeah — reversing the image).

So, progress! Hey, it only took three years for me to get past my perceptual bias … 😉


Jim Downey

Pop-up phantasmagoria*.

This is completely delightful:


Lots of news from the world of my life. Most of it good. I’ll share in a few days.


Jim Downey


Here there be robots.

Oh, this is just delightful:

Here there be robots: A medieval map of Mars

Recently I’ve been really into old maps made by medieval explorers. I thought it would be fun to use their historical design style to illustrate our current adventures into unexplored territory. So here’s my hand-drawn topographic map of Mars, complete with official landmark names and rover landing sites.

Go check out the whole thing, but here’s a glimpse of the map itself (which is much larger on the original post):


You can even support the artist and buy a copy! Quick, before they’re all gone!


Jim Downey

HT to Margo Lynn.

Having artists and writers involved in space research and planning? What will they think of next?

A good friend (and fan of Communion of Dreams), passed along an article which made me chuckle. Here’s an excerpt:

Earlier this month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology assembled a strange gathering: scientists, artists, engineers, and policy-makers, for a workshop designed to imagine how humanity could settle the solar system.

The workshop, held in early February, was titled Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, with the express purpose of imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.

And she added this comment with the link: “The group gathered reminds me a lot of your group from COD.

Ayup. Here’s the relevant passage from Chapter 1:

“I’ve had my expert do a preliminary search through the old NASA archives. I recalled that they had protocols for dealing with such possible situations, and I doubt that anyone else has really thought much about it since the turn of the century.

“In addition to Don’s field team, the preliminary search suggests that another component should be theoretical, a mix of disciplines so that we can get as broad a spectrum of experience and mind-set as possible. Probably we should have an expert in computer technology. A cultural anthropologist. Someone with a background in game theory and communication strategy. An artist or two. We’ll see if a more thorough survey of the NASA material has any good suggestions beyond that. I’ll get to work identifying appropriate individuals.”

And here’s a discussion the chosen artist (Duc Ng) has with the team leader in Chapter 4 about why it’s a good idea to have such non-technical people included in any such group:

“Why do you have an artist on this team?” asked Ng.

“It was a recommended protocol in some of the old NASA guidelines. Artists have a broader perceptual framework, aren’t necessarily limited by ‘logical possibilities’.”

“And what does that mean to you?” Ng leaned across the table. “That I’m just another kind of sensor you can use? Think about it. Those folks at NASA may have had something else in mind.”

Jon paused with his breakfast. “Go on.”

“How about if intuition and creative insight are the guiding principles of the culture that created the artifact? Not just a technological culture with its unique aesthetic sense, but a culture of intuitives who eventually produced sufficient technology to create this thing. A culture just the obverse of our own: largely artistic, with a secondary interest in technology.”

“With only a secondary interest in technology, how could they ever become a space-faring race?”

Ng shrugged. “Who knows how long they had been at it? Their culture may be tens of thousands of years old. Even a very modest rate of technological development could have led them into space eventually.” He paused, sighed. “Look, my point is that we can’t get stuck just looking for a technological explanation. The very reason that artifact was created, sent here or left here, may have had nothing to do with anything scientific or what we would consider logical. It may have had as much as anything to do with the passions, the dreams of the creators.”

Dreams which may take us to the stars.


Jim Downey

With thanks to Jane for the link and observation!