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:

Continue reading


At long last …

It’s been five years since I last wrote about my efforts to come up with a satisfactory cover design for the premium leather edition of Communion of Dreams. Well, needless to say, a lot has happened since then. Not the least of which was getting, and learning to use, my Glowforge laser.

And now I’ve finally resolved the many different design and execution issues to my satisfaction, to the point where I’m completing the promised leather-backed copies for my Kickstarter supporters. Here it is:

This is going to be a bit about this binding, and how it differs from the hardcover cloth binding.

First thing, the sewing is different. Rather than just being sewn onto linen tapes, the books are sewn onto heavy linen cords:

Why the weird arrangement? So that those cords provide additional texture to the spine of the finished book, along the location of where the tree branches are (see the first pic above). Once the sewing was done, the text blocks were glued up and rounded slightly. All of that was very straight-forward.

However, as noted in that blog post in 2016, the problem I had was trying to achieve the raised texture of the tree for the rest of the cover. I played around with a bunch of different solutions, until I settled on using the laser to cut out a slightly abstracted version of the Burr Oak image:

That’s in the bed of the laser. The material is archival 50pt board. Trying to cut out such an image by hand would take me hours, probably. The laser does it in about four minutes. (Though I did spend some considerable amount of time coding the design so the laser would do it.)

Here’s the image free of the surrounding board:

That is then pasted onto a sheet of paper, and the book cover boards are mounted on the back in the appropriate location. Then it is time to mount the leather, and impress it such that the tree is in relief, with this result:

(Actually, that was a practice piece, not the final version pictured above. But I forgot to take an image of the final version at this stage.)

The edges of the leather are then turned-in, and the corners formed. This gives you a finished case (what bookbinders call the cover).

Next, need to do the titling. And this is where the laser once again comes in very handy, though it took me a while to get just the right technique worked out. After the design for the title is done, the leather is masked and then engraved with the laser to an appropriate depth:

Once that is done, the engraved areas are cleaned of residual charred leather, and gilding size applied:

Once that cures, then it’s time to apply the gold leaf:

Now, that’s real gold, in multiple layers, about $25 worth. This process is different than traditional gilding done by bookbinders, so I had to work up a whole different process to do it (based on my experience with traditional gilding). The result is very satisfactory, though, since I have a much greater range of options for the final design.

Once the titling work was done, it was time to prepare to mount the text block to the case. First, I tear the outer page of the outer signature, and trim the cords to the appropriate length:

This combination, with the two liner tabs, will make for a *very* secure mounting to insure the cover and text block stay together. Then, you fray out the linen cords, so that they will not present excess bulk inside the cover:

Then the whole thing is pasted out and mounted inside the case, similar to how the hardcover cloth bindings were done. Once everything is dry and secure, I added endpapers of hand-marbled paper I made:

Giving the finished product:

I tried a lot of different color combinations, and have decided that this is the one I think works the best (and echoes the original cover nicely). My Kickstarter backers have the option of choosing a different color, but henceforth this will be the only color option available for other collectors.

Next, after finishing these bindings: designing the premium leather binding for St Cybi’s Well.

Jim Downey



Let’s talk economics.

Last week I went through the mechanics of turning words into books. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the economics of that, as well as being an author.

When I set up the Kickstarter for St Cybi’s Well lo these many years ago, a lot of my estimates in deciding on what goals to shoot for were based on … blind faith, to be perfectly honest.

I’d published Communion of Dreams, and had some sense of the possible income that could generate, as well as the amount of work that went into writing/editing/formatting it. But I really had no idea what the costs would be for printing and hand-binding copies of that book or the yet unwritten St Cybi’s Well. I had a pretty good handle on how much time it would take me to do the hand binding, based on my book conservation work. And likewise, what the cost of materials would be, other than the printing. Now that I’ve gone through all of that with both books, I have a much better idea of how costs break down, so I thought I would share all of that.

Based on 55 copies (edition of 53, plus two author/artist proof copies), the actual out-of-pocket expense runs about $50 per copy for the two different books. That covers the cost of the oversize archival paper (so the grain/drape of the pages is correct for hand binding), the printing, and going to collect the printed pages. It also covers the cost of archival bookboard and cover cloth. (The leather copies are two or three times as much, depending on the actual leather used.) Were I to bind a single copy, it would take me about 2 hours of labor. If I bind multiple copies at a time, that drops to about 1.5 hours of labor. (Leather is about 2x the labor.)

My Kickstarter goal was $17,000. Which succeeded. After deducting the fees paid to Kickstarter, and the costs of the different “rewards/premiums” for the backers, I wound up with about $12,000. Which, truthfully, isn’t a bad advance for a relatively unknown author.

It took me seven years of writing work to finish St Cybi’s Well, rather than the one or two years I originally expected. That was both embarrassing and stressful, since I made promises to people I didn’t fulfill. But it’s over, and everyone seems happy with the end product, so let’s just talk about the amount of labor that went into it. I’d conservatively guesstimate that I have something on the order of 2,000 hours of labor in writing, rewriting, editing, and then composing (the last is mostly thanks to my Good Lady Wife) the book. That *might* be as much as twice as long as it took me to do the same with Communion of Dreams, though spread out over a longer period of time. So, do the math, and I earned about $6 per hour.

That’s just the Kickstarter, of course. Now that the book is done, I’ll continue to earn money on purchases of the downloads, printed paperbacks, and special order hand-bound copies. How much is hard to say. I have had about 40,000 downloads of Communion of Dreams, though a big chunk of those are free downloads. Still, with Amazon’s system, 2/3 of every sale goes to the author (as opposed to like 5-7% for conventional royalties with a publisher), and that adds up. To date, I’ve only had about a thousand downloads of St Cybi’s Well, and most of those have been free downloads. Which has been a little disappointing, but we’ll see how things go over time.

As for the printed paperback copies, there I earn a bit more from Amazon than I would for the downloads, but not a lot. And they don’t amount to very many sales. The signed copies I sell directly do a little better still, but again, that’s just a handful of books per year.

As for the handbound books, there I do make a lot more, about $150 per copy. But my conservation labor is billed at $200 per hour, so at 1.5 hours of labor, I’m making half of what I would professionally. The return on the leather bound copies is even worse.

So, why do it? Why even offer those books on the websites?

Because I enjoy it. I enjoy knowing that the books that I create will be enjoyed, perhaps cherished. Read, and passed down to children and grandchildren. Like most artists, I’m willing to trade some financial reward for that satisfaction, and I can afford to do so. Maybe it shouldn’t be the case, and it wouldn’t be the case ideally, but we do what we can under the circumstances.

Finished product.

Anyway, my books will be available for free download tomorrow (the First of the month, as always). Give ’em a try. If you like ’em, you’re always welcome to either purchase a download or one of the physical copies later, if you can afford to do so. But don’t feel guilty if you can’t; as noted I can afford to give them away, and take joy in knowing people read them.

Jim Downey



Turning words into books.

As I noted a couple of months ago, I found a printer to produce the pages for a hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well. This is a photo-essay of the process of turning those pages into finished books. This is not intended to be actual instruction on how to bind books.

My printer for Communion of Dreams had been bought-out and was no longer capable of doing the printing for St Cybi’s Well. I was able to source a new printer after some trouble. Everything was slowed down due to Covid, of course. Eventually I was able to drive over to Wichita KS to pick up the printed pages.

Printed pages and color cover stock. Note that these are oversize. This is necessary to make sure the ‘grain’ of the paper runs the correct way, so that the pages will turn properly once the book is bound. They get trimmed down after binding.

Each section (group of pages) has to be folded, then punched consistently to allow for sewing.

It’s easier to do the laser-design work on the section before binding. The design is that of the St Melangell Centre, of a hare, at Pennant Melangell. This is the location in the book where much of the action takes place.
Once the individual sections are all punched, they are gathered into books and then sewn. This style of binding is “sewn on tapes”.

Sewn text blocks. Note that these are oversize, using the full printed sheets.
The sewn text blocks, now cut down to finished size. This is done individually, using a c. 1915 guillotine.
I designed a simple thin-board jig using my laser, which allowed me to mark on the cut bookcloth where to mount the archival bookboard.
The marked sheets of bookcloth.
Mounted bookboard on the bookcloth.
Completed case, with the edges of bookcloth turned in and additional liners added. Those liners are needed to balance the strain on the boards cause by mounting the color cover stock label.
Exterior of the case, with color cover stock mounted.
Text blocks now lined with support paper along the spine, and endbands added at the head and tail. The outer page of the first and last section has been cut down to function as an additional hinge. This, combined with the sewing tapes, is sufficiently strong to mount the text block to the case covers.

Text blocks mounted into case covers, and allowed to dry under weight.
Finished books. If you look closely you’ll note a slight wedge shape to the text blocks. I wanted a flat spine to match the hand-bound copies of Communion of Dreams, but St Cybi’s Well is longer, and so required more sections. This made the swelling at the spine more noticeable. Once the books are opened and read once or twice, the wedge shape should disappear.
Finished copies.

If you would like your own hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well or Communion of Dreams, click the links. Each edition is limited to just 53 numbered copies, plus two Artist’s/Author’s proof copies. At either link you can also order one of the remaining copies of the Amazing Koob, as well as signed paperback copies. And of course, you can always download the books from Amazon (remember, they’re free on the first of each month).

That completes the next-to-last phases of my Kickstarter. The final phase will be the design and completion of the leather bindings.

Jim Downey



Reinvention in the time of Covid

So, about a year ago I made a fairly big change in my life, and posted the following to my professional website:

September 1, 2019 – Please note:  due to increasing difficulties with arthritis in my hands, I am curtailing how much conservation work I am doing.  Henceforth I am prioritizing established clients and works of notable historic value.

Yeah, this has been a developing problem for me the last few years, limiting just how much detailed work I could do. It’s gotten to the point where I can typically do only a few hours a week of the difficult, careful work required. Other kinds of hand work isn’t nearly as demanding, unless it involves shock to my hands, so for the most part I’ve been able to continue with the rest of my life with minimal difficulty.

So, after posting that, I started referring new queries about conservation work elsewhere, and focused on my established clients and institutional work.

Then Covid-19 showed up.

After we got a good handle on just what that meant, I stopped meeting with even established clients. Because while my health today is just about better than it ever has been, I am nonetheless at very high risk of having a very bad case of C-19, should I catch it. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t survive it. So I’ve been telling clients that things can wait until there’s a safe & effective vaccine, and I’ve gotten my dose(s) of it.

Which is fine, because there’s rarely a reason to “rush” conservation work. And besides, I had a backlog of work waiting for me in my safe, as I always have.

Well, had.

Last week one of my institutional clients popped by to collect the last couple of items I had to work on. Just a brief, masked, socially-distanced visit. Previous projects had been mailed off, or likewise returned to clients with minimal contact/interaction.

And now the cupboard is bare, so to speak. For the first time in literal decades.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that Covid had likewise changed something else for the first time in decades: my usual mild bipolar cycle. That’s still disrupted. Well, honestly, it’s almost nonexistent. I don’t really have any sense of change currently; I’m in just a new, vague limbo which is neither good nor bad. It’s an odd feeling. Like so much, these days.

Anyway, to ‘run out’ of conservation work isn’t really a problem for me. We’re fortunate enough to be financially stable at this point in our lives, and I had been accounting on much reduced income from conservation for a while.

And, in a way, it’s good. Just this last week I also got the ‘proof’ of the printed pages of St Cybi’s Well, so I can do the hand-bound editions of that book soon. Here’s the proof copy:

SCW proof

That’ll keep me busy for some time.

And beyond that? Well, reinvention is an American’s birthright. I have more artistic impulses to explore and revisit. I have more writing I want to do (no, I’m making no promises of anything). I have life I want to enjoy.

So, for the time being, I’m going to take reasonable precautions to make sure that I can enjoy it, and do those things. I’ll get back to meeting with clients, and doing book conservation, when it is safe (in my assessment) to do so.

Take care of yourself.

Jim Downey

 

 

 



Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



A light in the darkness.

It’s … been a while.

And a lot has happened. Mostly good.

* * * * * * *

Many years ago, a friend got involved in something called “The Jesus Seminar“, which eventually produced (among other things) The Gospel of Jesus.

My friend commissioned Cheryl Jacobsen, well-known calligrapher and friend of mine from my UI Center for the Book days, to do a hand-lettered edition of the book as a gift for Robert Funk, the founder of the Seminar. The work was done on calligraphic vellum, and when it was completed, I did the binding. This is it, which I have used as the main image on my business homepage for at least a dozen years:

And here’s the descriptive text from my site:

The Gospel According to Jesus:  Full leather contemporary case binding, shown here as tooling is being done.  Collaborative work with calligrapher Cheryl Jacobsen of Iowa City.  Sewn on linen tabs, cover mounted to text block using adhesive.  Covered full in burgundy Chieftain Goatskin, blind tooled using a hot brass folder.

It’s a lovely, but very simple and traditional binding.

* * * * * * *

Continue reading



Forward, into the past.

I sewed up a book yesterday.

* * *

It’s been a rough year.

Oh, a good one, in many ways. The delightful trip to Wales was certainly wonderful. And I was pleased to finally wrap up our two-year work on the brick walkway; I recently used it, and it was nice to see how it has settled solidly after a couple of months weather. There have been other highlights, time spent with those I love, sharing & caring.

But it’s been a rough year. Mostly, because back in early spring I started my slow bipolar descent, and then got stuck stumbling along the bottom of my personal trough for the last six weeks or so. And, while I haven’t talked about it (or anything else) much here, the political situation has been extraordinarily depressing. It’s been a weird combination of things I have long dreaded and things I was writing to warn people about in St Cybi’s Well, and after significant effort to re-write the draft of that book to reflect the new political reality I found myself without the energy or inclination to continue. I felt paralyzed.

* * *

But, as these things go if you are lucky, the wheel continued to turn.

Even if the progress is steady, and consistent with my previous personal experience, it’ll be some 4 – 6 months before I completely climb out of the depressive part of my bipolar cycle.

But I sewed up a book yesterday. This one, for the first time in at least a year and a half:

Yeah, it’s one of the premium leather bindings of Communion of Dreams.

Finally.

For whatever reason, completing those books got mixed up emotionally with completing the writing of St Cybi’s Well. I think I understand it, but I don’t think that I can explain it. Well, I understand it now. At least part of it.

That’s how you solve art, sometimes. And how you walk out of depression: one part at a time, one step at a time.

The writing wants to start again.

In the meantime, I sew books.

Happy New Year.

 

Jim Downey

 



Cold comfort.

Thought I’d share a small discovery I made this weekend.

I’m working on a book conservation project for an institutional client. It’s a patient ledger for a public hospital from the 1880s. It’s a large, heavy account book, and the binding structure had broken down, the original leather-covered covers have a bad case of red rot, and a number of the individual pages had been damaged. All in all, a fairly routine project; an important piece of mundane history, but not particularly interesting from a bookbinding standpoint.

So I took it apart, cleaned and repaired the individual pages, organized the folios back into sections, and set to resewing the book. Here’s the start of that process:

And here it is further along, as I’m sewing the individual sections onto ‘tapes’ as part of the new structure:

As I did this, something caught my eye I hadn’t noticed previously: here and there was the world “cold”.

Now, people don’t usually go to the hospital for a “cold”. Particularly in the 1880s, when hospitals were usually places most people avoided. So I looked a little more closely, and saw that the entries were under the column for where in the hospital patients had been put:

Here’s the top of that page:

Why on Earth would you put someone into a “cold” ward? That didn’t make sense.

Then I noticed something else, further across the page. Here’s a pic of it from a blank page, so as not to inadvertently violate someone’s privacy:

What I thought was “cold” was actually “col’d”, the abbreviation used for “Colored.”

As I’ve said previously, about another historical artifact:

So I understand the importance of preserving the artifacts of that history. And so understanding, felt that it was my responsibility to use the skills I have acquired to that end, no matter how distasteful the task. It was my small tribute to all who resisted, who persevered, who fought.

I’m not equating the two.

But it is important that we not forget either history.

 

Jim Downey



The St John’s Bible

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

The Saint John’s Bible homepage.

This was no small project. The finished bible, produced on animal skin vellum, was in seven volumes. Each volume was two feet tall, and three feet wide when opened.

Recently Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri — Columbia asked me to archivally mount special dedication pages to six of the seven volumes in their Heritage Edition set of the book. Since this very limited edition (just 299 copies) is the full-size, fine art version which very few people will ever have a chance to see in person, I thought I’d take some pics and share them here, along with some notes and observations.

Each volume comes in its own conservation clamshell box:

As you can see, these things are huge. They’re so big, I couldn’t store them in my large safe — so I picked up a pair of the books at a time, did the mounting (which takes two days to do properly), then returned them to Special Collections.

And that style of clamshell box is a work of art itself. I occasionally do (smaller) ones for clients, and they can take three or four hours of labor for me. Doing one that size would take special equipment and workspace I just don’t have.

Here’s the first volume in the set, in gorgeous hand-bound red calfskin:

Click, then follow the link at the bottom, if you want to take a close look at the calligraphy.

 

Likewise.

And here’s the dedication page, along with the facing colophon:

The calligraphy for the dedication page was done by Diane M. von Arx, who was part of the team which worked on the St John’s Bible. If you look closely, you can see some of how I mounted the dedication pages: in the gutter there’s a slight discoloration from the Japanese Kozo tissue paper. The process of mounting the pages was easy: first mount the Kozo strip along the back of the dedication page, then allow to dry under restraint overnight; the next day, position the page and then paste out the Kozo ‘tab’, and secure it to the facing page and again allow to dry under restraint. This kind of mounting allows for a very natural movement of the page, as though it was part of the original binding, with minimal chance of the additional bulk of a page causing long-term problems. I also had to trim each dedication page to the specific dimensions of each respective book (they vary by a couple of millimeters — no surprise, given the size of the things and the fact that they were bound by hand).

And here are some additional images from the books, again available in full scale:

A fun project.

 

Jim Downey

If you are interested in supporting conservation work at Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri, here is their “Adopt a Book” page. And if you might be interested in sponsoring the last of the seven volumes of the St John’s Bible, you can contact MU Libraries Director of Development, Matt Gaunt.