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

Here’s the skinny.

I’ve previously mentioned that I do document conservation, such as a single leaf of the Gutenberg Bible. That item is paper, but one of the materials commonly used historically for important documents was parchment – an animal skin which is also called vellum. That was commonly used for grants of land or titles, affixed with one or more big wax seals. Such documents evolved over time, and the formal diplomas for college and graduate degrees you see today are their descendents — that’s why the term “sheepskin” is still used to refer to a diploma, because historically they were written/printed on actual sheepskin (or calfskin) parchment/vellum.

Parchment is still a wonderful material to write on, though it is expensive to produce and has one particular quality which needs to be taken into consideration: it is very hygroscopic — it reacts strongly to changes in humidity. Basically, when exposed to humidity that nice flat sheet of parchment wants to go back to being the shape of the animal it came from.  So when it is used for a document you want to frame and display, that needs to be accommodated in some way.

Here’s one way it used to be done:

Side before

Yup, the parchment was just folded over a wood frame and nailed down.

But a rigid mount like that usually tears loose over time, like this:

Top before

To repair it, you have to slowly humidify the document in a controlled environment (without actually having it come in contact with liquid water), allow the skin to relax, then dry it under mild restraint. Usually a couple of cycles of doing that will result in a satisfactory return to “flat”, though to remove all the distortions can require many hours of labor — not typically what a client wants to do, unless the item is of great historical value. Here’s what the above item looks like after a couple of cycles of flattening:

Front after

Now it is ready for proper mounting and framing, using one of several possible framing treatments which will allow the document to ‘move’ due to changes in humidity without trying to rip itself apart.

But a lot of frame shops don’t know that they need to handle parchment/vellum documents a certain way. In fact, many places don’t know that there is such a thing as animal skin parchment/vellum … that’s because a century or so ago, paper manufacturers started to produce types of paper which supposedly had the same qualities for writing/printing as real parchment, and they called that paper “vegetable parchment”. It was a marketing ploy which worked entirely too well, to the point where people became confused about the differences between the two materials, and many people forgot (or never learned) that there was such a thing as animal skin parchment/vellum.

Now, when you have something printed on paper, and if that paper becomes distorted by humidity, one quick and easy way to flatten it is by ironing it. So long as it is done with a mild heat, and a brief exposure, it’s not *that* bad for most papers. After all, one of the ways modern paper is made is by running the sheets between heated rollers to dry and finish them. So if you take a document to a frame shop, and they find that document is a little warped/cockled, they may plug in the iron and see about flattening it.

But if you do that to animal skin parchment/vellum, it’s like cooking the skin. It doesn’t flatten out. It does this:


Sorry, that’s not a very good image. It’s what the client sent me via email*, asking if there was any hope for fixing it. I didn’t think to take my own ‘before’ image. I told the client that I wasn’t very hopeful, because heat damage can be permanent. But I agreed to try, and he brought it to me.

So I gave it the treatment outlined above, but with *very* slight restraint — I wanted to allow the skin to slowly try and relax. Here’s a pic after the first try:


You can already see improvement, even as bad as it still looks. That gave me hope that I could get the document mostly back into its original condition. The client asked me to try. Here it is after two more cycles of humidification and drying under restraint, using a little more pressure each time:

Diploma 2

By no means perfect, but pretty good for a modest amount of labor. There’s always a trade-off with such work, between what is possible to do and what is reasonable to spend doing it. The client was very pleased with the result. So was I.

Just thought I’d share that.


Jim Downey

*Since the diploma is a private document for a living person, I asked the client’s permission to use and display these images. That permission was kindly granted.





I mentioned on Facebook the other day that sometimes I stop and consider the sort of chutzpah it takes to think that I should be mucking around with a 700 year-old book. That thought occurred to me following a session in the bindery working on the bible I have blogged about earlier. I had just done some work on it, then had to put everything into one of my presses and let it dry overnight, hoping that I had done the work properly. Hoping really hard.

What follows is a bit long, but might be of interest to some. At the risk of spoiling the suspense, the book came out well, though not entirely perfectly. You’ll see.

* * *

In my last post I had an image of the interior of the spine of the book. This one:


That shows the paper liners adhered to the inside of the spine cover material.  If you look at the top of the image, you can see some of the damage which had happened to the book — basically, some tears in the vellum cover at the hinge joint.

Repairing vellum is a bit tricky. You can’t use too much moisture, because it can cause the vellum to warp and shrink, even become brittle. So carefully I removed all the old liner material, then selected some heavy kozo and applied a methyl-cellulose/PVA mix adhesive, allowing the adhesive to dry partially before mounting the kozo to the damaged areas. That’s when I put everything into the press and hoped for the best. Here’s how it looked when I took it out:


One problem – in order to get the kozo mounted securely, I had to flatten the entire vellum spine, losing the nice shaping where it went over the sewing structure cords. We’ll come back to that.

On the textblock, I had to mount some new endpapers before I could add in the spine liners and hinging material. Fortunately, I had some nice handmade flax paper I made some 25 years ago which was a nice color tone match for the vellum. Here you can see it mounted:


Then I was ready to mount the hinging material to the spine. I chose a very heavy type of kozo, which would be strong enough but wouldn’t add much bulk, and applied it so that it conformed to the sewing cords:


Then I cut panels of another flax paper, and mounted those between the cords. Here is a pic when a couple of them have been mounted:


When those were done and dried, the text block was ready to be mounted back into the cover. But I had two problems. One was the spine vellum had been flattened by mounting the repair kozo, as mentioned above. But there was also another problem, part of the reason why the book had become damaged in the intervening centuries: the vellum cover had shrunk slightly, and the text block had swollen slightly, with the result that the cover no longer fit properly.

How to make it fit?

Well, I had actually already done one thing: I had placed the text block into a heavy press and slowly compressed it over a period of several days. But that only did so much.

The other thing I decided to try was to force the spine to stretch a bit. I did this by VERY slightly dampening the vellum, then putting a jig in place which would slightly push the front and rear covers away from each other. At the same time, I had mounted some cords the same size as the ones on the text block, and positioned the same way. This jig went on the inside of the spine, and on the outside I used a piece of foamcore which would partially compress, making the vellum conform to the shape of the cords and spreading it just a tich. A couple times over the course of a couple days I swapped out the jigs, using a slightly larger one each time. Here’s the final set, with the spine of the finished book alongside to better help envision what I mean:


That bought me about 3 or 4 mm of space. I worried about trying to stretch it any further. When I positioned the cover over the text block, the spine conformed perfectly, as you can see in the image above. I went ahead and pasted out the endpapers and mounted the text block into the cover.

Here’s how the pasted endpaper looked when everything dried:


And here’s the fore-edge of the book in its cover:


Yup — that right there is what is technically known as an “oops”. The cover doesn’t *quite* come around far enough, with perhaps 2 mm of the text block showing at the widest point. I hadn’t been able to stretch the cover (or compress the text block) enough.

However, the book was solid, and my interior repairs to the vellum damage turned out nearly perfect. Here’s a picture from earlier which shows the damage:


See that crack on the spine at the left side? Actually, if you look closely, you can see there’s a couple different cracks. Well, here’s an image of the spine at the same point with my repairs:


The cracks are still there, but they’re no longer a structural problem. The underlying kozo will now handle the structural forces. That should mean the cover will work as intended, and propagation of the cracks further down the spine should be stopped for at least a couple centuries.

It’s not a perfect repair, and that tempers any temptation I might have to inflate my ego any more. But it’s a pretty damned good repair, one I can take a measure of satisfaction with.

I can live with that.


Jim Downey

It’s not everyday …

It isn’t the oldest, rarest, or most interesting item I’ve ever worked on. But it’s not everyday that a 700+ year old book comes into my shop for conservation work. This one did yesterday:




Here’s the official description of it, for those who might be interested:

Bible. Latin. [Biblia Latina] 1300. Bound in parchment ms. with neumic notation over boards ; leaf [103] torn with part of 1 column wanting; small stain on p. 1 partly hides incipit; trimmed, headings mostly lost. Prehumanistic minuscule script; rubricated. Lectionary? with different pen on final 2 leaves. Contents: Prol. in libros Salomonis — Proverbia — Ecclesiastes — Canticum canticorum — Sapientia — Ecclesiasticus — Joshua — Isaias –Jeremias — Ezechiel — Daniel — Osee — Joel — Amos — Abdias — Jonas –Michaeus — Nahum — Habacuc — Sophonias — Aggaeus — Zacharias — Malachias — Job – Judith — Esther — [Novum Testamentum]. Cover is a manuscript leaf of a parchment page with nuemes and a Gothic script with red initial letters from about about the same time.


It’s been a while since I shared any images from my conservation work, so thought I would.

In other news: still plugging along on St. Cybi’s Well. It’s going well.

Have a great weekend!


Jim Downey