Life After Art School: Interview With a Bookbinder

800px-Einfarbiges_KapitalbandPart One in a series of interviews with people who have found hands-on, creative work through doing an apprenticeship.

Bookbinding occupies an interesting space between art, craft, and trade. It involves artistic skill, craftsmanship, and business savvy—especially since it’s so hard to make a living doing it. In Canada, there is no established apprenticeship program for bookbinders, but The Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG, pronounced ‘Cabbage’) offers courses for interested people. There are similar organizations in the US and the UK that offer courses and support for bookbinders and book artists.

Laura Rafferty works at Don Taylor Bookbinding in Toronto, assisting with the restoration, repair, and construction of books of all kinds. I talked to her about trading art for craft, working with gold, and the worst mistake she’s ever made.

Who visits a bookbinder? What are they looking for?

Students come in to get their thesis bound, or designers, photographers, people looking for a portfolio. Prop books, people getting sentimental book repairs. A lot of family bibles with family records in the back, other Bibles. Lots of artists, creative types, and people looking to get books repaired.

So many times, people come in and say ‘Can you do this, like, today?’ and it always blows my mind, because even before I made a book, I would never have thought that it would take one second to make. It always seemed like an involved process to me.

I’ve always loved books. My goal as a kid was to be an illustrator of books and that kind of thing, but I never thought about actually making the books. The term bookbinder had never even occurred to me.

Did you study book arts in school?

I did drawing and painting in school, but I took all the book courses that I could. I took a book arts course and a nanopublishing course making zines and tiny books and things. And then sometime around then, my boyfriend’s mother [Kate Murdoch, the studio’s restoration specialist] needed a bunch of people to help make prop books. So that was the first thing I did.

I was only working there one day a week for three years, and then little by little as different jobs came in, I learned more. Now I work 5 days a week, 10 to 5:30, and I’ve been there for five years. I’m not in any way formally trained, like I haven’t taken any CBBAG [Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild] courses yet. I’m not an apprentice but Don and Kate have taken the time to teach me, which is a huge, lucky thing.

So there is a guild?

Yeah, and I’d like to take courses with them eventually, but so far I’ve just learned pieces depending on what jobs are coming in, and what I could be able to take on. Don and Kate helped me cobble together a working knowledge but I don’t think I’d be considered a professional bookbinder by anyone. I couldn’t call myself a bookbinder because if I had my own business, there are a lot of holes in my knowledge because I’ve just learned from job to job.

After you learn all of that, would you open your own bookbinding business?

That’s how it seems to work. I’m self-employed now. I always thought that I would be self-employed in some respect, although most people who are self-employed tell me to never be self-employed. The idea of working for yourself is great, but the idea of having no safety net is scary. And I don’t know if I’m going to have kids, which would probably change things. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in ten years. My friend put it best. She said: “I just want to figure out the general direction that I want to fling myself in,” and that’s been my general feeling, to just fling myself into a direction of craft and conservation.

Are there bookbinding textbooks? How do you remember everything?

There are! Sometimes things are a little different depending on who is doing them. It really helps to have visual references, so now I have this set of templates that I keep at my worktable. There are just things you need to do a million times, and even then you forget and have to redo it. Sometimes it freaks me out, and I make a horrible mistake.

Like what?

The worst thing I did was during was a tight deadline job, and it involved using different stamps on different book cases. When you put together a book, you make the text block, which are the pages, separately, and then you put them all into cases later and then stamp them. So we made all the cases for these books and we had multiple stamps to put on them, and the problem with that is that if you mess up one stamp, you have to set them all up again, and there weren’t any extras. I misread my own directions and I wrongly stamped all the books that were due right away. I freaked out and went to the alley and chain-smoked a bunch of cigarettes. Luckily Don was able to fix it, but I was so undone by the experience.

What’s a cool project that you’ve worked on?

I recently learned how to tool gold lines. And I want to learn how to sew headbands onto books.

I would really love to learn more about how to approach looking at a book and being able to tell what I’m supposed to do with it, as opposed to being instructed on what to do.

How did you balance bookbinding with artmaking?

Partway through my education I realized that being an artist professionally was not for me in terms of having a studio that I sold paintings out of. I became less interested in painting and more interested in print, but I didn’t have the time or the money to switch over. There’s something less precious about printing that appeals to me, that for painting I find more and more intimidating. The idea of making a bunch of things that you can sell easily, that are cheaper to make… something about that is relaxing to me.

I think it’s good to be working in craft after going to art school, because it’s still creative and it’s still working with your hands. It doesn’t require you to be vulnerable like art, which I also found really exhausting. Not that you have to be, but that’s how I tend to do it, so it was great to do a lot of crafting and stuff that is more visual.

Is there anything else people should know about book binding?

If you like your book, don’t put tape on it. It will get really gross, so if you care about your book, don’t do it.

Also, if you’re interested in self-publishing a book, read this checklist before you do it. If you use the right materials to begin with, you won’t have to spend time and money fixing your mistakes later, or having a bookbinder fix them.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite writes and edits in Toronto.



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