Hagen Miller is living proof that human beings do not need elaborate contraptions to travel through time. He voyages into yesteryears each time he binds a book using the methods of his forefathers from centuries past. His work is proof that the theme song from Reading Rainbow was not, in fact, a lie. When that soulful singer sang, “I can go anywhere,” she was talking about Hagen traveling into the 19th century and studying at the feet of sages from ages past. Hagen knows that new technology is not necessarily synonymous with good technology, and this is where he parts company with the rest of his human brethren, who prefer new over tried-and-true. In this, Hagen has much to teach the future about the past.

I found out about Hagen’s bookbinding bent earlier this year in a hush-hush conversation at work. We both work for Allen Press, Inc. here in Lawrence, KS, and we therefore both participate in the ongoing creation of the present and future of the printing and publishing industry in some small way. Hagen was working on his laptop and, when I asked what he was doing, he peeled a layer of himself back like any good onion and said, “Well, it’s kind of … under the table, but …” With that, he led me to his bookbinding blog.

He showed me pictures of books he had rebound and restored using all manners of skins and chemicals and oils. I was fascinated. I figured other Lawrencians might likewise find Mr. Miller’s work to be interesting. As a writer with a manuscript on the market, I was especially interested in Hagen’s fascination with the past despite the publishing industry’s obsession with the future. The eBook, after all, has nothing to say about the bound book – or does it?

Local press The Lawrence-Journal World published an article about Hagen in January of this year and, while it offered an overview of what he does, it does nothing to capture the cadence of Mr. Miller’s words about his bookbinding obsession. I figured the man deserved a proper interview so he could empty out the contents of his brain’s toolbox and show the world what he does and why he does it.

Hagen, how did you get into the most unconventional, unusual practice of binding books using 19th century methods?

I always find it difficult to answer this question, as I don’t recall a specific point in life at which I knew I was interested in hand-bound books of the past. The interest has seemingly always been there. As a young teenager I was fascinated by the concept of a book being handmade – it was unbelievable to me, as if the book had simply fallen from the sky in its current form. At that time I was not so much interested in binding as I was the history of books in general. It was several years later that my interest and knowledge of binding techniques and styles began to develop. One day, when I realized that I had little room left in my personal journal, it occurred to me that I should begin making my own. I dove right in and acquired all of the essential tools and materials necessary, and began binding. At that point the obsession took hold, and I quickly went on to replicate several different styles, gaining enough knowledge to begin rebinding books in poor condition.

Why 19th century binding techniques? Does not the tank of technology always move forward? What advantage does the past have over the present?

I began binding in 19th Century styles mainly because that was what I had been most exposed to, but I also work with 17th and 18th Century styles as well (not all of the styles practiced during those times, but some of the most common ones). I’m currently binding a large custom book according to 15th Century methods. It’s not exactly to spec because the client had some very specific requests, but the time period is mostly there. It has proven to be a challenge, but so far it is turning out very well. I still have a lot to learn. Bookbinders spend more time learning their trade than medical professionals do learning theirs.

I will refrain from passing that information along to my wife since she is in the medical field – she might try to go back to school just to one-up you book binders. Funny thing, too – I suspect that, with some of your book-binding skills, you might be able to stitch a wound shut and “bind” it. I mean, you already bind books with skins and such. All joking aside – I will return to my question – what advantage does the past have over the present?

I’m glad you asked this question. I’ll use rag paper as an example. Rag paper was used up until the mid-19th Century (or so – someone may have to correct me), and resists the passage of time. Not to say that it is invulnerable; it will stain and can be damaged. But there are countless examples of centuries-old books made with rag paper in which the paper is in perfect condition. When the cost of rag paper climbed and the demand for books became high, paper makers began using wood pulp. The wood pulp paper used is acidic and disintegrates over time, and is also susceptible to foxing. These major problems were not generally known until the 1930s, after which measures were taken to increase the quality of the paper being used.

To the bookbinder/conservator, this means that while he/she may go through the effort of rebinding and treating pages of a book made with wood pulp paper, the pages will continue to deteriorate. There are methods for deacidification, though they are quite aggressive and the cost can be very, very high. I personally do not practice these treatments because I do not have the facilities to do so. When binding a book from scratch, I opt for 100% cotton paper unless the client wants something different.

Another example of the superiority of past techniques and methods would be the coloring or dyeing of leather. Today’s aniline dyed leathers tend to look plastic, and are overall vastly inferior to naturally-dyed leathers of the past. Some of the materials used to dye leather centuries ago include various tree barks, berries, oak galls … the list goes on. Much of this knowledge has been completely lost, to the detriment of the longevity of the leather. So far I’ve been successful in dyeing leather with bark, green walnut shells, and other dyes used in textile dyeing, such as madder root.  The coloration is more rich and results in a more accurate replication of period styles. I’m slowly rediscovering these old methods through trial and error – I have numerous jars of dyestuff fermenting so I can use it to color leather in the coming months.

There are many more examples: sewing methods, paste/glue, as well as the chemistry and engineering involved in binding a book in a traditional fashion. A hand-bound book sewn flexibly (but still quite strong) will lay flat when opened, and when closed the cover will not spring open. You will not find that in modern mass-produced books.

Generally, the techniques of the past are tried and true, and have gone through centuries of refinement. A book bound 300 years ago may be in perfect condition today, while a modern perfect-bound or other book (such as case and library bindings) may only last 60-100 years depending on the materials and methods used. In modern times, it’s all about low cost and fast turn time. Hand-bound books can be very expensive because the materials used must be first-rate, and are not very common.

Since you are in the business of rebinding older books, are you more concerned with preserving the past than bringing the influence of the past to bear on the present and the future? Do you ever apply your practices to more current books?

Right now I’m more concerned with preserving the past – the old methods work, and they work well, far better than any modern technique. To date I haven’t bound a book according to modern specifications.  I try as much as possible to keep everything traditional. For example, I do not use PVA glue to cover books – only wheat and rice starch pastes. If I need the paste to be more tacky, I’ll add a bit of gum arabic. PVA glue is no crime in some cases, but wheat/rice starch pastes are more easily reversed. I’m not exactly a purist, but I do immediately recognize the value of centuries-old techniques and am able to witness their quality first-hand.  If re-binding a book, the client is almost always wanting to preserve as much of the original as possible, or replicate the original according to the appropriate period design. Sometimes, though, I’m offered total creative freedom. In those cases, I still opt for a style of the period.

Describe the book-binding process to us non book-binding laypeople. What does it entail, and how long does it take? Walk us through it.

Binding a book by hand takes days, if not weeks. It depends on the book (whether it’s being bound new or re-bound), its style (or the desired replicated style), size and dimensions, etc. A bookbinder could assemble two early 18th Century “trade” books in a day – books that were generally bound very quickly and for cheap – or one very high quality 15th Century book across hundreds of working hours. What follows is a general description of binding a book by hand from scratch.

The paper is folded into sections (or signatures, though the term is often misused today) for sewing, and the text block is trimmed on three edges so they are smooth. Along the folded edges of the sections, sewing stations or kerfs are either sawed in, or the paper is punctured with an awl.

An owl? This really is very organic, Hagen.

No. No, Chad. An awl. These kerfs allow the needle and thread to pass inside and outside of the middle of the section. The kerfs are set at varying distances according to the period style.

The sections are sewn together either on raised cords, recessed cords, tape, or none of these, also according to the book’s period. Depending on the style, the sections could be sewn in an hour or several hours. I recently sewed 38 sections in a 15th Century “packed” herringbone method and it took me 6 hours.

Once sewn, the book is essentially bound.  The book is placed in a press, spine facing up, and the spine is rounded into shape with a hammer. This is secured with hide glue or paste according to the period. The round spine helps to distribute the strain of opening the book, and provides flexibility. Rounding the spine also provides a nice shoulder for the edge of the cover board, right at the joint where it opens.

My mom always said my spine was too round from all the slouching I did as a child. It was  perfect C. Still is.

Cover boards are cut to size, and if the book has been sewn on cords, holes are punched and the cords are laced into the board.  Again, depending on the period, the cords could be laced inside, then back out, and secured with a hammer, or they could be spread out flat on the inside cover (like a fanbrush). Colored endbands are then sewn. I’m sure everyone has taken a book off a shelf and noticed the colored fabric along the top and bottom of the spine nearest the cover material. Modern endbands are glued on and have no real practical value, whereas endbands of the past are sewn through the sections by hand in order to keep the binding tight when the book is pulled off of a shelf with a finger.

The leather (or other material) is cut to size with plenty of room on the edges that will turn in. If leather, the edges are pared down very thin. The leather is pasted up and applied to the book. This particular operation is done rather quickly – molding the leather to the shape of the boards and the spine, turning it in and smoothing out, etc. Once covered, the book is left to dry overnight.

I use natural dyes, so the leather is flesh colored at this point. (Using natural dyes was not my original invention, by the way.  My work with them is inspired and heavily influenced by Master Bookbinder Paul Tronson.) I mark up the cover according to the desired or period style, then apply the dyes. Once dried, I proceed to blind tooling (using hot brass tools to emboss the cover with no gold leaf involved), and then polish the leather with a hot polishing iron. If gold leaf is to be applied, glaire is prepared. Glaire is egg albumen, and is the adhesive for the glaire. I make my glaire by using 1 part egg white and 1 part water, whisked together until very frothy, and then left overnight. I then strain it and add a few drops of milk and vinegar.

The areas to be tooled are glaired, and the gold leaf applied. This takes considerable patience and practice, as the gold leaf is extremely thin. Once applied, hot brass tools are used to fuse the leaf to the glaired area. This also takes considerable practice – the tool cannot be too cold or too hot, or else the gold will not adhere or it will burn. I find that if I lick my finger and quickly stroke the tool, a slight hiss is just right.

Once the gold tooling is done, the excess leaf is removed.

I’m leaving out a ridiculous amount of detail, but those are the major milestones of the process, generally speaking.

What kinds of materials do you use when you bind books? What is the advantage of using these materials over their modern equivalents?

I use a wide variety of materials:  linen cord and thread, starch paste, perfumer’s alcohol for extracting color from vegetation to make dyes, beeswax, carnauba wax, linseed oil, lard, millboard, fruit (for dyes), silk for endbands, leather of course … and a wide variety of tools, such as bone folders, brass wheels (with patterns on the rim for border designs), lettering sets, needles, scalpels, knives, awls, pencils … the list goes on. The advantage to using materials such as linseed oil and waxes is that I can formulate my own leather polish. Carnauba wax must be emulsified to be used, so I use linseed oil to emulsify it with some beeswax in a double boiler. The resulting compound is rubbed onto the leather prior to using a polishing iron, and results in a glossy (but not too glossy) finish, and is safer for the leather than most commercially available leather dressings and polishes.

Linen cord and thread are indispensible.  They are strong, natural, and long-lasting. Preferably, I like to use hemp cord rather than linen. When it comes to dyes, using naturally-occurring material for dyes does not injure the leather. One very common way to color leather brown was to use potassium carbonate, or salts of tartar, which gained the reputation of destroying the leather. Heavy mineral salts such as that and ferrous sulphate can be used to replicate period styles – one could argue that the most important part of the book is the text, and the cover can be replaced – but ultimately eat away at the leather from the inside out.

PVA glue is tough as hell, but poses a problem to any bookbinder who may need to perform maintenance on the book in the future.  Starch pastes are more easily reversed so that a bookbinder could, say, delaminate the old leather from the board so as to reuse the original board.

Imagine it’s the year 2111. What will your future equivalent be doing to preserve today’s eBooks? Will there be an equivalent activity for your future counterpart?

Books will always be around in some form, and therefore bookbinders as well.  What may change is the definition of “bookbinder.”  A bookbinder today may bind new books or restore old books, whereas a century from know, a bookbinder may need to research old soldering techniques. Or, perhaps in the future, tears on pages could be mended with a fancy photonic tool rather than archival tissue paper.

As quickly as modern-day technology is progressing, bookbinders and others who work to preserve and continue ancient crafts and arts may all be lumped into a single category:  preservationists. Or, we’ll die out altogether and no one will understand what we did. It makes me think of Back to the Future II.  Someone hands a kid a book from the 16th Century, and the kid says, “You mean you have to use your hands?”

I hope that books make a resurgence, as well as the art/craft of producing them by hand. But I have to consider the possibility that in 2111, we may very well have neural implants and be 300 times smarter than we are now. Why would we concern ourselves with books?

What are your thoughts on the emergence and rise of eBooks? Do you have any advice to an industry that has apparently ignored the tried-and-true practices of the past (the kind of binding you champion) in favor of lesser developments?

The eBook was created in the same spirit as the hand-bound book, I believe – for the dissemination of and access to information. I think it’s a way cool invention, though I don’t own one. I’m technologically savvy but old fashioned. The disadvantage of the eBook is that it holds less value – currently – than a book that has been passed down from generation to generation.

I cannot think of any advice to the industry, save to say that I think they underestimate the value people place on books. We live in an “I want it, and I want it now” culture, and eBooks and mass-produced paperbacks fill that role. But there are many people in the world who appreciate something hand-made and place far more value on it than something they can buy in a store. And they are willing to pay for it.

I would also encourage the industry to consider this: You never know. What if an EMP knocks out all electronics? Here come the bookbinders. (In answer to an earlier question, this is one of the advantages of using natural material. I don’t have to buy leather dye, pay for shipping, track the package until it arrives. I can harvest walnuts and ferment them, for instance, and they ultimately produce a better dye anyway.)

What kind of people would benefit from your services? Give us an idea of the kind of clientele you serve, and maybe discuss a few of the projects you have completed.

Anyone who appreciates hand-made things, and are interested in having something customized, replicated, or repaired would benefit. I think everyone should splurge on a finely bound book, and I mean that as someone who appreciates craftsmanship and history. There are certainly limits to what I can do, but if one is tired of buying generic journals for personal writing that have “Journal” stamped on the cover and want something personalized and more decorative, or they have in their possession a book that is falling apart, then a bookbinder can help them. My current project is binding a large Book of Shadows with customized tooling and other attributes, and then I’m moving on to rebinding a history book from 1860. Between the two is a wide range of service. Sometimes I act as a consultant without actually performing any hand-work.

So far my clientele is comprised primarily of those who view books as something very special and want one newly made, or they want an important piece of their own history preserved. A book doesn’t have the same intrinsic value as gold or other items – it’s worth is more sentimental, so usually the client is someone who has a deep appreciation for what a book actually is.

Last Christmas I bound three journals in a 17th Century style with specific coloration by request. I also recently rebound a small travel/pastor’s bible from 1896 – resewed the pages, mended tears and gave it a cover that approximated the original. Then I moved on to the Book of Shadows, which is just a pleasure to work on.  What I’m attempting to show is that each book is different, and has its own life. I began to rebind my own family Bible, but set it aside because I was excited to begin the Book of Shadows project.

Do you ever tutor anyone in the art of binding? If residents of Lawrence and/or the surrounding area were to pay you to teach them the secrets of the trade, would you provide lessons?

A very good friend of mine is learning how to bind books. I’m no master, but I share all the details with him – I do not wish to keep secrets, as I believe doing so may contribute to the death of the craft. Other than him, I have not taught anyone. I have a lot yet to learn myself, but I am not opposed to providing lessons. In fact, I think I would greatly enjoy it.

What are your plans for the future with this most intriguing pasttime? Do you have any intention of pursuing this full-time at some point in the future?

At present, my immediate goals are to perfect some of my dyes and learn to put to practice more period-accurate techniques … and I need a larger workspace.  My current setup is sufficient, but it is by no means a workshop. I do wish to pursue it full time in the future – it’s what I love to do, even though it can be @#^*ing difficult. If I can bind books all day and earn enough to support myself and a family, then I’ve won.

HIRE HAGEN TO BIND YOUR BOOK: Email him at sw.bookbinding@gmail.com.