Blue Hill bookbinder carries on trade handed down from grandfather

Posted Oct. 24, 2010, at 5:44 p.m.

For book lovers, there is nothing that compares to a fine hand-bound volume. The tooled leather cover, the way it feels when you hold it, the glint of the gold leaf lettering and detailed decorations, they way it lies open on a desk — even the way it smells. All of it speaks of a tradition of craftsmanship that has existed for centuries.

“My grandfather had a saying, ‘There’s not a machine made that can wrap a book better than the human hand,’” said Peter Werner of Blue Hill. “A finely bound book can ensure that a book will last and allow its owners to read it, to use it, to cherish it.”

Werner owns Arno Werner Bookbinders in Blue Hill where he hand-binds books, an art and a craft he learned from his grandfather, Arno Werner, who started the bindery and whose portrait hangs on a wall of the workshop, casting a penetrating but seemingly approving eye on the activity there.

The workshop teems with tools of the trade: cast iron equipment from the early 1900s, a large paper trimmer, a wall full of wooden-handled embossing tools, a skiving tool for trimming leather, drawers full of different types of leather and bolts of cloth, some of it more than 60 years old. Many of the tools were handed down to Werner by his grandfather, highlighting a special bond between the two.

“That means everything,” Werner said. “I feel like he is still here with me.”

There is obvious pride and affection when Werner speaks of his grandfather, who became an apprentice as a teenager in 1914 and came to the U.S. in 1925. Arno Werner opened his bindery in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1942 and in 1977, moved the bindery to Hadlyme, Conn. He also served as the chief binder at the Houghton Library, which houses the rare book collection for Harvard University.

“He was the most talented man I ever met,” Werner said of his grandfather. “He was my true hero.”

Peter Werner’s mother and father were both master bookbinders, but it was in his grandfather’s shop in Connecticut where he learned the bookbinding trade.

“I grew up in the shop; I was there all the time,” he said. “I swept the floor, set the type. Eventually, I could be called an apprentice.”

Werner learned other skills at his grandfather’s insistence, working with a master builder, a cabinetmaker, electrician and a mason. Eventually, he went to college, left, ran a construction business and returned to college where he earned a master’s degree in architecture. He worked as an architect in Colorado and then in Maine after he and his family moved to Blue Hill four years ago.

But all the time, he continued to practice the bookbinding skills he had learned and when he came to Blue Hill, he brought the bindery with him.

The process of binding a book involves the large, cast iron devices, including a cutter with a blade at least three-foot long, as well as the hand tools used for embossing and the needles used with silk thread to sew the book pages, one section at a time, to the linen ribbons that will hold the text together.

Though the cover, often fine leather embossed with gold leaf lettering and decorations, is what everyone sees, the process starts in the guts of the book where Werner works to firmly secure the pages together using linen tape and cord to create a sturdy base that the cover can be attached to securely so that it will last.

“Bookbinding is to protect the text,” he said. “It can be a beautiful book, but if it falls apart, it’s not much use.”

The projects vary with the clients who can be dealers, collectors or individuals. The books can be a cherished family heirloom, a family Bible, or a first edition Hemingway. Sometimes, Werner said, he will bind brand new books right off the presses — author’s copies that are uniquely bound to be given as gifts by the author. Much of his work is restorations sometimes of old manuscripts such as the volume of works by Machiavelli printed in the 1700s which he rebound.

“It had been rebound by someone, but it had been horribly done,” he said. “I had to undo that mess. It was a challenging project. But I certainly liked the challenge.”

Although books occupy most of his time in the workshop, Werner has expanded his project, drawing on some of his cabinetry skills. He has started making decorative leather bound boxes: jewelry boxes, knife and gun cases, and fly rod and reel cases.

There is a personal aspect to the business of bookbinding, he said, even though he never sees many of his customers face to face. And the personal connection he makes with those clients often reflects the personal connection they have with the books they deliver to him. The work he does, Werner said, ensures that connection will last.

The books he binds, Werner said, are made for people who long for something that will endure. In a world where so much is built to fail, he said, there are still people who want something that will last a long time.

“I want people to enjoy the books I bind, to read them, use them,” he said. “A well-bound book is built to be used and still last. The books I bind will last a lifetime. I think people gravitate toward things of permanence. People will always want something that is finely crafted. There will always be a place for that. That’s my hope.”

Werner can be contacted by calling 664-3526, e-mailing peter@awbookbinders.com, or visiting www.awbookbinders.com.

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