May 21, 2018
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‘Understated elegance’: Inside the world of a Blue Hill bookbinder

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

In a modest workshop behind his house in Blue Hill, master bookbinder Peter Werner carries forward a timeless craft. The converted farm shed is filled with the materials and tools of the trade — heavy iron cutters and presses, wooden sewing frames, fragrant rolls of soft leather, beautifully hand-marbled end papers, whisper-thin sheets of gold leaf, neat arrangements of precision tools for embossing and stamping.

And there are books — all manner of books. Large and small, new, old and older, they fill a glass-front cabinet, stand in neat rows on tables and shelves and lie scattered on his workbench. Some are fine examples of his bookbinding skills while others await his attentions.

“I love producing something beautiful and functional that you can hold in your hand,” Werner said. From beloved family cookbooks to an original Niccolo Machiavelli manuscript from the 1400s to historical town records to children’s classics, “Every book is different, every project is different,” he said. “I am never bored.”

Werner, 50, learned bookbinding from an old-world master — his German-born grandfather, Arno Werner. He retains the longtime business name, Arno Werner Bookfinders, in tribute.

Arno Werner was the son of a weaver who apprenticed in bookbinding as a youth in Germany. He immigrated to New York City in 1925 and worked for several years at a variety of trades, including masonry and carpentry, before opening his own bindery in the back room of an architectural office in the city. Later, he relocated his shop to Massachusetts, and then to Connecticut.

According to a 1995 story in the New York Times at the time of his death, from the early 1940s until 1982 Arno Werner was the chief bookbinder for the Houghton Library, the primary repository for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard University. His bound volumes are included in the libraries of several American presidents and international heads of state.

“I pretty much grew up in my grandfather’s shop,” Peter Werner said. From drawing and coloring at the workbench as a young child, he advanced over time to sweeping the floors and putting away the type. “Then he had me setting the type and then slowly learning all of the skills,” he said.

“When I was ready to be a master bookbinder, he told me I wasn’t ready to be out in the world yet,” Werner said. “He made sure I learned other skills, like cabinetmaking and carpentry. He said ‘You need to know how to do a lot of different things.’”

Ultimately, Werner completed a masters degree in architecture, a field in which he remains active on a consulting basis. But when his grandfather died in 1995 at the age of 96, he inherited the tools, the trade and the mantle of bookbinding. In 2004, he moved the bindery to Blue Hill, drawn by a combination of architectural connections, good schools for his kids, the natural beauty of the area and a quieter, more focused way of life.

A focus on quality and function

On a recent rainy morning, Werner was crafting a smart new cover for a battered old book entitled “Humorous Illustrations,” published in the early 1800s.

“It belongs to a woman who lives right around here,” he remarked. “She has a great collection.” He had chosen a soft square of deep azure leather, the color of the nearby ocean on a bright summer day. “I figured it’s a good color for humourous illustrations,” he said. “I’m not doing a replica of the original binding; she told me to have fun with it.”

Werner used a scraper to thin the edges of the leather so it would fold more neatly around the book boards, thick pieces of acid-free, archival cardboard that provide rigidity for the cover and spine. Using a small brush, he coated the unfinished side of the leather with a thin layer of white glue, then carefully positioned the book boards and wrapped the pliant leather around them. He used a smooth, five-inch ivory blade to sharpen the folds and deepen the creases.

While it’s illegal in most cases now to buy or sell elephant ivory, Werner owns several of these blades, which were his grandfather’s. He’s tried substitutes — wooly mammoth tusk ( yes, it’s legal), buffalo horn, Teflon — but he prefers the genuine article for its cool, precise slip and grip on the leather, its faint flex in his hand, the keeping with tradition and his grandfather’s old ways.

He tucked the stitched pages of the book neatly into the new, blue cover and clamped it tightly in a wooden press to dry. Later, he would apply marbled endpapers and stamp the book’s title on the spine in gold leaf.

“I generally go for understated elegance in my work,” he said, snugging up the clamp. “But some people want it over the top, and I can do that, too.”

Over the top

Small custom jobs like this are Werner’s bread and butter, and they come his way from clients near and far. Each project calls for a unique set of materials and skills, but a typical new binding with a little gold stamping costs between $400 and $500. Restoring an old leather book cover may cost less or more, depending on the extent of the damage and wear.

Werner has also expanded his services to include custom-designed leather gun cases, fly-rod cases and jewelry boxes.

But these days he’s working on a longterm project, binding the “Lost Gutenbergs,” 128 two-volume sets of a 1961 facsimile printing of the Gutenberg Bible published by Cooper Square Publishers in New York.

While most of the 1000 total sets printed were bound using modern-day techniques and sold into libraries, museums and private collections, these 128 sets were never bound. They weren’t even assembled. Instead, the folded, printed sheets were boxed up and placed in storage in the mid-1990s, gradually getting moved, forgotten and lost until the death of the owner. In 2007, they were purchased by book antiquarian Tim Yancey of Georgia, who decided to have them bound in an historically authentic way so they would most accurately resemble the original Gutenberg Bibles printed in the 1450s. Through the small professional network of traditional bookbinders, he eventually connected with Peter Werner.

Werner deals with the Bibles one set at a time, stacking the folded pages in order, hand-sewing them with strong linen thread, then tying the sections together with thick linen cords that are looped through substantial, beechwood cover boards.

“The cover boards are built like a cabinet door, with mortise and tenon joints, so they won’t warp,” he said. The book is then covered with an elaborately embossed, alum-treated pigskin binding produced especially for this project. He fits each volume with authentic-to-the-period leather straps and patterned brass “bosses” — raised knobs attached to the front and back covers to protect against rough surfaces.

Each two-volume set takes him about 80 hours to finish. Completed sets are in demand by high-end collectors, Werner said, and the project will keep him busy for the near future.

But as challenging and important as the Gutenberg project is, he said, the satisfaction of completing a fine binding is the same as it is for “Humorous Illustrations” or any other volume. Whether a book is bound in a simple, elegant manner or with lots of decorative embossing and inlays, it’s the quality of the materials and workmanship that matter.

“The most important thing about a binding is that it holds the book together so you can read it,” he said. The essential value of functionality informs all his projects, no matter how simple or elaborate, and centers him squarely in his grandfather’s workshop where he learned the craft that has shaped his life.

“My grandfather and I were incredibly close,” he said. “He gave me my work ethic, my moral compass, my livelihood. Everything.”


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