The Expert: What I Know About … Book Restoration

An expert historical-book binder stays true to his craft.

Who: Alex McGuckin

Age: 40

Job: Historic-books binder

Experience: A large board shear, identical to those used in the Victorian age, sits in one corner of Alex McGuckin’s basement workshop, with a 113-kilogram blade that cuts through a heavy wooden book cover like it’s silk. McGuckin uses it to restore manuscripts dating back to the 16th century and employs the same tools, materials and techniques used by the original craftsmen.

McGuckin started learning his craft in 1996, during his spare time while doing a research year in Puebla, Mexico, for his PhD on 19th-century elite families in the colonial city.

He returned to Edmonton and worked as a sessional professor of history at the University of Alberta for five years, binding rare books for the school on the side. In 2006, his hobby became a full-time profession.

Now he does contract work for the university and for international book collectors. He’s bound an early edition of Captain Cook’s Voyages, made a protective box for original copies of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and refurbished a copy of Sir Isaac Newton‘s second work, Opticks, to name a few.

– “During the Medieval production of books, where they used materials we’d never consider using now, they’d use vellum [animal skin] as the page. The skins would be cured in lime, stretched on frames and scraped. Every single book was handwritten.

– “It was actually monks who were transcribing books by hand in the Medieval period. The oldest libraries are monastic. I went to one in Patmos, Greece. It’s on a tiny island dominated by this massive fortress, built to protect the city from pirate attacks, and it dates back to the 11th century. They’re housing the earliest stuff, including handwritten Gospel manuscripts. 

– “Anything that has skin can be used to bind a book. In fact, according to an old English binder, a book containing the proceedings of a trial where a man was hanged was bound in the prisoner’s skin. It’s possible this could have happened as late as the early 19th century, but I’m guessing it was earlier than that. You started to see books, especially during periods were death was common, occasionally be bound in human skin. 

– “Books in the 15th century were bound with wooden boards, the cords that sections were sewn on were robust, often leather or linen cord, sewn on double cords, lending to excellent strength. Fast forward 200 years later, it’s a single cord, wrapped around once. Now, paperbacks will actually be trimmed and glued, no sewing is involved at all. Older books will outlast paperbacks for centuries. A paperback might not survive 30 years. 

– “England was the perfect place for book binding. The high humidity ensured leather wouldn’t get too dry, and gold leafing could stick to the covers. But Edmonton’s different. This winter, I put a door on my finishing room, wrapped the windows and cranked the humidity to 70 per cent. The walls were dripping and I thought I was destroying my house, but it worked. 

– “In the old days, every aspect of book binding would be done by different craftsmen, who specialized in that area – from making the paper to the making of the tools that design the cover of the book. The finishers [who designed the covers] would be the cool kids. Because no matter how beautifully a book opens and how wonderfully the pages drape, it’s the design that people notice. On some books, I’ve spent several months just designing the cover.

– “I have one large press that was made recently by Amish people, who use the same techniques in forging as craftsmen did in the 19th century. So even though the press isn’t from the 19th century, it’s a 19th-century press. They forge [shape] the cast iron and no electricity is involved.

– “I like the idea that not only am I using materials from the period, I’m using the same techniques. It probably doesn’t make a difference in the end result, but in my mind, I’m being true to the craft, so to speak.”

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