A visit with Tom Conroy

Tom Conroy holds a small bible - for scale

Tom Conroy holds a small bible – for scale

I went by Tom Conroy’s house on Wednesday after having visited the Robbins Collection at Berkeley Law. Tom and I are going to teach a woodworking for bookbinders class in the fall using a few local wooden-board bindings as models.

Bookbinding often means book repair or rebinding, not just new bindings. Tom has a select clientele that uses him for this, and one customer had left a miniature bible for Tom to repair and rebind. Here you see it in his hands, and below you’ll see it again.

Using a foot-treadle lathe allows Tom to take the time to do woodworking slowly (by our modern electric tool standards). When he was learning how to make finishing presses, he made these small little sample presses. He gave a few away, but kept this one. It was hanging out on the mantle, so I grabbed it and put the little bible in it.



It’s not a very big press. But it wasn’t easier to make – it was harder!

Tom has been at this for a while, yet considers himself a student rather than a master. He’s still perfecting binding craft – both forwarding and finishing as well as becoming a better woodworker. His interest in tools has resulted in the publication of a 20+ year research project about binding tools: Bookbinder’s Finishing Tool Makers 1780-1965Knowledge of the literature is one thing: Tom knows the tools because he has found them in piles of greasy rags, under workbenches, in old wooden boxes, etc. And he has made his own brass tools, knives, saws, awls, fids, etc., and teaches how to make them as well.


He loves using tools – and he likes traditional bindings – even enough to make his own!

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Modern books bound in an historic style – it’s not a common sight. His library shelves are filled with bindings he has done on trade hardbacks that he has purchased, read and bound.

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Just so you know that Tom has a sense of humor and a bit of the risque – as every binder should. 😉 Look at the spine and tooling.

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Here you see Tom bending the book inside-out. A sure sign of a well made book. And a clear freak-out for those that haven’t seen this before.

When we teach, we get a little boisterous with our books when showing how sturdy they are. Our lively interchange keeps students alert while keeping us on our toes.


Medieval Pocketbooks in Oakland

Four people showed up for the Medieval Pocketbook and made steady progress throughout the day.

The text block consisted of six signatures  totaling 96 pages. They folded, punched and sewed on cords.

Punching holes in signatures in preparation for sewing

Punching holes in signatures in preparation for sewing

When that was completed, they pasted up the spine and set the text block aside. The next challenge was to take wooden boards and shape them with a chisel. The shaping is designed to keep the book from being too heavy and remove edges that can hurt the owner or get damaged in use. Two students had never used a chisel before, so they were excited to develop some skill in using this tool.

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Once the boards were shaped, they drilled the boards to accept the cords and cut a channel for the cords to lay in.

A quick lining of the spine with linen helps to consolidate the connection of text block to board attachment.

They chose leather and decided about metal decoration next. In some instances, leather was applied prior to metal, and in others, metal went on the boards first.

Metal selection

Metal selection

As the afternoon wound up, the books were completed to the level each student wanted. (One student wanted to make an exposed model to remind her of the structure).

Notes by Jennie Hinchcliff of RedLetterDayZine

Notes by Jennie Hinchcliff of RedLetterDayZine

Making something from paper, thread, wood, leather and metal gives one insight into the mechanics of the reading machine called “book” and it continues to enthrall the craftsperson that makes one.

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Finished books!

Finished books!

I’ll be doing this again on February 9th, for those that couldn’t make it last Saturday.


BiblioForge.biz begins

National guillotine

This very nice tabletop guillotine took up residence in West Oakland at BiblioForge just yesterday, January 17, 2013 – on Art’s Birthday! Thanks to encouragement from friends like Jennie Hinchcliff, I am realizing a goal I’ve had for a while. Workshop space where books/art are made and classes are taught.

Bookbinding, calligraphy, letterpress, printmaking, papermaking and good ol’ art have long been avocations, professions and passions of mine; and now living in W. Oakland I am embarking on this new effort.

I trained as a scribe, binder, conservator and librarian. I continue to study binding structure and design by looking at books in collections throughout the US. Making books that work well and last while looking good is the focus of my design mindset.

Tomorrow is the first class – The Medieval Pocketbook. Where else are you going to be able to make a wooden-board book in one day? Nowhere but West Oakland! 😉



I made this book in 1992 and used it as my calendar for 1993, putting it in my back pocket and sitting on it, pulling it out to use many times a day. The back cover snapped, so I made a silver panel repair. Then I added the rectangle of nickle silver in the upper right. When the wood cracked near the leather, I put that patch in. Near the ned of the year, the outer corner of the wood broke and I tried to repair it with the brass patch at the top. That didn’t work and I lost the little corner piece. By the time I retired the book that year, it had shown its scars and wear patterns quite well. This is the type of book that we’ll make in the class.

I’m starting off slowly, with this as my first class. I’ve lined up teachers with varied backgrounds as a means of expanding the offerings. Jennie Hinchcliff, Ward Dunham, Jody Alexander, Tom Conroy and Patricia Wakida have committed to classes this spring. In another post I’ll list the schedule for those upcoming classes, and I think it’ll be a lot of fun for students and teachers alike.

In addition to classes, I will be writing about books, history, art and maybe even motorcycles.