It’s late on a cold Sunday afternoon, the November sky edging from deep blue to black, and Samuel Feinstein is getting ready to work.
A cup of milky coffee in hand, he putters about his Logan Square garden unit that doubles as his bookbinding workshop, inventorying a variety of obscure and Medieval-looking tools—bone folders, wood-handled awls, a 1,300-pound cast iron press—that have been slowly acquired over the years, mostly from retiring bookbinders.
In an era of Skype, Slack and high-priority emails, Feinstein’s work is slow, deliberate and exquisite. It is solitary, a bit monastic, even. And it hasn’t changed much in the past 500 years. It could be done by candlelight, if needed.
Feinstein’s path to a career in bookbinding has been long and, at times, painful. He was riding his bike to class one day as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he was hit by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Plagued by severe headaches that still bother him, he was forced to abandon his studies and began the search for something else to do with his life.
While looking up some Latin manuscripts that he had studied as a Classics major, he found the website for the North Bennet Street School, one of the nation’s leading schools for training in the trades and fine craftsmanship. And it just clicked for Feinstein, who realized he could continue to work with books but by using his hands instead of his head. He works as a private-practice bookbinder today in Logan Square, specializing in fine and design binding.
LoganSquarist interviewed Feinstein about the inside world of bookbinding, his favorite books that he’s worked on and how the digital age has affected the craft. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What was your training like to become a bookbinder?
The North Bennet Street School program started with Coptic bookbinding and Italian long stich, non-adhesive binding structures from the 1300’s to the 1500’s. Then you move onto case bindings, which is pretty much the way any hardcover book at a bookstore is bound. You learn how to fold sections and sew through the folds, different cover materials. A lot of the program is focused on producing bindings and then making more and more and more of them until you get good.
What is it like to work as a bookbinder?
There are different career paths. Some people work at institutions as conservators and technicians. Others work as private-practice book binders, doing restorations and new bindings. Some do more artist books.
For me, I knew I wanted to do something that involved even just a tiny bit of working in leather and doing gold tooling. After I found out that bookbinding was a thing, I went to the Newberry Library every week or so so I could look at their collection and just kind of see what had been done, the structure and decoration. The same way an art student would go to an art museum and do sketches, that’s what I did with books—just going through their collection and seeing what had been done.
My favorite book there is a book of common prayer from 1642. It’s a small book, 8.5 inches by 5 inches or so, and it’s just covered in gold and different colored leather onlays. There are thousands of impressions on it. I went back and probably pulled that book 10 times. That book got me thinking… this would be really cool to work on.
“In the technological age we live in, there is a lot of beauty in making something with your hands.”
What’s your practice like today?
I do fine bindings and design bindings… new bindings that are meant to be luxurious and take your breath away. I work with private collectors and dealers as well as some institutions. I did a binding for the Newberry Library for their Shakespeare exhibit and worked on a book from 1505 on French provincial law for the University of Iowa Law Library. [That particular book] didn’t open without cracking, it was really in a poor state. I took the board and spine off and I put a binding on it that would be consistent with 1505 France. So, wooden boards, calf skin leather. I did a design that was keeping with the time and antiqued it.
I also worked on a set of Blackstone’s Commentaries that had been rebound in this gross fake purple leather with faux marbled paper. Those bindings had no place on that four-volume set—you don’t want a bright, flashy binding on a book from 1700’s. So, I put in bindings that were more harmonious. But, in general, if a book is in the original binding and has a lot of bibliographic value to it, I won’t [alter] it. I’m not trying to erase the history of a book.
In general, if a book is in the original binding and has a lot of bibliographic value to it, I won’t [alter] it. I’m not trying to erase the history of a book.
What are the different techniques you use in fine binding?
There are paste papers and marbling and onlays and inlays, which introduce different leathers onto the binding. There are also leather dyes, and you can incise the leather and paint the incision with gold or acrylics in a number of different ways. Some people will cut out parts of the board and play with the way light comes through and the shadows that form on the board. Recently, some people are even experimenting with things like pop-up engineering and embedding LED lights.
What are some of your favorite books you have worked on?
I have a few favorites. One was a book of the poem “Into This World” by Natalie Goldberg, which had been printed and illustrated in a really gorgeous text with a color palette of soft blues and pale pinks. The binding I ended up doing used a nice light blue leather, then I added the phases of the moon from the back cover to the front cover, with some lines with waves and the waves being pulled up by the moon.
Another favorite was a book on 12 centuries of bookbinding, from 1200 to 1600. My binding was a commentary on the history of bookbinding. I did a very elaborate bone tool design on both covers. But on the front cover, there is a stark line where I went from blind tooling (which does not have any kind of leaf) to gold, to show the impact of gold tooling, which came into fashion around 1300.
What are you working on today?
One thing I am really excited that I’m starting on is a first printing of Thomas Paine’s Public Good, since he is kind of relevant in the political atmosphere these days. I’m also working on a collection of letters from John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson and have a binding coming up for a pretty significant artist book that was printed in the early 1900s, which will go on a travelling show with 15 other books.
What’s the most interesting or unusual book you have ever bound?
There was one book I worked on from the 1700s. The title was in Latin, but the translation was something along the lines of “The Medical Uses of Flogging.”
Do you ever get nervous working on a rare or historically important book?
I did do some tooling on a second folio of Shakespeare once, although someone else had done the binding. But not really. I know I have the hand skills to do it.
What’s the book binding community like?
It’s a fun and rowdy crew [laughs]. It’s a small community, we’re all a little odd in our own ways. A lot of us work alone and that’s a perk for most of us. There is a conference every year that about 150 people attend where we get to see each other. One of my friends from the North Bennet Street School, Marianna Brotherton, also practices here in Chicago.
What do you say about doing bookbinding in a world that is increasingly digital?
When it comes to custom hand-bound books, there has been more demand for them in recent years. There are quite a few avid collectors, people who have made their money elsewhere and really love holding and appreciating a finely bound book. It’s art but it’s different than a painting. You are handling it—you can open it, it’s more interactive. I love the experience and being part of it.
In the technological age we live in, there is a lot of beauty in making something with your hands. It’s tangible, it’s not ethereal. It’s kind of nice to be able to sit back and look and what you did, and say ‘I like that. I enjoyed making it. I can do it better next time.’
See Samuel’s portfolio and services here.
Featured photo: Samuel Feinstein