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Monday, August 5, 2013

A bit about my beginning in bookbinding...

From the time as a young child, even before ten years old, I can remember being intrigued with how books “work” and the different ways in which they are made. I remember one day explaining to some fellow grade school classmates why the “Readers Digest” books never fall apart like other books! I think everyone who learns the answer to that question feels as though they’ve discovered a previously unknown phenomenon!

At 15 years old I had narrowed down what I felt were my three favorite career choices. 1. A Chef. 2. A Preacher. 3. A Bookmaker. And by “Bookmaker” I mean to say a “bookbinder” and not the trade that is involved in horse racing. For my 16th birthday, my grandmother, Olive, gave me a lovely scrapbook album as a present. I [still] have that album on my bookshelf. I remember her telling me that she felt my love for books had the ability to take me far in life. After all, I had just been professionally published a year earlier with a lovely history of my hometown. It sold throughout 15 states in America!

I took my grandmothers advice, and while working various odd jobs to earn spending money, as teenagers do, I studied books about bookbinding, and practiced repairing and binding books as time permitted. I found the work not only gratifying, but it also appeased my natural love for preserving history and my tendency to explore and learn how things work, and the different ways to re-create them. I progressed quickly with bookbinding, but did not make a regular income from it until I reached the age of nineteen, when a more steady stream of bibles, song books/hymnals, prayer books, etc. were flowing into my little shop in the Amish country of Ohio. I had joined the Amish community about this time, and held additional jobs of saw-mill worker, farmer, and Amish parochial school teacher. The school teaching position paid $535.00 per month (which was the going rate back then) but it was a truly wonderful experience. I think I might have learned more than my pupils in many ways. Those who have known me all my life always say that I am a 'natural born educator.' But my personal long-held belief is that in order to be a great teacher, you have to never stop being a great learner!

I have always loved history. The older and richer the better. All my life I’ve fantasized about living in different eras. And this can actually bring a person more in touch with the era in which they live. When you study historical figures or places enough that you can 'smell them in your mind'’re a true historian!

My deep love for history was a natural prelude to my career in bookbinding, which would follow a path that revolved around the very old and rare books. I was never content to only restore the old and rare books, but always wanted to know more about them. Committing to memory the names, places, dates and ephemeral data about the publishers, the paper, the bindings, etc. As tiring as this might sound, it is a quiz that I’ve matched against myself for thirty years, and, today, I can most often name the publisher and approximate date of a great many books before the cover is opened to reveal it. Provided the binding is original, of course. I’ve been told since I was very young that I have a photographic memory. I just hope it holds out long enough to write all the books that are in my head!

From the time I was 16, I made notes regarding binding structures when I examined them. A few years later, as I began to receive restoration projects for quite rare European bibles of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (mostly of wooden board structure) I always took extremely detailed notes of every single aspect of the structure. Right down to the caliper of the sewing thread and text paper. This study is what allowed me to begin re-creating period-bindings that had the same swell, board attachment, and cover action, etc. 

The story continues later.........

Below is a photo of myself in a famous [private] Mennonite library, for whom I restored a great many rare old tomes of European origin. This picture was taken over 20 years ago! The owner asked me to pencil-in my signature and some other interesting details. The book I’m signing is a 1548 Frocschauer Bible [quarto]. Very, very rare.

Michael L. Chrisman, Bookbinder
A Private Mennonite Library, ca. 1992
I'm writing the text in the old-fashioned
German long-hand! I used to teach my
Amish School children how to write this.


  1. I forgot to mention...if you look in the background [middle-left], behind the blue notebook on the table, you'll see a brown leather-bound book with bright brass fixtures on it. This is a historic wooden board binding I made for this collector on a reprint/facsimile of a bible he published. He asked me to leave the brass "bright" as he wanted it to age naturally. Now, after 20 years, I'm assuming it has aged a little. This highly respected gentleman collector is now very old, and he is to be commended for his efforts over the decades to pull together such a collection of Mennonite books.

  2. What a truly inspiring story! You are a great educator Michael, it shows clearly in your wonderful support and encouragement for us apprentice bookbinders. Thank you for sharing your experience, I look forward to reading more of your fascinating bookbinding journey on the blog!

  3. Thank you Teo, you're very kind! For me, the most important thing is to contribute whatever I can to the future of the craft. I'll share many experiences, and hope they are not too boring for people to read! Your work is DELICIOUS, and I hope you never stop! Some day I must order one of your books. Thanks again, and please keep in touch! ~ With my best to you, Michael