Tyler Harding believes you can judge a book by its cover. Checking old volumes for artistic details like marbleizing and gold-leaf designs, the Woodbine resident recognizes the expertise that goes into the art of bookbinding -- it's his hobby.
"I'm a long, long way from the perfection of a bookbinding artist," said the 50-year-old federal security officer. Nonetheless, Harding keeps striving for perfection, having put together about 50 books -- many of them vintage volumes purchased from yard sales.
"I always have had a love of books; I have a huge collection of them," Harding said. The bookbinder is particularly interested in books about U.S.
history and gets satisfaction from repairing books "that are still enjoyable to read."
Harding's interest in bookbinding began 10 years ago when his two daughters, Darcey and Nicole, now 16 and 13 years old, had read their favorite stories so many times their books were showing wear and tear.
"All of these good books that they loved were falling apart," he said.
"I made some simple repairs. My daughters still have them."
Nine years ago, Harding lived in Frankfurt, Germany, for two years with his wife, Jocelyne, and their two daughters. While in the city, he stumbled upon a small book shop and was delighted to discover a bookbinder, whom he befriended.
"He showed me a lot of techniques and gave me some tutorials," Harding said. As a result, Harding made frequent visits to Paris, which he describes as the "mecca of bookbinding," where he purchased materials for his projects.
When he returned to the United States in 1985, Harding took a beginners course in bookbinding and repairing at the Smithsonian Institute. His first project was to bind a collection of poems and essays written by a friend about her family history -- 24 copies were made by Harding.
Since then, several similar projects -- personal writings of friends, family histories, a guest book and a garden book published by the Cattail River Garden Club of Glenwood -- have followed. Harding usually charges $15 to $40 a book, depending on its complexity and the amount of work involved.
Professional binders, he said, charge anywhere from from $15 to $300 a book. Leather covers, specialized print and gold tooling can boost the cost.
The process is divided into two steps: "forwarding," which is the sequence of steps necessary for putting a book together; and "finishing," the final step of embellishing the book with a title and designs, which can be more difficult.
"If you screw it up, you can ruin hours and hours of work," Harding said. "Decorating the outside can be very costly. A set of type (letters used to print the title) can be $300 or $500, depending on the style of lettering."
Right now, Harding doesn't believe he is ready to invest that much money. He does, however, aspire to improve his skills and to work more with leather covers and gold tooling.
"It can take from two to three hours to five days to bind a book," he said.
In Harding's basement workshop, rolls of hand-painted marbleized paper crowd the work area. Harding orders the large sheets from an artist in Pennsylvania. The papers are used for the "endpapers" in the front and back sections of a book.
The bookbinder's equipment is simple. It includes a sewing frame on which folded papers called signatures are stacked one on top of the other and hand-sewn to linen strips. Harding also uses a Plough -- a metal cutter used to trim the book's edges; and a book press, which applies two tons of pressure to the bound book while it is drying. Numerous hand tools include a bookbinding hammer, used to tap the sewn book into a domed shape before applying the cover; needles, for sewing the book together; and brushes, for applying glue to the inside covers.
Although Harding says today's bookbinding is "avant-garde," he has no intention of tackling contemporary techniques until he has mastered the fundamentals of the traditional styles of binding. And that requires more books to work on.
When he is not binding books from scratch, he is repairing them -- such as the French cookbook, published in 1930, that was repaired for a friend who wanted to preserve her mother's favorite recipes.
A special book on Harding's list of repairs is the "Regimental History Book," published in 1890 about the Civil War. Harding discovered the volume at a Civil War book fair in Fairfax, Va., last year. It has particular significance to him because it contains a photograph of his great-great-grandfather, a member of the First Massachusetts Calvary during the 1860s. Harding knew the book existed because a copy of it belonged to his family. However, the picture of his ancestor had been cut out of the family copy.
Harding said two copies were at the book fair -- one selling for $300; the other, which was missing its cover, was purchased by him for $150.
"I was pleased as punch to buy that," he said.
Several old family Bibles have also been repaired by the bookbinder.
"To do something by hand and say, 'I did that'. . . . I take great pride in the finished product," he said.