How I Became a Conservator: The Books Found Me.


 "How did you get into restoring old books?" This is probably one of the most common questions I receive when meeting people, and one of the hardest questions to answer. To be honest books have always found me; I didn't set out to be a conservator or bookbinder; I answered a call.

As a child I was the kid who stayed in my room reading rather than playing outside with the neighborhood kids. I took a book with me everywhere I went, even up through college, so I could read in any spare moment I had. I took my first bookbinding class 16 years ago while earning my undergraduate at BYU in Provo Utah, I learned how to restore books 12 years ago while working a part-time job at Utah State University Special Collections Library Conservation Lab:  I was earning my MFA in printmaking, a young husband and father, and I needed some cash. After graduating I taught  bookbinding as an art professor. Then I taught bookbinding workshops while running a printmaking studio. Then I restored books while working for an old friend in his garage-turned-studio. Finally, one day I stopped resisting and and answered the call; I realized I am a conservator and book binder. All those years of searching for a career, I'd already been building one. Four years ago, my wife and I started Eidolon House, a rare book restoration business; the search was finally over.

I do this work for my love of being an artist and making beautiful things, for my love of preserving history through books and old documents, for my life long relationship with books. But mostly I got into restoring books because they wouldn't let me do anything else.

Book Restoration: Rice & Wheat Paste

Almost every book we've read about bookbinding or book restoration shares a recipe for wheat paste, and they all differ from each other.  Probably because it isn't rocket science to make a sticky paste using water and flour.  

We're going to share our recipe and what works for us!  We're also going to talk about the different uses for rice and wheat paste.


One of the best qualities of rice and wheat paste is that it is extremely affordable!  We bought a small bag of rice flour (image below) two years ago for 88 cents at the Asian market, and I expect we'll get another year or so use from it.  This helps offset other expensive materials we use such as bookbinding leather.   


The other and more obvious great quality about rice and wheat paste is that it's archival and completely reversable:  A very good quality to have, especially for conservationists.  Paste also gives you a long working time because it doesn't dry immediately, whereas glue grabs instantly; so for some proceedures this long working time makes life much easier. 

Recipe: Rice and/or Wheat Paste.

  • 1 part flour (refined rice or wheat flour).
  • 8 - 9 parts water.
  • Microwave in a glass  ramekin until paste becomes translucent and begins to thicken.  Make sure to stop and stir a few times so your paste doesn't get lumps.  The paste will thicken as it cools.  

It's that simple!  We usually make 1/4 tsp flour to 2 tsp water in a small ramekin (with 20 - 30 seconds of microwave time), and it usually lasts for a full day of restoration projects.  We've found it unnecessary to make a big batch in a pot over the stove as it's traditionally talked about, and a double boiler is unnecessary too.  We like to start with a new clean batch every morning, so we don't make it in bulk.  Of course if you're planning on making pudding or Alfredo sauce for dinner later, I'd say make a big batch!  Why not get a jump start on dinner! ;) 

All pastes aren't equal and so we use them differently depending on the project we're working on.  Rice paste is superior for repairing torn paper, repairing wtih Japanese tissue, and guarding signatures, because it dries transparent.  

When we're working on an historical binding that requires paste washed leather we'll usually use wheat paste because it is a little stickier, not to mention more historically accurate.  

I have heard it argued that one should always use rice paste or only make wheat paste from cake flour as these have a lower gluten content, which theoretically is a favorite food of bookworms.  However, I have several objections to this theory.  First, nothing in my examination of historical bindings seems to bear this out:  Bookworms seem fairly non-discriminate in their diet, and thousands of books bound traditionally with wheat paste have never been touched by the dreaded bookworm.  Second, all our fine bindings are destined for the hands of people who love books, know how to take care of them, and would never let a bookworm near them in the first place. Third, I have a knee jerk reaction against anything gluten free.   

Contemporary binders tend to rely on modern glues, but paste can open up a whole new world for you.  I'd say give it a try!  We'll save the talk about glues vs. pastes for another day!


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Crossing the Bench: Books, Lead Type, & Leather Goods.

The past couple weeks have been crazy busy!  Can I just say when you enjoy what you do for a living, one's quality of life truly improves!  I can't say enough how happy we are working together in our small little apartment studio.  We're not rich; we have a long way to go to meet our career goals regarding this business, but we're loving the journey, and I believe this kind happiness is truly important.

Joseph has been busy restoring old books, and making clamshell boxes!  He even made time to rebind his personal set of scriptures; he's been working on rebinding his scriptures for like six months now.  I'm sure fellow craftsmen experience what I call crafter's remorse:  The feeling of guilt when one works on personal projects.  I'm happy he finished his, because now he's going to rebind mine!

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A friend of ours from Utah emailed us a few weeks ago asking us to make a wallet for her husband's birthday.  We were so excited that she asked us to do this!  She sent us specifications and we got to work.

The wallet was made in nude calf, dye in cordovan, hand-sewn with black nylon thread, and Joseph worked his magic with a wood burning tool, drawing the compass rose on the back, and stamped initials on the front.  We have a lot of fun type, so please, send us those requests! 

We took a day to cut out a bunch of patterns of our wallets and a larger wallet we just designed, and then we treed and marbled the leather cut outs!  It was a lot of work to cut and dye them, and then the process of treeing and marbling made for a very long day and night. 

Friday morning we woke up early to get a jump start on the day.  Joseph was in the middle of a couple restoration projects, and I had a bunch of wallets to sew.  After breakfast, Joseph was setting type to stamp a title on the spine of the clamshell.  The tray was pulled out of our type rack; Joe turned around for a split second when our cat Willow jumped up, landed on the tray, and the whole thing flipped over and landed upside down on the floor!  Our jaws dropped, Joe yelled out just a couple choice words, and Willow took off and hid for the rest of the day.

We've had a lot of fun designing and making our leather goods!  The black wallet is gorgeous; the leather is so pretty, it's fastened together with blackened rivets.  I'm really excited about our larger wallet:  It's made to fit a passport, credit cards, and cash of course.  This one is our first one that I made.  I had Joseph tool the large chevron pattern on the front and back; I've already filled it and am excited to put it to use! 

We hope y'all have had a fantastic week and an even better weekend!