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Bookbinding: The Art of the Old and New

In a city that revels in the art of the book, bookbinder Jason Patrician revives and restores the beauty of printed history.

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Jason Patrician, holding some of his hand-marbled paper, which he uses for endpapers and covers on his books. Photo courtesy Jason Patrician.

Jason Patrician is passionate about the ancient art of bookbinding.  Transforming a book that has been brought to him in pieces and making it into a usable book gives him deep satisfaction. If the person bringing him a book for repair appreciates the skill and craft of the process, all the better. “When you have customers who are really involved with the book it means so much to them to see it restored—that’s what drives me,” he says.

Patrician relocated to Portland with his wife, Eleanor, from Providence, Rhode Island, in 2021 and opened his studio The Fish Bindery in Northeast Portland. In Oregon he joins a loose-knit natural community of people of the book. Portland has long been a center for hand-crafted and limited-edition books created by artists. Several businesses including No Reply Press and individual artists such as Shu-Ju Wang have made hand-crafted bookmaking an integral part of their artmaking process.

Cover and custom-made leather enclosure for a 1676 edition of “The Compleat Angler.” Photos courtesy Jason Patrician.

Bookbinding – especially hand-crafted bookbinding — is a natural companion to that. The Fish Bindery is one of several bookbinding businesses in Portland that provide varying services, some specializing in new products, some in handcrafted books, some in commercial or educational binding, and some, like The Fish Bindery, in the fine craft of restoration and repair. Among them are Book Crafts, P-Dinh Oregon Bookbinding, GBI Book Binding, and Bandit Books.

Patrician fits right in. He appreciates the physical challenges of binding books and the heft of holding something beautiful in his hands.  After spending 18 years as a graphic designer, he says, “Its appeal wore off as the industry went digital.” 

So he decided to seek a new career, shifting to one that is far-removed from the mass-market book publishing world. Contemporary book publishing is a sort of machine-driven process that puts stacks of books on bookstore tables and in airport shops. In contrast, Patrician’s bookbinding world is one that goes back thousands of years, with deep roots, and uses exceptional hand technical skills and specific tools. “Hand bookbinding,” The Encyclopedia Britannica declares, “includes the making of fine-tooled bindings, binding reference books and books of special economic or personal value, and the repair of early-printed books, and historical documents.”

Inside Jason Patrician’s studio in Northeast Portland, with large equipment including job backers, board shear, guillotine, and large book press. Photos courtesy Jason Patrician.

In a sense, Patrician’s career change was a travel back in time. The history of bookbinding goes back to the Roman Empire, during the first century CE. By the sixth century CE, scrolls and wax tablets had been completely replaced by the codex in the Western world. The oldest surviving European bookbinding is the St. Cuthbert Gospel, which was completed about 700 CE and is housed in the British Library. In China, the evolution of the codex began in the ninth century CE, during the Tang Dynasty. Bookbinding of decorated leather was first done in monasteries of the Coptic Church in Egypt, going back to the seventh century CE.

With the arrival of rag paper and the printing press in the 15th century, bookbinding began to be more standardized. Today, bookbinding includes the making of fine books as well as the repair of rare manuscripts, early printed books, and historical documents. At The Fish Bindery, Patrician dedicates his craft to the binding, repair, and conserving of old books — and sometimes, to creating a special binding for a favorite book in a customer’s collection.

Patrician’s decision to pursue a career in book binding required a lot of training. He began his quest by taking a marbling class at North Bennet Street School in Boston. He found he enjoyed it, and began exploring the bookbinding field. He then trained for eight years under Ruth Strach in Scituate, Rhode Island.  Upon completion of his training, he opened his own studio in Providence.

One of Patrician’s fine-tooled bindings. Photo courtesy Jason Patrician.

A few years later he and Eleanor visited some friends in Portland, decided they loved the city, and moved here. Patrician says a deciding factor in their move was that people on the West Coast seem more open to the skills and craft of bookbinding than on the East Coast. “I found that my bookbinding services are more appreciated on the West Coast than the East Coast, where it is viewed as more a service,” he says. “That has been one of the appeals of moving to the West Coast.”

On average, Patrician says, a simple book repair takes about two weeks. A larger project can take three to six months. It depends on the condition of the book when it comes to him. The scope of the project is also an important factor in how long it will take. Each client receives an estimate and a detailed treatment plan for the book. The treatment plan states the condition of the book, what is wrong with it, details about the various repair steps, and a materials list.

The most challenging aspect of the bookbinding business, Patrician says, is the estimate and appraisal phase of the job. The pandemic has made things more difficult for him because he cannot visit clients in-person as easily. As a result, many bookbinding and repair assessments have had to be done virtually.

A few of the brass tools Patrician uses for gold-tooling the covers of books. Photo courtesy Jason Patrician.

When Patrician relocated to Portland, his tools of the trade came with him. Among them are a large board shear used for cutting boards, two cast-iron job backers used to round the spine of a book, book presses in a variety of sizes, work benches, and hundreds of hand tools that had to be transported to his new studio in Portland.

Patrician buys his book binding supplies and materials mostly from the East Coast and the United Kingdom. Some of his supplies include bookbinding materials from Talas (New York City), Hollanders (Ypsilanti, Michigan), and leather from Pergamena Leather (Montgomery, New York), Steven Siegel Leather (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), and Hamartan Leather and Hewit Leather, both in the United Kingdom.

The restored notes and protective box that Patrician created for the town notes of Barrington, Rhode Island, 1718-1741. Photos courtesy Jason Patrician.

Like many professions, bookbinding comes with stories. One of Patrician’s favorites occurred when he lived in Barrington, Rhode Island. Someone at the town hall found a very old book that was damaged and had been thrown into a brown paper bag: It turned out to be the earliest notes taken on the town of Barrington, dating back to 1718. What made the project so challenging was that the covers of the book were missing, and the edges and corners were worn away because of the lack of protection from the boards.  Patrician was able to repair the pages of the book and place it in a custom-designed protective box. The cost of the project was shared by the town hall and the local historical society. 

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Three of the ten volumes of “The Book of Wealth,” which Patrician is restoring over the next several months. Photo courtesy Jason Patrician.

Another story relates to Patrician’s current repair of a 10-volume set of books published in the late 1800s. In 1895, each volume sold for $2,500, and the particular set he is working on was originally published for the Vanderbilt family. The covers are made of silk, and each volume has a different hand-painted watercolor illustration insert into each cover. During the restoration process, each watercolor has to be individually removed and re-inserted. To date, this is the largest volume set that Patrician has worked on. He estimates it will take him about four months to complete the project.      

While Patrician is building his bookbinding business in Portland, he is also thinking about training the next generation of bookbinders. He hopes to seek out younger people who are interested in making bookbinding a career. And there’s more broadening out to be done, he believes: In addition to growing his bookbinding business, he would also like to collaborate with historical institutions, libraries, and societies, as well as teach bookbinding.

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history: Historical Photos of Oregon (2010), John Adams (2011), George Flavel (2012) and Glenn Jackson (2014).

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