Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A Favourite Book

'Every Girl's Alphabet' published by Artists Choice Editions in 2010. This is a most delightful book: an alphabet book, with each letter presenting an aspect of contemporary life from a young girl's perspective: V: "Every girl will Voice her Views".  The colours are quite stunning. It was produced in a limited edition of just 240 standard copies by Artists Choice Editions , each numbered & signed by Kate Bingham, and artist, Luke Martineau at a very reasonable price. I like this book, as the pictures remind me of my very independent nine-year old granddaughter.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Designer Bookbindings

Designer Binding by Dutch artist, Jacqueline Sanders

Designer book bindings are a creative fusion of bookbinding craft and art. The bookbinders who produce this beautiful work are also likely to be engage in a range of craft binding and paper conservation tasks. This can be standard ‘bread ‘n butter’ repair or restoration work on old books, as well as commission binding for private press publishers, plus a host of other work.

However, design binding is very special for them, as it gives an opportunity for creativity and inventiveness. The bindings and design behind them are unique and usually commissioned by book collectors with a love for a particular book in their collection – to the extent that they desire it to be bound in a special and very individual way. It is then, a commissioned ‘labour of love’ for the craft worker on behalf of the collector.

The book concerned may be a standard trade edition – one of thousands produced by a publisher – but is more likely to be an unbound copy produced by a fine or private press publisher. These fine press books are usually produced in very limited numbers – and a design binding makes it very special, and highly collectable.

Designer binding by Phillip Smith; book: 'Moby Dick'

The materials used by the binder vary, but typically would include leather, wood, marbled and other decorated papers or board. However, a commission can give considerable opportunity to a binder to experiment with materials and ideas.

These commissions can be expensive, and a designer binding – in full leather by a reputable binder – can cost the book collector at least £1000, and often much more if the binder has achieved a prize-winning reputation. But the book collector is paying for the binder’s creativity, craft skill, and time – and these books often take weeks to produce.

But they rarely decline in value – quite the opposite – and make wonderful gifts or family heirlooms.

Designer bookbinding for 'London - Twenty Poems'. Bookbinder: Stephen Conway

The creative inspiration for the designer bookbinder is the book itself.  To demonstrate this point, let me take book illustrated, above.

The book, which is part of my own collection, is ‘London – Twenty Poems’, written originally by the British poet, Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). These were re-published in limited numbers by The Tern Press, UK, in 2006.

Gurney’s poems capture the essence of early 20th century London, and the black and white photographs that accompany the poems reflect the past, and in particular the changing moods of the capital city at that time.

The bookbinder, Stephen Conway, gained inspiration from both the poems and the way they were presented in the book – and most designer binders work in this way. Sometimes they will pick a particular literary or illustrative symbol from the book and use this as a leading motif for their design.

In this case, Stephen used vellum panels with images and lettering underneath, to present the title, ‘London’, across the front and rear boards (see photo above). The overall effect is a counterpoint to the black and white images in the book. Red leather strips separate each panel and frame them within the fore edges of the book. Like all designer bookbinders, Stephen has signed and dated his work on one of the end papers. The book is contained in a red protective case, shown in the photograph below.

Designer binders, like Stephen, aim to produce a finished work that is both visually attractive, holistic in its relationship to the subject matter, and also extremely tactile. I love handling this book.

I like the feel of the leather, the smell of the vellum, as well as the overall look of it. I also admire Ivor Gurney’s poetry, so the combination of limited edition book, fine poetry, creative design, and beautiful craftsmanship was irresistible to me. I am a book seller, but I will be in no hurry to sell this item; I will enjoy its company for an extended period until it passes to a good and appreciative final home.

Not all binders, however, are guided by the contents or subject matter of a book. Some might focus, for example, on the book title alone to guide the design. The finished work may bear no relation to the contents, or the overall subject matter of the text, but will, nevertheless, make a strong visual external impact or statement about the designer’s work.

To encourage innovation and creativity in bookbinding, the UK based Designer Bookbinders, a professional Society for the trade organises competitions, both international and for British binders (see link below). The International Competition is organised in association with the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and attracts entries from across the world. The Society has affiliate links to other related organisations around the world, so will also help you find a designer bookbinder in your home country.

The Folio Society is the main sponsor of the UK based competition and over the years has given the opportunity to binders to gain wider recognition for their work and to become Fellows of the Society. The competition element also encourages binders to push at the boundaries of their craft by experimenting with new materials and creative approaches to presenting books in visually attractive and challenging ways.

Binding by US artist, Timothy Ely, for a book of Andrew Marvell poems, using goatskin (spine), birch boards covered with resin, wax, red metallic foil, garden soil and insects!

More information

Designer Bookbinders website here.

You can check out my website on ABE.Com here.

Wood Engravings

Wood Engraving by Francois Marechal

Wood engraving as we know it today involves cutting finely into a wood block so that the etched image stand out in relief on the end grain. When the surface of the block is coated with ink, the raised surface of the block appears as black when pressed hard into paper, whilst the wood below shows as white on the paper.

The image can be cut by reference to the image in front of the engraver, or the image can be traced onto the block and cuts made into it (bearing in mind the relief nature of the final printed images).

Woodcuts are different from wood engraving, in that a woodcut is cut into plank wood, whereas wood engraving is done by etching into the end grain box or other hard wood. The former tends to produce broader images that incorporate the wood grain, whilst the latter produces work of finer detail.

Book Illustrations,  Bookplates and Prints

Wood engravings are used to illustrate books, and have been widely used in the popular ‘Folio Edition’ series. Wood engravings have been used by Fine Press printers, such as the Canadian Barbarian Press, or the British Whittington Press, to produce fine quality limited edition books, as the small print run can allow the illustrations to be printed directly from the original blocks onto the paper without damaging the wood.

The starkness of wood engravings can add a sombre note, where appropriate to the text, or make the reader look at a landscape, a figure, an animal, with new interest. Wood engraved images can be immediately recognisable for what they are, or surreal in their interpretations of familiar scenes; they can illustrate mythical scenes, make metaphorical points, or used to explore the artist’s own ideas in a stream of consciousness way.

Wood engravings can also be joyful and vibrant in its execution – the work of John Lawrence, for example (above) – can be playful, expressing a joie de vivre in its style, colour and movement. 

Equally, their starkness can be used to good effect for social commentary purposes in books or journals – as the illustration of the five nuns (see below) suggests. The engraver, Hilary Paynter, was inspired to engrave this, with the sardonic title, ‘The Sisters of Little Mercy’, based on the unhappy experiences of her sister-in-law, who attended a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. The dark habits of the nuns lent themselves to the stark tones of the wood engraving.

Wood engravings are a popular medium to create distinctive bookplates, and engravers will work closely with a commissioning reader to produce Ex Libris plates that express something of the reader’s personality or interests (see example below).

Wood engravings are also produced as original or limited edition prints. Traditional and recognisable rural scenes are very popular as prints, but metaphorical interpretations of land, sea or animal life, in its relationship to mankind, have made a big impact in recent years. The Russian engravers, Rudolf Kopylov, and Vitaly Moiseev, and Polish engraver, Hubert Borys (see example below), for example, make powerful statements about mankind and environment through their work.

 Wood engravers are artists who often work with other art mediums, although there is a particular link and affinity between wood and linocuts, sculpture, calligraphy and printing.

Eric Gill (1882-1940) for example worked with stone, was a calligrapher, typography designer, and wood engraver. Wood engraving then, can be part of the artist repertoire of an artist and used to create a particular effect.


Most wood engravers work in black and white, although, as seen already in this article, colour has been used in wood engraving for centuries, using a number of separate but interconnected blocks inked with different colours; a technique that is still used to this day. A range of engraved materials can be used to combine the colours, including lino cuts, Perspex and other synthetic materials. This can reduce the cost of printing, as box or other similar woods can be expensive to use.

Another method is to use just one block for the entire print. The print is made first in one colour, then more of the wood is removed in stages and subsequent colours over-printed. The use of coloured papers adds another colour dimension to the equation.

The flower image shown below is ‘Chatham Island Forget-Me-Not’, by Ron Hubbard, using boxwood, Perspex and linoleum.

More Information

The UK based Society of Wood Engravers has links from their site to related organisations in North America and elsewhere, as well as to suppliers of materials for wood engraving, fine press publishers, galleries and engravers who are members of the organisation. You can find their website here.

Woodbine Books: You can check out the wood engraved books I have for sale at my site on here.

Fine Press Books

Fine Press (or ‘Private Press’) books are printed in limited numbers, sometimes just as few as 12, but more typically around 200-300 copies. Often, within this limited print run, there will be a number of ‘special’ editions produced – with fine bindings, often in quarter, half or full leather.

They are published by small, independent private press businesses, typically only one or two people, often working from their homes. The books are usually commissioned by the printers, based on their instincts of what will sell (or, idiosyncratically, just what they like to read), printed by hand, then carefully and individually bound together using high quality materials, for example, marbled and hand-made papers, leather, decorated cloth covered boards. The illustrations are often especially produced or gathered for the book and an artist will usually sign the colophon page, along with the author, and sometimes the printer. The book may come with a matching slipcase, and the ‘special’ editions often come with a portfolio of signed prints - see example illustrated above: one of only 150 copies, with a separate print signed by the artist, Rigby Graham..

I like the independence of these fine press printers. They never know if a book will sell, so it takes guts to do what they do. Most are interesting characters with a story to tell. And after a few pints, or glasses of wine, they will tell it.

Fine Press books commemorating the life and work of well-known artists are particularly popular, but you will find limited edition books in a wide range of subjects, with a predominance towards the arts and humanities. My own particular favourites are books illustrated with wood engravings.

The books can be expensive. But many of them are highly collectable, as once the print run has been sold, there is no second or subsequent printing. In an age of mass production they stand out from the crowd.

There is a growing niche market for these books. The people who buy them love books – as I do.
They love handling them, are drawn to the illustrations, and admire quality of the typography and binding. They will often pay a high price to collect a book that is long out of print.

The longer the book is out of print, the more attractive the binding, the more interesting the contents, then, generally, the higher the price it commands on the second-hand market.

There are four main ways to acquire fine press books.

First,  you can buy them new from the printer. A recognised book dealer will usually pay a trade price for the books, but the printer will usually expect the dealer to buy more than one copy, unless it is a 'special' edition. You are advised to join a professional booksellers association, such as the PBFA, and to keep in regular contact with the printers. This will give you credibility and build trust between you and the printer. Pay your bill from the printer promptly and you will have a friend for life.

Once you have bought the books you can decide either to wait until the book is out of print before offering it to sale, or including it as a new item in your catalogue. You might ask though, why buy a new fine press book from a dealer, when you could buy it new from the printer? The reason is that your customer may not have heard of the printer, but does know you - they may have bought books from you in the past, and discover the book on your site or on your online site at a book fair where you are exhibiting. If you do decide to sell it new, I would advise you to sell it at the printer's recommended selling price, rather than an inflated one of your own. Why? Because if your customer subsequently learns that the book could have been bought for a cheaper price direct from the printer, you will be in their bad books. (see section on 'Pricing').

If you decide to wait until the book is out of print, then this is a long game and the dealer may have to wait years for this to happen. I have some fine press books I bought ten years ago that are still on sale direct from the printer, so there is no guarantee of selling these books at a profit. But this is where the bookseller skill comes in - judging which books are likely to go out of print quickly, and buying enough of them. I am still learning.

Second, you can buy fine press books from book dealers. A book seller who specialises in selling them will have a good idea about their selling value, so you may find there is little profit margin for you if you wanted to re-sell the book in the short term. But other more general book dealers can offer bargains - if you hunt around for them. Book fairs can still be good places to find fine press books. And the bigger the fair sometimes the bigger the bargain, because of the fierce competition in the sales hall. At the larger fairs you often have100+ dealers all competing for business.
My website link is here.

Third, you can find these books at the better auction houses. You would need to search auction house online and printed catalogues, and get to know the auction house book specialists to build a working relationship with them. If they know you are interested, they can let you know when these books are put into sales. You can find these books too, on general online auctions, such as Ebay.

Fourth, you can buy them from individual book collectors. Many of my best acquisitions have been made this way. I have a note on my website to the effect that I am always interested in buying these books - and will pay a fair price for them. This is important, as the owners of these books know their value. They understand that a book dealer must make a profit on them - but will want to be offered a price in line with their worth. Negotiating a price can be tricky sometimes, but the combination of experience of the book dealer - and pragmatism of the seller - can usually see a deal made to the satisfaction of both parties.

Introduction to Woodbine Books

Woodbine Books is my trade name. The 'Woodbine' in the title is not the rough-cut cigarettes much favoured in the early to mid 20th century, but the greener, climbing, tenacious variety you find in gardens, particularly mine.

I've been a bookseller for 18 years and am a member of the UK book trade associations: PBFA, FPBA, and also the Private Libraries Association. This means I  abide by a professional code of conduct in relation to fair and knowledgeable market prices, accurate descriptions of books, efficient communication with customers, and secure mail packaging. 

I'm based in West Yorkshire and work from home. Right now, I'm looking across to a rain drenched Ilkley Moor. I sell my books almost exclusively online, currently via, and because many of my books are fine press and limited editions, I rarely sell them at book fairs, as they can get damaged in the process. This means that my stock remains in very good condition

As just mentioned, I have a special interest in fine art, private press, designer bindings and limited edition books. Books with contemporary wood engravings are a particular favourite of mine.

Wood engraving by Simon Brett
You can visit my Woodbine Books website:  Woodbine Books
I've written a few articles on fine press, designer bindings and wood engravings here on this blog and will be adding to these articles in the months ahead.