Field Trip

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True Artisan: the Craft of Bookbinding

One of the best things about my job is that I get to work with so many interesting people in fields wildly different than my own. Whether digital or old-school analog, virtually every project requires the involvement of some other specialist who has perfected their craft.

I’m currently working with a long-time client—Ornamento—on a project that required sourcing a custom fabric substrate for foil stamping. Creating the substrate is a very manual process that requires the use of bookbinding materials and methods. Definitely not something that’s available off the shelf.

After some asking around, I found Klaus at Pettingell Bookbindery. I was immediately impressed by his willingness to use his expertise for a project that was quite different and more time consuming than his regular work, which is producing small runs of books and fabric bound boxes. He was even kind enough to allow me to visit his shop in Berkeley, see the process of creating the fabric substrate, and ask him a few questions about the trade.

Pettingell Book Bindery Exterior

Klaus’ studio on Bancroft Way in Berkeley

His studio, located in a retail space on Bancroft Way in Berkeley, is quite unsuspecting for being so close to the Cal State campus. The streets are bustling with students on their way to class or studying in coffee shops. So imagine my surprise when I stepped through the door, bell jingling, to find a quiet space filled to the brim with material samples, stacks of paper, and heavy duty machinery. Klaus waved from the back and greeted me with a gentle smile and German accent that I recognized from our phone conversations.

Bookbinding is a time-honored craft, one that requires much specialized knowledge of materials, process, and machinery. Klaus was born and raised in Germany and began his career as an apprentice for two years in Leipzig from 1972-76 before moving on as a journeyman for an additional 4 years. He then went on to study for two years in Munich and graduated with two master’s degrees in bookbinding. His diploma hangs prominently over the desk inside the front door declaring in calligraphic letters that he’s recognized by the Chamber of Commerce in the State of Bavaria.

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Klaus’ studio was piled high with interesting objects and materials.

After moving to the US, he bought Pettingell from its original owners in 1994. The bookbindery has been housed in three different locations and in operation since 1926. Klaus is the fifth owner of the shop.

The thing I most loved about Klaus was the outlook he has about his work. Even though a lot of his business is being overshadowed by digital production methods, he has an incredibly positive attitude and love for his craft. “No matter the project, I do the best I can do to make my customers happy and create an amazing finished product.” For him it truly is about the love of doing a good job with the skills and knowledge that he has. A man after my own heart.

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This is Klaus.

He then explained to me the process he was going through to create the substrate for my project. He had cut pieces of custom-ordred binding fabric down to a stack of about 500 11×17” sheets. The next step was to run two pieces of the stiff fabric through a machine with heated rollers that evenly coated the backing of each sheet with bookbinding glue. Next, he adhered the two sheets to both sides of an equally sized piece of cardstock. A quick once-over with the palms and forearms to smooth out any wrinkles or bubbles, and voila—one down, 499 to go!

I then asked Klaus if I could give it a go, and he obliged. I fed the fabric through the heated rollers, which grabbed the sheet and spit it quickly out the other side. I had to be mindful which fingers I used to touch the paper, so as not to smudge the finished side of the substrate. I carefully lined up the corners of the fabric and card stock and smoothed out the sheet. It reminded me of making spray-mounted mockups as I so often do for clients, only in a much larger quantity. I could see how the task could become serenely meditative once in the groove of things. On my second sheet, I smudged some glue on one side. “I’ll write your name on that one,” he said laughing. The man has a great sense of humor.

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When asked about the future of his trade, Klaus was optimistic. “The craft is evolving to get along with the technological changes that are happening,” he said. One example comes to mind: a bookbindery in San Francisco recently invented an iPad case made with traditional bookbinding materials and methods. “I’m confident that younger people will move up through the trade,” said Klaus, noting that many young people still study the craft of bookbinding in Germany today.

One thing’s for sure, I would never have been able to figure this out on my own, and I will be trying to find ways to utilize Klaus’ services for future projects!

Pettingell Bookbindery is located at 2181 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704. Visit him online, and keep him in mind if you’re ever in the market for a bookbinder!

*Special thanks to my friend Travis Lull for coming along with me for this field trip and snapping photos while I tried my hand at the process!
Posted April 8, 2014 by Chris Fettin

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