Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding
by Wendy Gooditis
photos by Lauri Bridgeforth
Bibliophiles are lovers of books, and there are many of them out there. Sometimes they run in families and enjoy the same book for generations, until it becomes so worn the pages are falling out or mildew or pests are wreaking havoc with the fragile old paper. Thankfully, Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding, north of Winchester, Va., is a haven for much-loved books in desperate need of care. Founded in 1991, the business serves a steady stream of private, institutional and government clients.
The shop is set at the end of a winding lane in a forest. It is a place of peace and retreat: a perfect spot for the practice of an art which has been honed over all the centuries since Guttenberg built that press in 1450. The owner and founder of the book bindery, Jill Deiss, opens a book which is a reproduction of an early 17th century how-to for the book binder. “We use all the tools illustrated in this old, old manual,” she says. “A plow (for cutting), laying presses, a sewing frame— everything. And we use them every day.”
This faithful adherence to the old ways is what has put the book bindery on the map, attracting the custom of prestigious institutions such as the Wharton School of Business, the Manassas Battlefield Park, various colleges and universities, and the United States Park Service. The restoration of Bibles is a big part of the book bindery’s work, and the Bibles they have restored include Robert E. Lee’s Family Bible for Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery and Washington National Cathedral’s pulpit Bible.
Some of the most famous – and infamous – names in U.S. history are on the projects which have benefited from the Cat Tail Run treatment: Abraham Lincoln’s bank records for Riggs Bank, John Wilkes Booth’s diary for Ford’s Theater Museum, and works from George and Martha Washington’s own library.
The list of historically significant projects is endless, and is endlessly impressive, but the book bindery is also in the business of creating. Various members of the team specialize in different sorts of creation, including the forming of new books, perhaps for a family history or a private collection of poetry. These books are bound lovingly in as grand or as simple a style as the owner’s heart desires – plain gray linen or rich red-velvet brocade. Unpretentious black letters on the spine, or intricate gilt ones.
Imagine the thrill of bringing home one’s own writings in the form of a pristine new volume! Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding makes these sorts of dreams come true all the time.
Another form of creation taking place routinely is the design and fabrication of cases, called clamshells, to hold a variety of treasures, including books, cherished papers or collections of prints. The book bindery staff take great pleasure in designing just the right receptacle for the prized object, and have made elaborate examples of these cases, handsomely covered in fabric or leather, lettered and ornamented like the most gorgeous book.
Treading the wooden walkway to the shop and meeting the four members of this establishment is almost a mystical experience. Mozart horn concertos play through unseen speakers, an aged cat purrs by the door, a venerable tuba hangs high up on the wall. The décor is not décor, but appears to be a natural growth of interesting, useful, or meaningful objects, unrelated except in their tacit belonging to this serene place.
The owner and original Cat Tail Run book binder, Jill Deiss, describes her place of work and the tasks accomplished here in direct fashion.
It turns out that most of those objects are useful, even vital to the process. What appeared to be clutter resolves itself upon closer inspection into racks of ranked tools for stamping, etching, lettering, stitching, gilding, painting, cutting – and so on. Those huge black iron structures lurking in the corners? Antique presses, in constant use after a century or more.
Though the building looks old and cottagey, it was designed and built to contain the systems necessary for the safety and preservation of the valuable books residing within.
Temperature and humidity control are vital, as is the treatment of all water used so as to maintain the correct pH levels. Fire prevention is of the utmost importance, and is managed so thoroughly that electricity to the outlets is cut off when no one is there. “And I’m smoke-detector crazy,” Deiss says.
The shop has numerous stations – first, a counter for talking through projects with new clients, with albums of before-andafter photos to pore over. Then, an abbreviated office: “One chair, one laptop!” Deiss laughs. There is an area stocked with cabinets full of oldfashioned type, decorative stamps, and other tools for applying finishing touches. Then an area of big surfaces for cutting various materials, an area equipped to manage the delicate job of page and paper restoration, areas for fabrics, paints, leathers and presses everywhere.
Speaking about the process of deciding how to go forward with a project, Deiss says, “The book will often tell you what it needs to function properly. Sometimes we help the customer see that if we really listen to what the materials are telling us, and honor that, then the result is something the customer can really embrace and we can be proud of.”
Depending on the owner’s wishes, a book may be restored (preserving the original materials as much as possible) or repaired (e.g., creating new materials which replicate the old ones). “Sometimes an owner says ‘I must have this cover!’ and sometimes an owner says ‘I just need this to be useable,'” Dee Evetts, one of the four bookbinders, says.
Though each worker is a capable bookbinder, each has her/his specialty. Deiss is the chief, with restoration in her very blood, plus education, both academic and experiential, geared toward the running of this establishment and the mastery of myriad skills required here. The dedicated Deiss says, “A favorite moment is finishing the book and being satisfied with it, and connecting it back with the owner, seeing that reaction and pleasure.”
Evetts (a published poet and wellknown writer of haiku) has an obvious passion for his work, and often creates the specialized cases the firm produces. Some of these cases are elaborate designs which unfold and display the contents in a completely unexpected way.
“Sometimes we’re compelled to bring all the experience we have and stretch a little to create something different, something we’ve never done before,” Evetts says. “That’s very satisfying – to figure it out and make it work.” The person who dismantles the old book, removes old glue, and prepares the book for its restoration is called the forwarder.
This is Susan McCabe, who has an affinity for fabrics and the needle, and tends to be found dealing with the thread and the cloth and the stitching which holds both new and old books together. “In getting it ready, I start to rebuild: examine it, get it down to fundamentals, then work to make sure the structure is solid,” McCabe says, wielding a needle and stitching the cap at the top of a book’s spine.
The fourth and newest member of this serene society is Anna Barnes, at her nook in the corner. Barnes has a delicate hand with a brush, and many times is touching up old covers or end papers with superbly matched tints. She points out the tiny pattern she has been working on: “It isn’t perfect, but it’s similar enough that it isn’t easy to spot where the old ends and the new begins.”
Deiss tells the story of Barnes’ advent at Cat Tail Run. Though Deiss rarely takes interns, she says Barnes was different. “She sent an email wanting to intern, but it was a whole letter! She described her background, her love of rare books, and said she was so interested in exploring book-binding that she was willing to sweep floors!” Deiss found herself responding to the thoughtful letter, and soon Barnes had fit herself snugly into the place. But Deiss, smiling, says “I’m the owner: I sweep the floors.”
These people clearly love books. And they love people who love books – so much so that they hold regularly scheduled workshops, sometimes taught by guest instructors. A short list of some of the topics includes book-binding, paper preservation, clamshell construction, marbling (the method used to paint gorgeously patterned papers for inside covers), papermaking, and the making of miniature books.
“My dad was a clock restorer and restoring was sort of a way of life. I trained to be an institutional conservator, but I had a strong desire to have my own facility, to be self-employed. With my love of books, it was a natural progression,” says Deiss. Contentedly gazing around her domain, she adds, “And added to that, a little dollop of serendipity, which I guess we all have in our lives.”
For more information about Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding, visit their website at www.cattailrun.com. The site provides shop hours, directions and phone numbers, as well as detailed before and after pictures of their work.