Phil Winskill has books covered

Bookbinder Phil Winskill in his workshop

Phil Winskill

Phil Winskill prints a cover title

A book in for restoration

Letters for Phil’s printing press

Culpeper’s English Physician and Complete Herbal, restored by Phil

Phil Winskill prints a cover title (8178615)

First published in Features
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Books or e-readers? Opinions are divided which way it will go, but MATT CLARK meets a man who reckons talk of the book’s demise is greatly exaggerated.

PHIL WINSKILL doesn't hold with Kindles. If push came to shove he might use one by the pool on holiday, but that's about it. No, Phil is what you would call a book person. For him nothing beats the feel of a leather cover or the crisp rustling of paper sheaves.

Books hold history, he says, not only in their words but in their life.

And when they are worse for wear, Phil makes them good as new again. He trained as a bookbinder four decades ago and has bound or repaired thousands of volumes since, including antiquarian examples. Then there are the bespoke presentation books for dignitaries and royals, not to mention souvenir photo albums for many of York's Lord Mayors.

Phil used to work at the University of York, where much of his time was spent binding dissertations and theses, but computers put paid to all that when students began to submit their work by email.

Suddenly there was no need for a bookbinder and Phil found himself facing the scrapheap.

"Fortunately, I saw it coming," he says. "As soon as they made the announcement, I thought, 'I'll go it alone', then. Better get some advertising out there."

That was 15 years ago and Phil hasn't looked back. Binding periodicals pays the bills, but there are more students than you might think who still want a tangible copy of their theses, not only for themselves but for friends and family.

While at the university Phil also restored books and now he offers this service from his own business. It is, he says, the most enjoyable and rewarding part of his work.

The term Phil uses is sympathetic restoration, where the original leather is taken off and reapplied to a new spine or board, or both. The least amount of work necessary, he says, and where possible reusing original materials. Then to finish off, he feeds and polishes the skin with things like Neatsfoot oil and Lanolin which adds patina.

The latest tome to benefit from Phil's expertise is a 1790 copy of Culpeper's English Physician and Complete Herbal. It's a wonderful thing, beautifully illustrated by hand and now with a cover that looks a million dollars.

"The feeling when I have brought a 200 or 300 year old book back to life is wonderful," says Phil. "From straightening and repairing the printed page, to cutting, paring and dying the calf skin to rebuild the spine. It's so rewarding."

Everything is still done by hand, save a heated letter press that adds the title, sometimes in silver, usually in gold leaf. Phil also uses wonderful old tools with wonderful old names, such as mitred pallets, nipping presses and brass rolls.

Not to mention his needle and thread.

"With single sheets we have to glue up then drill the page and sew it in a figure of eight style through the edge. However, the best sort of binding is the traditional section-sewn books such as a Bible I've just finished, which will open flat because it is sewn through the middle of a section."

About 100 years ago, bookbinding as a trade was split into different areas. Sewing was generally performed by women, using cord or string, while forwarding was a man's task. It involved gluing the spine, trimming the book edges, rounding and backing the spine and spine lining before making the cover with cloth or leather.

The final job was to print the title with a machine blocking press or hand tool.

Phil still works this way, helped out by Howard Griffin and his sister Jeanette Heaney. A lot of their time is spent renovating Bibles, with three or four in at any one time, of various shapes and sizes. Many are personal, often Victorian.

"There's history in these books, you can feel it when you're working on them. That's why people spend hours going round bookshops. With a Kindle it's like the words are not really there, but held in a bubble."

Most of us still want to hold a book, flick through its pages, take it to another room, put it down and pick it up ten minutes later without the bother of switching back on.

Then there is the aura of books. You can feel them, smell them, gaze at them. Phil reckons talk of their demise is greatly exaggerated.

As he says, who's going to restore a Kindle or rush to an antiquarian e-reader stockists in years to come?

Phil also thinks there is a growing interest in the art of bookbinding, which is why he is offering courses in September and taster sessions next month.

"A book is what you're holding, it's the whole thing and is tactile. Even students today think that way. When they produce work on a computer it doesn't mean anything, there's no substance. They want something to hold on to."
 

Introduction to bookbinding workshops will be held at the following venues:

The Viking Loom, Wiggington Manor, Wigginton Road. York August 2, 10am to 4pm. Phone Phil on 01904 415240 or info@yorkbookbinding.co.uk for details.

The Workshop, Ebberston, ten miles east of Scarborough, August 9, 10am to 4pm. Phone Ian Rhodes on 01723 859060 or e mail the_workshop@btconnect.com The day will include making a simple single section sewn note book, making a hard covered multi section note book and assembling a slip case to hold the note book. A typed "how to” guide will be provided and you are encouraged to take some of your own books to discuss ways to repair or rebind them.

On each course there will be a break for lunch. Tea and biscuits will be provided and details of the six week block of classes for both venues will be given out.

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