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Making a book from beginning to end, with one of San Francisco’s last remaining bookbinders

Stepping inside the Taurus Bookbindery is kind of like stepping back in time. The wide open space is packed full of retro machines from the 1920s that could double as torture devices. There are electric paper cutters with long blades, sizzling hot, rusty knives, and eight-foot-tall cast iron weights. Rolls of cloth and leather line the walls, and their earthy smells mix with odors of oil, paper and hot glue.

“A modern bookbindery would have equipment that looks a little bit more like supercomputers,” says Tim James, the owner and proprietor at Taurus. “The equipment would move blindingly fast, and books would be created. You’d have paper going in one end, and books coming out of the other end without having ever been touched by a human.”

That’s not how works at Taurus, though. Here, it’s all about the human touch. James makes custom edition, fine-bound books using tools and methods that have been passed down for generations. He does everything from restoring tattered childrens books, to making cocktail menus for small restaurants, to making special editions of limited run books, and that’s what he’s making today.  

It’s not necessarily the type of book you’re going to find slumped on the shelves of a used library book sale. It’s a big, hardcover edition of an encyclopedia of falconry - a modern update to a book first published by a British naturalist in 1891. It has over 500 pages of illustrations and articles about these birds of prey.This edition is going to be leather bound with dark brown goatskin, green cloth, and embossed with gold lettering. James is going to make every single copy of this book, one at time.

He starts with a big sewing machine that looks like a giant weaving loom, with five large spools of thread at the top attached to eight hooks and needles inside. There’s a large motor at the back, and a pedal underneath that controls the needles.

To make this book, James first has to sew all of the pages together, being careful not to get them out of order. He groups the glossy, pre-printed pieces of paper into bunches of pages called ‘signatures,” and hand feeds each individual signature into the whirring and humming machine.

While James works the machine, he looks like a musician playing an organ. He holds the pages on a horizontal bar called a saddle, and he uses his feet to work a pedal on the floor.

“When I put the signature on a saddle it moves into the machine and eight punches come up from underneath and poke holes in the signature, while eight needles come down from the top,” James explains.

What comes out is a neat stack, about 500 pages thick, all stitched together on one side with thread. But, it’s not perfect. Some pages are sticking out, so, the next step is taking the sewn pages, called a text block, to the guillotine. Yes, the guillotine.

“As the name implies there’s a large knife that comes down from above and cuts whatever it is below it. In this case we are trying to restrict ourselves to the book.”

James cuts the text block three times, for all three sides. What once was just a stack of paper, is is now starting to look more like a book. A tool called a “job backer” makes it even more recognizable.

The tool works like a big vice grip, for books. James clamps the book together and uses a metal hammer to pound on the sharp sides of the spine. This slightly curves the spine, giving it an edge.

“It allows sort of a place for the cover to rest and keeps the book from sagging in its case after a few years,” he says.

But the true strength of a book, James tells me, comes from the cover, and a lot of glue. After cutting book board into a rectangular shape, James cuts the leather for the spine of the book with an extremely sharp knife.

The next step is the title. For that, James uses gold foil. It looks like Saran Wrap, but it’s a lot more expensive.

“A 200-foot roll of gold foil, four inches wide costs about $250 dollars,” James says.

He lays a sheet of the precious foil on top of the book. Next, he spells out the title of the book, letter by letter, in metal type and loads that into the lid of what looks like an industrial dry cleaner shirt press - and it’s hot like one too. Before James presses it onto the books cover, it has to be heated to 220 degrees.

The words BibliothecaAccipitraria are embossed in the leather cover. It’s beautiful, but, he’s still not done.

To fold the leather over the cover, James uses a tool bookbinders have used for over 300 years. It’s called a bone folder, and it’s made out of cow bone. The one James is using a gift from the bookbinder who taught him his trade. It looks like a tongue depressor, shiny and smooth, molded to the shape of his palm.

The last thing to do is to put the sewn block of papers inside the cover, and let the book sit for a day or two under heavy weights.

“My favorite part of being a commercial book binder is seeing the big tall eight-foot-high book presses completely full of books,” James says.

“Most people just assume books are cranked out by machines, so they don’t have any real feeling for the object unless its given to them by somebody thats important. I think with all hand made objects you’re making them just a little bit better, and there’s an appreciation that people have when you finish it that they know the person that made it for them. That tends to be lost when you have machinery involved in too many of the processes,” he adds.

After 24 hours in the press, the newly minted Bibliotheca Accipitraria is finished.

He’ll make a few hundred more of these over the next week or so, in between other orders to bind restaurant menus or a Phd thesis. He’ll ship the books back to the author, who will sell them for $150 on special falconry websites and shops. Even though the Bibliotheca Accipitraria might not make Amazon’s bestseller list, or jump off the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but James is proud to have put a little bit of himself into each page.

Click here to learn more about The Litography Project.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio link above.

Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.