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Inside an Independent Book Restorer’s Studio | Conservation Lab

In a Lower Manhattan neighborhood where few old businesses survive, Judith Ivry has managed to keep her bookbinding studio afloat for the last 25 years.
Tools at Judith Ivry’s studio. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted

In the back of her Manhattan studio, steps away from the East Village, bookbinder and restorer Judith Ivry gingerly pulls open an early 20th-century seed book. Inside are dozens of illustrations of different plants, which a salesman would have used to guide customers in their seed purchases. Closed, the volume is bound in a portable leather case, but it unfolds like an accordion, with five panels of illustrations connected by ribbon tabs at either side, which you pull up to turn the pages. “We won't open everything because it makes me nervous, but further down, there's every kind of rose,” Ivry points out.


Leather binding for seed book, with interior pages in background

She won’t be retouching any of the pages—that kind of work is best left to a paper conservator. Her restoration work is focused on the exterior structure. To fix the binding, she’ll be lifting all that’s left of the original burgundy leather, putting in a new spine, and laying the leather back on. In several small areas, it has completely deteriorated, so she's trying to recreate the original grain, which features fine, vertical lines running across the surface. By pressing a textured cloth piece into a damp piece of calfskin, she obtained a close enough match, and is now doing color tests.

“The truth is, not much of this will show, because most of the spine is there. But I care about the details—that's the stuff that makes it interesting,” she tells The Creators Project. Ivry has been working out of this very studio for 25 years, and is one of the few independent bookbinders left in the city. In addition to her restoration work, she creates custom editions and boxes.

Job backer in foreground, book press in background

Her space is filled with furniture and tools that vintage decor enthusiasts would die for—except here, the antiques are actually being put to use. There are drawers upon drawers of type, book presses, and stamping presses. A tool called a job backer is like a giant vise: It clamps books in place for the rounding and backing process, which provides a curve to the front edge of the pages in a book. In one corner, two heavy vintage irons are being used to flatten an old volume, which is too fragile to handle the weight of a regular press.


Sewing frame

Ivry pulls out another project that is set up inside a sewing frame. “This is more in the vein of historic binding,” she comments in passing, quickly moving on to the next thing. Nearby, rolls of cloth are stacked on shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling. “You can't get these textures anymore,” she explains, pointing to one set in her collection. “I’ve gotten these from binders that have gone out of business over the years—they’re very useful in restoration.”

Hand tools for impressing gold leaf patterns into leather

That kind of resourcefulness has also landed Ivry a sizeable lot of decorative hand tools, which are heated up on a finishing stove, and used to impress gold leaf or gold foil onto leather. For clients who want an entirely new binding that mimics the original, her wide selection allows her to find something that strikes the right note. “These gold leaf patterns were the publisher's signature, so when doing restoration, you want to find one that is appropriate for the period,” she points out.

Book restoration isn't all about sourcing old tools, however. Ivry has been trying out a new, exciting technique developed by other conservators to replicate leather. After fabricating a silicone mold of a specific leather grain, she transfers the texture to an acrylic mixture, which can be mixed to match the original fabric’s color with precision. Once dry, small strips of the imitation leather can be used for cosmetic repairs. Her first tests were performed in collaboration with the conservators of the NYU Conservation Center—whom she also calls when she needs to use the kind of technology that is readily available at big institutions.


Leather grain molds with final result in acrylic

Ivry admits that she sometimes envies those resources—observation under UV light, for example, can confirm things that merely remain hypothetical when all you've got is the naked eye. In her view, however, the advantages of working independently outweigh the challenges. “I really love the unknown, and not knowing what I'm working on next,” she says confidently.

Below, Ivry gave us a window into some of her restoration processes:

Restoration of old minutes book from Union Club. All below photos courtesy of Judith Ivry

First, you heat your hand tools on a finishing stove…

…then impress the pattern into the leather with gold leaf or foil.

Before and after restoration of a book that was chewed by a dog. At right, you can see the custom stamping die created for the spine of the project.

Before and after restoration of damaged spine.

To learn more about Judith Ivry and see more images of her work, visit her website.


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