The Bookbinder


with Nicky Oliver

Nicky Oliver Blackfox Bindery




Up until that point I had been working towards a portfolio of surface design illustrations for my degree. I had trained for 7 years in different art institutions, putting one foot in front of the other hoping at the end of it all someone out there would like my shit. Discovering bookbinding was a game changer.

I had fallen in love. All my other vague ideas of what I wanted to become had crumbled away and I wanted to learn everything about this craft.

I have always made stuff. As a child I would colour-in, paint, sew, construct and stick things to other things. If I didn’t or couldn’t “make” I became restless. And Design Bookbinding combines everything that I love: books – design – making.

Books are precious. I have always had a romance with books. It is like holding a different world in the palm of your hand. It isn’t just the fact that someone or some people have sat and written these words to share; I admire the skill that is required to create intricate tales and have respect for the desire and patience to produce an instructional manual of some kind. Whatever the contents and their source it is the actual book itself that fascinates me, old or new, it’s the smell, the feel and sound of the pages. Perhaps there are a few dog-eared corners or notes in the margins that implies that the book has been handled by many. The book as an object then becomes a thing of history. It has humanity.

I have often been asked as a bookbinder if I feel professionally threatened by the technological age. I understand that e-books and the like have their place, I don’t think I would ever own one…they are cold. Also, using technology to create is all well and good but it deprives the senses. I do a lot of printmaking as one of the processes for my design bindings and you just can’t beat the sound and smell of the ink on paper. I am not alone in this. There are others who feel the same. So no, I do not feel that my profession is threatened.

The craft of bookbinding is a beautiful thing. You could spend a lifetime learning but will always discover something new. It is a bottomless barrel.

It is a craft, like many, that requires an infinite amount of patience, practice and concentration. There are many tools to master and material properties to understand. If you are design binding then alongside the design aspect there is also the engineering of the book. For me, the piece may look pretty but if it doesn’t open properly or function as a book then what’s the point?

If bookbinding were a tree then its branches would represent all things related to that craft. I created a basic and crude brain map to best illustrate:

And each of these branches has their own little offshoots that are a craft and a discipline within themselves.

I have combined my art background with a craft that I love. 

I prefer to dye my own leathers when I design bind – I use my prepared skin as a blank canvas and paint with various leather dyes. Throughout the years I have taken this technique and applied it to different leathers and recently I have started to collaborate with a handbag designer and an upholsterer. This takes me back to my early days of experimental surface design. It allows me to explore. I mentally catalogue the different techniques and all of the happy accidents that I discover and I use them later for my bindings. 

I think of myself as a maker first and a bookbinder second. I don’t consider myself a traditional bookbinder and my education certainly hasn’t been traditional at all. Long gone are the degrees and courses on the subject. Apprenticeships no longer exist. So I have hunted and gathered for my knowledge over the years. A workshop here and there, courses in Switzerland, a day a week in a private studio and books. When I finally got my first job in a bindery, I was disappointed to discover that the majority of old tradesmen were protective and reluctant to share their skills. A habit, I was to discover, which was and still is in many ways rife throughout the trade. So my hunting and gathering continued and still does.

Despite my experiences within the trade binderies it instilled something within me; that this craft will only stay alive if skills are shared and taught. I made a promise to myself that if I were to ever get a space large enough, I would teach or create an environment where the craft could be taught. 

In 2009, I launched Black Fox Bindery. A cosy and adequate bindery equipped with all of the necessaries. I can accommodate up to five students at a time and that allows each student plenty of space and me enough time to spend with individuals. Black Fox also plays host, I invite talented binders with various skills who don’t have their own workshops to teach here. This is a great way for me to learn something new, whether it be a style of teaching or binding, my students get access to different techniques and the binder gets paid to pass on their skills! Everyone’s a winner baby. Black Fox also rents out desk space for the day so that binders with no space of their own can work on projects. They get access to the equipment, tools, materials and me. 

Why do I do what I do? It is a mixture of necessity, passion and fulfilment. 

I get so much enjoyment from creating and also providing a space for other people to create. When I teach bookbinding to students, whether they be old or young, the satisfaction on their faces when they have finished their pieces is just wonderful.