On Saturday, June 8, the Porcupine’s Quill was pleased to participate in Doors Open Erin, an annual event that invites visitors to discover the heritage sites of the region, some of which are not generally open to the public.
The following originated as two Facebook posts shared by Peter Taylor, a former Porcupine’s Quill employee and enduring Quill friend, on his personal Facebook page. We have combined them, slightly edited for length, and reprinted them here with permission. All photographs are also credited to Peter Taylor.
45 Years of Canadian Literary History
Yesterday, I went back to my home of more than 40 years ago.
My first job was as a printer and bookbinder at The Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario. Doors Open Erin was the perfect time to visit the people—and the machines—I worked with a lifetime ago. After university, I knew I wanted to go into publishing, but first I wanted to know how books were actually made. I wanted to make them myself. Tim Inkster and his wife, Elke, gave me that opportunity in 1976–1977.
I was more of a binder than a printer, actually; most of the ink on my hands came from printing student anthologies and books on the Gryphon Press, a nineteenth-century Challenge platen letterpress, at the University of Guelph, and later on my own Vandercook-4 letterpress, The Adela Press. Tim was the master printer at PQL; Elke did all the film, pre-press preparation and signature sewing; my job was to turn the large press sheets into bound books.
The Machines That Make Books
Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. Fold it in half again. Then fold it in half a third time. You’re holding a small 16-page signature. Print a much larger 25″ press sheet on a Heidelberg KORD press and you can fold it down three times into a 6″ x 9″, 16-page signature, a common bookbinding format. If you are printing, say, 1,000 copies of a 64-page book, you’ll need 4,000+ press sheets for four separate signatures, plus 1,000+ printed covers. The “+” copies allow for set-up and spoilage.
Now, you don’t want to fold all those 4,000 25″ press sheets by hand, do you? You want to use the Baumfolder, a room-wide monster that will fold them easily … IF you load and fan the press sheets exactly so they are spaced 1/16″ apart, AND you have set all three folding slots precisely, AND you have Druckfehlerteufel (the printer’s devil) on your side. When I die, I want “He Ran the Baumfolder” etched onto my tombstone in Copperplate Gothic.
Next, you use the Smythe National Book sewing machine to sew four signatures together for each book, plus a blank stitch in between to cut them apart. The difference between books that are sewn and glued and those that are merely glued (perfect binding), Tim explained, is this: If you throw a perfect-bound book at a cat, the pages will crack open at the spine and fall apart. If you throw a sewn book, the pages won’t. Moreover, the cat can still throw it back.
And now for the loudest, meanest machine of them all: the Sulby Minabinda. You just lock the sewn signatures into the vertical vice on the left, pass the sewn spine over a very, very hot glue pot, and pinch the pre-trimmed covers up onto the glued spine. If you want to protect cats, you turn on a very, very sharp saw (think horizontal table saw) which cuts off the signature spines before they pass over glue pot. Only two rules: don’t touch the saw and don’t touch the glue pot.
Last step. Carry all the glued books that have dropped into curved bin on the right of the Minabinda and trim them on the Polar-Mohr trimmer. By setting the the back plates behind the guillotine blade to three different depths, you can cut off the top, bottom , and outside of three books at the same time. There is a rhythm to shifting books around the trimmer, and safety switches to ensure that that’s all you cut.
You’re done! There is nothing like the feel of the first freshly-trimmed copy of a new book, the culmination of months of effort, and the precious future possession of its owner. At least, books are precious to me. You’ll have to tear their well-thumbed, endurably-sewn bodies from my cold, dead hands.
Many thanks to Peter for allowing us to reproduce his brilliant posts here for the entertainment of all our readers.
Thanks as well to all of you who came out and visited the shop. Tim and I were kept on our toes as group after group of book lovers stopped by for a tour of the press room, the bindery and even the garden out back. We hope you enjoyed your visit!