Judging a book by its cover

Bruce PlumleyBy Lisa O. Monroe

Becoming a bookbinder seemed like a natural choice for Bruce Plumley. Both of his parents were bookbinders.

But he and his parents didn’t imagine that he would hone his skills to that of an elite artist at a world-class level. In fact, Plumley has twice won a top international bookbinding prize, and has also designed and created books for some of the world’s most prominent citizens.

He made the royal guest book for Prince Charles’ and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding, for example, as well as the ship’s log that was presented to Queen Elizabeth II of England during her 2007 visit to Colonial Williamsburg, and a ship’s log for the royal yacht of the King and Queen of Norway.

These are not just books. They are books with contemporary fine bindings – custom-made treasures worth thousands of dollars that literally take hundreds of hours to make.

These books also require versatility. Bookbinders must work with a diverse array of materials, such as stained glass, silver, gold, brass and others.

In addition to creating fine books by hand, Plumley is also a conservator who’s been trusted with restoring texts dating back as far as the 14th century, including two Gutenberg Bibles, which are some of the most valuable books in the world.

From England to Williamsburg

Bruce PlumleyPlumley became Colonial Williamsburg’s master bookbinder in 1985. The foundation contacted him in his native England in the early 1980s, after a two-year search in the U.S. didn’t produce a worthy candidate, he says.

Plumley had a choice: There was a competing opportunity in Saudi Arabia, where he would have overseen a large complex in Jeddah. But he says he had concerns about how his wife and daughter would adjust to the male-centric culture there.

So after a month-long trial run in 1982, he accepted the Colonial Williamsburg offer with the stipulation that the foundation would obtain permanent residency for him  and for his family. He was concerned about moving his family here with only a work visa.

The red tape of residency status took three years to resolve. His son Deno and daughter Carmiῇa were in their teens when he and his wife moved the family here.

18th-Century Bookbinding
Many people don’t realize it, but books were not an item that most people could afford in the 18th century. Painstaking, tedious and costly work went into the printing of a book as well as the binding, which included about 28 separate processes.

Even the paper was not cheap. A single sheet of blank stationary paper during the mid-1700s was sold at the post office for 1 penny, which was about an hour’s wages of an unskilled laborer at that time, Plumley says.

Because of the expense, most people did not own Bibles or any other books, for that matter. Only the wealthiest colonist could afford printed books – or had the time to read them, he says.

Therefore, about 90 percent of the books bound in the bindery shop were ledgers and account books, as well as smaller items like pamphlets. About four years of original records from the 1760s exist, Plumley says.

Joseph Wood was the owner of the shop at that time of these records. To remain authentic, the operating shop today in the Historic Area produces items similar to what Wood sold.

Plumley, along with journeymen Jim Townsend and Dale Dippre, make books for other historic trade shops where authentic books are needed. The shop also does some restoration work of old volumes.

The first printer and bookbinder in 18th century Williamsburg was William Parks, who apprenticed in London from 1710-1717 in a program very similar to what Plumley himself completed in England.

Parks, who started the first newspaper published in Virginia, died from pleurisy while on a ship to England for business in 1750. Instead of sewing him up in a bag and sliding him over the side of the ship at sea as was customary at that time, Parks’ body was carried to his port of destination, most likely because of his prominence, Plumley says.

He was then buried in Gosport, England, four miles outside of Portsmouth — coincidentally only 14 miles from where Plumley completed his seven-year apprenticeship program.

Becoming a World-Class Bookbinder

Graduating from high school when he was only 15, Plumley wanted to go directly into an apprenticeship program, but his parents wanted him to apprentice with the best.
That was Eric Burdett.

He applied to apprentice in Southampton with Burdett, an internationally-renowned master bookbinder who had written a handbook called “The Craft of Bookbinding.”

He worked alongside Burdett for 5 ½ years, with only six months remaining in the apprenticeship. Then he asked to stay on with Burdett for another year to continue to learn and hone his skills. “I didn’t want to leave being starry-eyed and young,” Plumley says.

Burdett took a day to think about it. The answer came the next day. He agreed to let Plumley stay an extra year if he agreed to enter an international bookbinding competition, says Plumley, who agreed to do it.

He won that World Bookbinding Competition in 1963 at the age of 21 by making what he describes as “sort of a masterpiece” of a book.

After that, he had no trouble finding work as a bookbinder. He was a journeyman at several establishments, including The Eddington Bindery, where, in only 18 months, he became managing director.

In this position, he had the opportunity to work with several prominent English museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National History Museum, both in London, and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. At the latter, he had the privilege of rebinding a book belonging to Lord Nelson.

He also traveled a bit working in Germany, Italy and Holland.

In 1980, while at The Eddington, Plumley decided he had rested on his laurels long enough and entered his second World Bookbinding Competition, which he also won. After this second award, he says he was approached and offered a fellowship by the Designer Bookbinders, one of the world’s foremost societies of bookbinders. He accepted, but there was a condition — he could no longer compete.

Designing a Fine Handmade Book
As a craftsman, Plumley conceptualizes the theme of the book, the cover design and every tiny detail before getting started. He even creates a custom-designed and similarly themed handmade box to house each book. The boxes are complementary pieces of art, and they almost need a box of their own to protect them, he jokes.

Much like a painter who is commissioned to do a fine painting and is then left to do the interpretation, those who commission Plumley to do a fine binding expect him to interpret the work and leave his personal imprint behind.

“When I’m commissioned to do a binding, I always read the book first,” Plumley says. “I have to be able to get some impression from the contents of the book before I can even think about the design.”

When commissioned to do a binding for a limited edition book called “Windows,” for example, Plumley used stained glass to create windows on the book cover, and then cut and arranged the glass panels so that when the front book panels were opened, they appeared to be on a street with the smaller windows in the distance.

The book featured silver frames made by Plumley, hallmarked in London, stained-glass work done also done by Plumley, and inlaid gold and silver kid.

“You should be able to judge a book by a cover when you commission me for a book,” he says.

Listen to “For the Love of Books” podcast

Read about how Bookbinding is done

Learn more about bookbinding from Plumley and his journeymen

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