Sunday, October 26, 2014

Another Publication of Hornbooks!

Making Hornbooks is a sideline for Paper Wren Press.  We make them  because we love History, and we love and appreciate historical processes.

I have already posted several articles about the Hornbook on the "G. Johanson, Printer" blog, it's background, how ours are made, why we choose the materials we do, &c., and as you read this, if you wish to delve into these articles, click here

What I am doing here is sharing photos of our latest "publication".  These are real books in every sense of the word.  They are just, well, one page books.  They are bound a little differently than multiple page books.  And I guess by strict definition, they are not multipage sewn and bound books - but "Book" is what they are called, and "Books" is how we treat them at the Paper Wren.  Thus, when we make them, we "publish" them.

The above Hornbook is our most recent, going out to Mr. Blewster.  It's our most recent, and one of the very few we have ever done as an individual order.  It has about eight sanded coats of Shellac, the wood is stained Walnut, and the page sports real copper nails.  It has taken about two weeks for the coatings to cure.  

Following some photos I posted on Instagram (you are following us on Instagram, right?), I began to receive an above normal number of inquires regarding these items, and as such, I decided it's time to release another publication of our Hornbooks.  Perhaps we will make these available via our Etsy shop.  We'll know come Thanksgiving.

James Moore, 18th Century Bookbinder Extraordinaire, has asked me to share some of my most recent Instagram photos with his FB group "18th Century Bibles".  I wanted to share better quality shots of the process as we undergo this most recent publication, hence this blog entry.  I have not been successful doing direct share with the 18th Century Bibles FB group from the Paper Wren page, and have been unable to create an album on that group's page, so I am providing there a link to this article instead.  James, let me know if there is anything I need to know or do regarding sharing with your group.  I am not the brightest bulb in the bunch when it comes to FaceBook, I'm afraid.

So, here are some shots of the beginning phases of the making, or "publishing" of our latest round of HBs.

Hornbooks start life as a board : I try to use Hardwoods as I can, or at very least, clear pine.  Sometimes I can get great vintage salvage, but this set of books will come from a finish cut length of Tulip Poplar, a standard "inside" furniture wood used for drawer boxes.  Poplar is an interesting wood. You really never know quite what the finished product will look because it never takes stain or sealant quite the same way twice.  It is a dense wood.  

I use a Chop Saw at first to make the individual squares that will be cut, in turn, into the traditional "Battledore" paddle shaped blanks.

Squares are cut by hand.  At this part of the process, I use power tools just to speed things along.  The handle cut-outs are marked in pencil, and cut with a hand held jig saw.  An old one.  I would prefer to use a glider saw, but I seem not to be able to locate a new blade for mine.  So my old jig saw will have to do.  It's only a rough cut, anyway.

Next comes the sanding of the faces, sides, top, bottom, and cut outs around the handles.  For this I use my hand crank rotary sander which I normally use to true up miters on picture frames. (yes, I make frame moulding and finish frames as well.  Forgot to mention that.)  I prefer whenever possible to use hand tools for two reasons: FAR more control, and MUCH less sawdust.  Power tools are a noisy mess.  Long Live the Yankee Woodshop.  I'd have one, but I already have a Dixie Letterpress Shop!

Here's a little bit closer look at a blank on the sander.  Not much really to say that you cannot see by the photo.  I will have to change out that sandpaper, however.  It's 110 grit, and must be cut with scissors and adhered to the heavy iron wheel with either rubber cement or two-way framing tape.  I use the latter.  Takes about half an hour to change the paper.  Takes about twenty minutes to sand each blank properly, plus another ten to fifteen minutes to fine sand by hand after this "rough" sanding by the wheel.

Poplar sands to an almost white colour.  What is amazing is that if you use 220 grit on it, you can actually fine a polish on this wood.  I take advantage of this phenom later in the process.

Another shot of the finish "rough" sand.  The end-grain is pretty unpredictable as to how it will take stain when staining process begins.  Some parts of the grain will totally resist, some parts of grain suck stain like pine.

And here we go with what we were able to sand up to this point.  There are still five more blanks awaiting sanding.  I have the letterpress printed "slip sheet" laying atop the uppermost paddle as you can see.  I wanted to get an idea of proportions at this point because for the first time since we started making Hornbooks some nineteen years ago, we are going to use a brass latten frame on two of these, and there will be a faux-horn covering . . . we hope.  It will be an experiment.  If successful, we will re-set type and print a new series using a different Printer's Cross for the "cross-row", and a different 18th century border.  It is the border type which we use to distinguish one series from another.  We are on our second series, the "Scottish Thistle" series.  We have been running the Thistle for about seven years.  Prior to that, we were on our first series, the English Rose.

This photo is from day two.  We have eight sanded blanks, two more awaiting sanding, and we have started the finishing of the paddle blanks.  From left to right: Honey, Cherry, Walnut, Dark Walnut.  When set side by side, it's amazing the colour differences.  This all gets modified during the shellac process, owing to the tendency for shellac to add a bit of an amber cast.

As the stained wood dries, the short fibres on the surface will raise.  We call this the "hackle".  The Hackle is sanded and the wood re-stained.  Then re-sanded until no more Hackle is raised.  After this, the layering of shellac.  We may try spar-varnish on  two of these books in this publication.

This is the "Honey" blank, which in actually, does not receive stain at all.  This one goes direct to shellac, which in itself creates an amber colour against the natural white of the Poplar, creating a pleasingly soft amber tone.  Some folks like the look of the paper on this colour wood.  Others like the higher contrast provided by the darker stains, which is why we make a variety of colours.  Just a bit of trivia: we began using only Honey and Cherry.  Walnut was introduced by a client who needed to match his American Colonial room decor. We liked it so much we decided to keep it in our line-up.  I myself happen to like blonde woods, so now we have four colours, and we may add more, like Jacobean.

For the last photo, I thought I might include a close-up of the Blewster Hornbook.  This one is going to Arkansas.  It is "frame-less", using copper nails to hold the page (the slip sheets are also glued on to the wood using PVA bookbinder's glue before the sealing process.)  The copper nail-heads are sanded bare, and level to the layered coatings of shellac.  This is a form of the 18th century "Decoupage" process.  Decoupage was not used on the original Hornbooks, I wish it was.  More would be alive today.  As it is, the originals were totally untreated, and the slip sheets were covered with transparent horn, which warps and rots with the years, unless you take care of it. These were dispensable "children's'; books", and were not meant to last a life-time.  And they sure didn't.   One day, I may make one with real horn, just to say I have one.

A brief word about the slip-sheets we print: the type used is a latter-era variety although still authentic: Caslon.  It is the original face, with tall "s" and "below the rule" figures.  Our founders also supply Colonial Williamsburg with this very same font.  Indeed, Caslon O.S. 337 is the house-"fount" of the Colonial Williamsburg Printery.  Each letter is handset, and printed in as close to the authentic black ink as I can find.  It is linseed oil based, and I am informed that the pigments are very close to it's 18th century counterparts.  That would be Lampblack.  Paper is a vintage faux vellum, chosen for it's authentic tinge.  Originals used Book sheet, a "laid" paper.  I have used it as well.  Under sealant, you cannot tell the difference, and honestly, my vintage supply of Vellum behaves much better. We have no idea how old this paper is: it was vintage when I lucked into the unopened ream over ten years ago.  Having worked with calf skin vellum as a calligrapher, I can attest to it's impressive replication of the weight and feel of the real thing.  Oh, and it's "flesh-side" . . . on both sides!

Prices are listed in detail on former blog entries, but I can say here that the unframed versions such as the Blewster Hornbook sells for $50.00, plus $6.00 for boxing and shipping.  We do not know at this time how much the brass latten framed versions will sell for.  That would be "TBA". If you find that you cannot live without an Early American Hornbook, or at least, our interpretation of one (which we think are pretty nice!), you can order one by contacting the Paper Wren at:   You can also contact me through our website listed below.

Thanks for reading, y'all!   Comments invited, and don't forget to visit our site at, and also our educational blog at As the process continues, there will be more blog entries.  Stay Tuned!

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