Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Conservation of an old prayerbook

Cindy Arnson asked me to repair a siddur (prayerbook) that belonged to her grandfather, Jacob Fishman (zt"l). A little over 100 years old, and probably a bar mitzvah gift to him, this siddur was once a beautiful book. It had a carved ivory front cover with inlaid brass decorations, and a plain ivory spine and back. The covers were rimmed with brass, and there was a brass clasp. It was now in pieces. Of most concern, it's covers and spine had broken off. The paper of the book body had become brittle and discolored, and a few were torn. One signature (sewn section of the book) had broken out. What to do??

The book could not be fully restored. The paper had deteriorated badly and that is a process that can't be reversed. The binding itself was still tolerably good, and the loose signature could easily be tipped in (glued back in place). The boards of the covers were also in bad condition, but to remove the ivory, inlaid brass, and brass rims would be a long, difficult process that could very well end badly. Especially problematical would be re-attaching the brass rims. At least one corner would have to be opened and then re-soldered after being re-fitted to the new board. Given that the book had no meaningful public value ($100; maybe $200), a 30-60 hour restoration at standard restoration rates would involve a cost of some number of thousands of dollars.  Like I said, what to do?

One reasonable answer would be to tread softly, and do 4 fairly simple things: document the book's condition before restoration, re-attach the covers and spine, tip in the loose signature, and then document the book's condition again. That's what I did.

I carefully photographed the book when it came into my shop, and I photographed the stages of restoration. I used those photos, along with descriptive and explanatory text, to make two pdf booklets, a before and after. Here are a few photos from those booklets:

Here's the book as it came into my shop, in a plexiglass box (a good way to store it).

The 4 pieces of the book, from top left: book body, ivory spine, ivory back cover, brass and ivory front cover. The brass rim and clasp are easy to see.

The back of the spine, with rotten paper and the remains of the old, original cloth cover (purple-ish).

Detail of front cover, showing brass rim pulled away from board.

Another view of the brass rim and board.

The clasp on the back cover.

The first step in restoration: clean the spine of old paper, glue, cloth, crud.

Here you can see the cloth flange (left side of book) attached to the spine, that will be used to re-attach the covers. In the center is a cloth tube to be attached to the spine so the book can flex when it opens. Waxed paper extending from the top and bottom of the tube assure that glue won't fuze the front of the tube to its back (thus disabling its tube function).

Attaching the tube to the spine using PVA glue. The blue material is latex, wrapped tightly around the book to assure steady pressure to all parts of the tube, given that the spine has an uneven surface. The bars are weights made of lead poured into square aluminum tubes (nice square edges, safer to work with, and less maleable than lead alone). Pencil gives a sense of size.

The book, completed.

Clasp works again.

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