WINONA, MINN. – The soft morning light illuminated the small Winona studio, a workbench its centerpiece.
On the bench sat containers of mismatched tools, scissors, brushes. On the wall hung a wooden rack with spools of thread. On the table, sheets of handmade paper.
The bookbinder leaned over the workbench, carefully lined up two edges of paper and dipped a long brush into a container of glue.
"I'm going to glue this without messing it up this time," Jill Krase said with a chuckle, running the brush along the paper. She was quiet in concentration as she delicately folded the paper, using a bone folder to press the pages.
Books just aren't made this way anymore, she said. At least not by machines. Bookbinding requires the work of hands.
Krase has been bookbinding in Winona for more than 10 years. She operates Ovenbird Bindery out of her home studio, where she makes books and boxes, binds limited editions, repairs books, and teaches others her trade.
Krase first discovered the art in 2004 when she moved to Winona with her husband, Ethan, an English professor at Winona State University. The Krases soon met Beth and Chad Oness, who operate a small printing press and often print on handmade books. It was there Krase first saw a handmade book. Chad took out paper and needle and thread that day, and showed her how to sew a pamphlet.
"I was like, awesome, yes, I love this — show me everything else you know," she said.
That summer, Krase went to the University of Iowa for a six-week bookbinding course — and from there, the learning never stopped.
"It was one of those things where once you know five things, then you can see the 200 things you don't know. And then once you know those 200 things, you can see the 1,000 things you don't know," she said, adding: "It's kind of cruel."
Krase began edition binding. Then she began teaching workshops, some at home, others at the arts center or area schools. She learned how to make high-quality boxes for books. Soon people began asking if she fixed books — so Krase figured she would learn book repair, as well.
The work has become Krase's primary source of income, but she said her work isn't about making money. "I'm really in kind of this strange niche," she said. "I think that bookbinders are sort of part reader, part artist and part craftsperson."
A step at a time
The process starts with materials. Krase orders handmade paper, paints and tools online from different cities around the world. She decorates the paper herself using Suminagashi marbling, an ancient Japanese process that involves creating patterns with floating ink in water, then transferring the ink to paper.
Krase also makes paste paper, which she describes as "finger painting for adults." It involves dipping paper in water, then applying homemade colored paste and using other objects such as sponges, chopsticks and toothpicks to create designs.
Once she has her paper, Krase folds the pages and punches holes at the fold using an awl, a small pointed carpentry tool. She then sews the pages together with linen thread — most of her books are sewn, not glued. Covering the books often involves bookboard, which comes in different weights and thicknesses, which she then finishes with cloth.
After that, the process involves a thousand variations, she said. Krase spends anywhere from an hour to 60 hours on a given book, depending on its size and complexity.
But one thing that stays consistent is the fact that each book is authentic, one-of-a-kind.
"You can tell by the way that the books look and feel that someone made them with care and attention," she said.
Krase believes the art form has seen a revival that can be traced back to the 1960s, she said, when there was a devastating flood in Florence that destroyed many of the Italian city's libraries.
Book conservators from all over the world traveled to Florence to save the delicate handmade books. Many were falling apart, which allowed them to examine exactly how they were put together. From there, bookbinding made a comeback, though more so in Europe than in America, Krase said.
"People keep saying, 'The book is dead,' but it's not," Krase said. "We still want the paper book because of how usable it is."