June 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Lost Gutenbergs: An Interview with Tim Yancey

We recently spoke with Tim Yancey, a master bookbinder, and one of the founders of the Lost Gutenbergs project. After discovering a lost cache of Cooper Square Bibles, (famous facsimiles of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1961) Yancey and Michael Crisman of Bookbinders Workshop decided to bind the loose sheets into 15th century-style codices. These newly fashioned, beautifully constructed Gutenberg Bibles have since become the closest things to the originals that you can own. Yancey spoke with us about the project, recreating period bindings, and old German recipes for pigskin.

timBibles.jpgNP: How did you discover the lost Cooper Square Bibles?

TY: The Bibles belonged to the Estate of Henry Shelley, Founder of Landmark Books in New York.  Shelley had a business relationship with Cooper Square Publishers and acquired a significant number of the bibles.  He sold them in Landmark Books' catalog and from his Manhattan showroom.  However, after his death the remaining bibles were never bound.  

I learned of a single unbound copy being offered for sale and bought it from John Prizeman, Shelley's son-in-law.  My intention was to bind the text in a historically correct manner and thus have my own "Gutenberg Bible."  Upon completion of the sale, John mentioned that he might have more copies available if I was interested.  John was simply trying to help Shelley's widow settle the Estate but he was in New York and Shelley's warehouse was in Connecticut so the number is copies available was unknown.  We were later able to confirm the existence of over 160,000 pages of text.  They were in deteriorating boxes, wrapped in plastic and covered with decades of dust.  128 complete copies were salvaged form the cache.

lg011.jpgNP: After you unearthed the lost Bibles, were you hoping from the start to recreate a period binding for them? Or did you consider other alternatives?

TY: The Cooper Square (Pageant Books) Facsimile was the first facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible ever attempted outside of Germany.   Nearly 60 years earlier Insel-Velag, a German publisher had successfully printed 300 copies - of which virtually none were available.  Cooper Square begin a five-year process to recreated the famed 42-line bible and make it available to the world again.  Their intent was to create an American tribute celebrating the 500th anniversary of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.  Only the best of American craftsmen and technology would be employed to complete the project.

I really consider the Cooper Square printing to be a national treasure.  From the first day I discovered the bibles, the only real option was to treat them as such and create the very best historically correct binding possible.  It is a mission that will likely take 10 years to complete.


NP: What's the most challenging aspect of recreating a 15th century binding?

TY: The research and development of all the components - each one individually crafted.  There is nothing about the Lost Gutenbergs that could simply be purchased.  Everything had to be designed and made to our specifications.  Even the heavy cord was made from individual strands of thread in order to obtain the proper diameter, strength and flexibility needed to bind the massive tomes.  Each volume (of the two-volume set) consists of 600 pages and weighs about 25 pounds.

NP: Tell us about the 200 year old recipe for the pigskin binding and how you found it.

TY: It was Michael Chrisman's idea to explore the idea of using alum-tawed pigskin as the covering material.  We knew that A/T pigskin was certainly an appropriate material for the time period and geographic region of Gutenberg - however the material had not been produced in any significant quantity for decades.  In 2007, Michael contacted Thomas Schmidt of Frans Hoffman Leathers, Stuttgart, Germany and inquired about the possibility of reproducing the skins.  With the aid of the Leather Institute of Bavaria, a 200 year-old recipe was found.  As soon as possible we attempted some test runs but were not satisfied.  Over time, Frans Hoffman continued to adjust the process until the desired results were achieved.  The finished product sparked a marvelous rebirth of A/T pigskin and it is now available for book restoration and conservation around the world.  Allowing for waste, The Lost Gutenbergs will require over 2000 square feet of A/T pigskin to complete the 256 volumes.

NP: How many hours does it take to complete a single binding?

TY: It's a great question but one that is very difficult to answer.  Countless hours have gone into making the wooden boards, cord, brass bosses, clasps, and sewing before any assembly begins.  The best answer I can give is that we estimate the research, development, testing, manufacturing of components and binding process will take about 10 years to complete.  In short, hundreds of hours are required to complete each two-volume set.

NP: What's been your favorite part about working on this project?

TY: When we started our research I gained permission from an institutional library here in the US to examine a genuine Gutenberg Bible. (I was also asked not to disclose the location on our website or publications for fear of being inundated with additional requests from others.)  Having personal access to perhaps the world's most valuable and influential book was an experience that I will never forget.  It was truly awe-inspiring.  From that moment - I knew the Gutenberg Bible was like no other book in history and the methods we would use to bind the text would have to be worthy of its significance.

Genesis_BerlinCooper.jpgNP: Do you have a favorite leaf from the Gutenberg Bible?

TY: Genesis - The title page of Genesis is illuminated with a 15-inch-tall capital "I" in deep blue and gold.  Within the illumination are six miniatures depicting the six days of creation.  In the background, the image of GOD can be seen overlooking the work of His hand.  It is one of the most famous and beautifully illuminated pages in the world.

lg237_lrg.jpgNP: How do you order a copy of the Bible?

TY: Through our website.

Once you enter the site there is a tab that will direct you through the process of reserving your own copy and acquiring pricing and shipping information.   

Or use this direct link.