Awards success for bookbinder who turned a new leaf

By Huw Williams
BBC Scotland reporter

Image caption,
The equipment which bookbinders use has not changed in hundreds of years

Visit any stately home and, in the library, you'll see shelf after shelf of fine, leather-bound books.

Tom McEwan describes the sort of volumes: "Finished in gold, with marbled end papers, maybe even the edges of the book decorated with marbling or covered with gold."

And always bound in leather. Tanned goat or calf skins.

There are practical reasons for that. Leather is flexible and the binding protects the book.

But bookbinding can also be about making a statement - making the book look gorgeous, something that fits with your ideas about yourself.

Something you'd be proud to own.

At his workshop, not far from Beith in North Ayrshire, Tom says he first started binding books for the most pragmatic of reasons.

"I've always been a collector, and lover, of books. And in the collection that I have, there was a number of books needed repaired," he said.

"So I did, some years ago, get a quote from a bookbinder to have some of them repaired - and was quite horrified at the cost."

Image caption,
Tom McEwan's prize-winning binding for Primo Levi's Periodic Table

So he decided to learn how to do it himself.

But once he'd acquired the skills, Tom became interested in bookbinding as a way of making an artistic response to the text.

So his battered books are still waiting for repair, while he went in another direction.

"I'll read a book which interests me. I'll then design a new binding for that book," he explained.

"So the design reflects some experience that I've had through reading the book, or it may pick up on some incident that takes place in the book, or maybe it's just the general theme of the book."

Tom is not alone in thinking that he is creating works of art.

He's just won the Edgar Mansfield Medal - named in honour of one of the great designer bookbinders, who died in 1996.

That was the latest in a string of national and international prizes, even though he only started bookbinding six years ago in his spare time.

"I used to put it down to beginner's luck", he laughs.

Image caption,
A corner of Tom McEwan's bindery

"But I can't use that excuse any longer, because I've been consistently doing well in national and international competitions.

"I think possibly it's because I've always had this life-long interest in, and love of, books."

He also studied sculpture at art school, which helps him combine craft skills with design.

All this, of course, at a time of year when many people are planning to give, or hoping to receive, an e-book reader as a Christmas present.

Tom says he uses one himself, but acknowledges that his work about as far removed as you can get from reading a book on a screen.

"Holding a book is an experience," he said.

"You've got these wonderful materials in your hand. You've got fine papers; proper letterpress printing even gives a texture to the paper as you're reading a book.

"You don't get any of that from a Kindle."

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