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Hampton man inherits Gutenberg’s work

Chick-fil-A exec masters lost book making style

Photo by Curt Yeomans
Hampton resident Tim Yancey uses a triple-line rolling tool to create imagery on Gutenberg Bible replicas that he is putting together. Yancey obtained 50-year old facsimiles of the Bible’s pages in 2007 and has set out to bind them the way Gutenberg would have done it.

Photo by Curt Yeomans Hampton resident Tim Yancey uses a triple-line rolling tool to create imagery on Gutenberg Bible replicas that he is putting together. Yancey obtained 50-year old facsimiles of the Bible’s pages in 2007 and has set out to bind them the way Gutenberg would have done it.

HAMPTON — Tim Yancey views his hand-bound replicas of Gutenberg’s Bible as a simple hobby that he enjoys when he’s not making sure Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country don't, in his words, “run out of chicken.”

The Germans view his bookmaking work a little differently.

Johannes Gutenberg was a German who invented the printing press and his copy of the Bible was the first mass-produced book he made on his press.

In 2010, Yancey, who creates replicas of the famous Bible at his home in Clayton County’s Panhandle region, donated to the Gutenberg Museum, in Mainz, Germany, a two-volume copy of the Bible. The set was created from 1956 facsimiles of the book’s pages and a painstaking and historically accurate recreation of 15th-century bookbinding techniques that Yancey and his bookmaking teacher, Michael Chrisman, did with their own hands.

Yancey’s wife, Connie, described the reaction from Mainz residents and media to the replica as if it held the kind of celebrity status that might make one think Gutenberg himself made it.

“We went to Germany for the installation of the Bible and were surprised to learn when we got there that they had a fairly large press conference with TV stations and the local media there,” said Connie Yancey. “Even the next morning, we turned on the TV in our hotel room and there was a local news program and they had one of our Gutenbergs, and they were handling them with those white cotton gloves [used to protect artifacts from deterioration].

“I looked at Tim and I said ‘Is that the Bible we haul around in the back of our van?’”

Tim Yancey, whose day job is Chick-fil-A’s senior director of distribution and logistics, and Chrisman have spent the last five years researching and carrying out 15th-century bookbinding techniques with more than 160,000 50-year-old facsimiles of pages from the original Gutenberg Bible.

Yancey works on some of the Gutenberg Bible replicas in the barn at his home while Chrisman works on Bibles at his studio in New York

The artistry Yancey and Chrisman put into creating what they call the “Lost Gutenbergs” will be the subject of a new exhibit that will be on display at Arts Clayton Gallery, at 136 South Main St., in Jonesboro, from Aug. 3 until Sept. 28.

The bookmakers plan to sell the copies they produce through their website, www.LostGutenbergs.com. The price hasn’t been set in stone.

Doing it himself

Yancey’s interest in bookbinding comes from his interest in antiquarian books. He has several old Bibles that date back to the late medieval period and into the late Renaissance period.

Some of those books were not in the best condition and they needed re-binding, but where exactly does a person go when he or she needs an authentic medieval book binding?

“When I would find books that were in disrepair, I couldn’t find anybody to do the repair for me,” said Yancey. “And, when I could find somebody, I wasn’t satisfied with what they did so I decided I’d try to learn it myself.”

Yancey attended the American Academy of Bookbinding and began taking private lessons from Chrisman, who is a master bookbinder with more than 30 years of experience in the field.

One copy turned into 128

Yancey didn’t set out to create a side business selling “Gutenberg Bible” replicas with historically-correct bindings when he bought a set of facsimiles of the book’s text in 2007.

He thought he was buying enough sheets to make a single two-volume copy of the Bible. The sheets were facsimiles Cooper Square Publishers made in 1956 as copies of the pages from Johannes Gutenberg’s original Bible, printed 500 years earlier.

Yancey was buying the unbound sheets from the estate of Henry Shelley as part of his hobby of buying and restoring antique books. Shelley’s company, Landmark Books, held the facsimiles in storage until Shelley’s death in 2005.

“I thought that [one copy] was pretty cool,” Yancey said. “I’ll take that and I’ll create my own historically correct binding and I’ll have my own Gutenberg Bible. I mean that was my thought.”

Fate, as it turned out, was about to throw in a surprise twist for Yancey that would turn the barn at his Clayton County home into ground zero for a rebirth of Gutenberg’s longlost style of book-making.

The estate revealed to Yancey that it had thousands of sheets of Gutenberg Bible pages stored in deteriorating boxes in a warehouse in Falls Village, Conn. There were enough pages to make 128 copies of the Bible, said Yancey.

Yancey scooped them all up and set out with Chrisman to learn and re-create Gutenberg’s book binding techniques with the newfound pages.

“There have people before that just bound them [using modern techniques], but could we do something different?” Yancey said. “Could we actually bind them the way it would have been done, in Germany, in the 15th-century, using the materials that were available at that time?

“That is the distinction between what we call the ‘Lost Gutenbergs’ and others who have just done a facsimile.”

Following in Gutenberg’s footsteps

Gutenberg probably never planned to print the words “Eat Mor Chikin,” in any books when he invented the printing press in 1455. However, he is forever tied — in a manner of speaking — to Chick-fil-A’s marketing slogan because of Yancey’s work to recreate the bookbinding process that the 15th-century printer likely used.

Yancey and Chrisman carve each of the wood boards used for the cover frames by hand. They also weave strands of linen thread together to make the cords that are used to bind the book with the cover boards.

It takes approximately 50 miles of thread to weave enough cords for 128 Bibles, said Yancey.

“Then [the cords are] held in place with a wooden wedge,” said Yancey. “The wedge will go down in there [in the hole where the cord comes through the wooden frame].”

Once the pages and cover boards are sewn together with the linen thread cords, the frames of the books are covered in hog skin.

Somewhere, a group of semi-literate, media savvy “cows” are heaving out sighs of relief.

Not all of the steps are done by Yancey and Chrisman, though. The Chick-fil-A executive said the hogs whose skins are used for the outer covers of each Bible are grown by farmers in the Czech Republic and Romania. Each hog’s skin must be large enough to cover two volumes for each Bible. Each volume uses a template that is 2-feet by 3-feet.

“Because the book is so large, you’ve got to have an animal actually large enough to cover that much surface area,” said Yancey. “So, the hogs are grown out to a specific size in order to yield a skin that will be big enough to cover the book.”

The hog skin must be tawed by Franz Hoffman Leathers in Stuttgart, Germany, using a centuries-old process.

Tawing leather is a long forgotten process of treating leather, said Yancey “It doesn’t involve using tanning acids,” said Yancey. “It’s an ancient treatment that was used in medieval times.”

The tawing process gives the skin a creamy white color although it sometimes has some a burnt orange tint in some spots as well.

Yancey said leather tawing hasn’t been used in hundreds of years, but the Leather Institute of Bavaria in Germany was able to locate a 200-year old recipe for the process.

Once Yancey and Chrisman cover the wooden frame and the spine of the book, they decorate the outside of the leather with elaborate designs that are themselves authentic to the mid-15th-century.

“To create one set requires over 200 individual impressions with the tools,” said Yancey.

They use triple-line and “grapevine” rolling tools to create lines of decorative images on each cover and Yancey had a gryphon-shaped engraving tool made based on images they frequently saw on original 15th-century book covers.

“In looking through 15th-century German books, we looked for patterns that we saw repeated, and we saw this pattern a lot,” said Yancey. “We didn’t try to copy an existing Gutenberg bible. This is our own interpretation of a wooden-board binding of Gutenberg’s geographical location and time period using what we saw often-times used in that period of time.”

Finally, brass bosses and latches are attached to each book’s exterior.

A decade devoted to a ‘lost art’

Yancey said he and Chrisman expect that binding the Gutenberg replicas will take about 10 years to complete. At this point, they are halfway through that decade.

In the end, they will be able to say they resurrected a long lost form of bookmaking in an age where hardcover books are being replaced by e-readers and bookstores are going out of business.

“It’s a lost art,” said Yancey. “In the world of digital media, people are downloading books online and not buying them. The ones they do buy are constructed cheaply as paperbacks. Centuries ago, a book was so extremely valuable and so scarce that the effort that went into protecting it was immense. So, they used very elaborate construction methods because they wanted them to last forever.”

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