Getting to know Chuck Ferguson, Colby’s bookbinder

In the basement of Lorimer Chapel, down a brightly-lit hallway, there is a small, little-known room designated “The Russell Hitchcock Book Bindery.” Scrolls of fabric line the back walls. Shelves containing jars of paste sit above a bright red backing press. Tools—scissors, saws, hammers—are hung carefully on corkboards on the left side of the room, and a large work table is situated in the center. On most mornings, Chuck Ferguson can be found here, setting type, sewing sections, and binding books. Ferguson has been operating Colby’s book bindery since the mid-1960s, after coming to Colby to work as a French professor.

Prior to Ferguson’s arrival on campus, the equipment had been idle. In the early 1960s, Alberta Hitchock donated her husband’s hand bindery to the college. Passionate about genealogy, her husband Russell Hitchock, a retired sea captain, had bought the equipment in Massachusetts to make books containing his genealogical findings.

However, for the years following the initial donation, the bindery was used only once, during a Jan Plan course. Hitchcock was disappointed with the College’s inactivity with the equipment, and on a few occasions threatened to rescind the gift. After learning that Ferguson had experience in bookbinding, the then-chair of the art department asked him to take charge.

Ferguson is not a native East Coaster.  He grew up in Hudson, Ohio, where he attended the Western Reserve Academy. After especially enjoying learning French from a teacher whom he termed “excessively cool,” Ferguson decided to pursue a career in French studies. After completing his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, he went on to Ohio State University to earn his graduate degree. There, he met his wife, another graduate student and teaching assistant. Eventually, the couple ended up working at the University of Connecticut. There, they began taking bookbinding lessons offered by a retired woman in her home down the street from the university. The lessons, held on Tuesday evenings throughout the winter, began with the simple task of binding a magazine, then moved onto more complex projects of binding multi-leaf books. By spring, Ferguson began to assist in lettering and hot-stamping of the covers.

Since then, Ferguson has bound thousands of books. “I get great satisfaction out of taking something old and decrepit and giving it new life,” he said, describing his passion for the  art. Currently, he is working on a French music facsimile for Laura Jeppesen, a well-known musician who specializes in playing the Viola da Gamba. Currently, the sheet music cannot be played, as it falls apart when opened. Jeppesen heard about Ferguson through a past member of Colby’s music faculty. “The word [about my work] spreads, and I get an incredible variety of works to bind,” Ferguson explains.

Ferguson has bound many family bibles, but his personal favorite projects are well-used, beloved cookbooks. Often, cookbooks are missing pages. In this case, Ferguson turns to librarians, who can find the edition of the cookbook and photocopy the missing page so that it can be included in the final product. Ferguson has quite a lot of experience in cookbooks. “Fanny Farmer, Betty Crocker, The Joy of Cooking, I’ve done them all,” he said.

He also binds yearly music journals for a friend. “He says all his musical friends are jealous. I’ve been binding his books for twenty years, and they look very impressive on the shelf,” Ferguson said.

Throughout the bindery’s existence, Colby students have played various roles. Prior to retiring in 1996, Ferguson opened positions in the bindery as campus jobs, describing the job as the perfect fit for anyone who enjoyed “repetitive, monotonous work.” Each semester, he had two or three students work with him. Currently, Ferguson has two apprentices and is collaborating with six students from a Spanish class called “Telling Stories and Making Books.” Each student comes in, learns the binding process and eventually binds a book themselves.

To bind a book, Ferguson first sews sections together within linen tape using a sewing frame. He then uses a lying press, sandwiching the sheath between two metal slabs and using a backing lever to shape the spine into a mushroom shape. To trim the paper to the appropriate size, he uses a guillotine. The next step is called “casing in.” The binder picks fabric, cuts boards for the cover, brushes paste on the end paper and the board, and puts it in the press overnight. If the book needs lettering, Ferguson moves to the stamping press, sets up the appropriate type, places it in the press, then heats it to 200 degrees. The press then produces a label, ready to be secured to the completed book. “Except for trimming, a binder never does anything that can’t be undone,” he said.

In addition to binding books, he enjoys playing piano. Every Friday, he meets with three other pianists and plays in “The Stanley Hill Quartet,” a musical group that specializes in old-fashioned scores written for two pianos and eight hands. He also recently translated and published an 18th century text called L’art du Facteur. He especially enjoys bookbinding, though, because “there are always new challenges. It never gets routine,” he says.