The Preserver

Several things had to fall into place before Sean Richards could begin restoring the rarest of history’s books.

First, the previous owner of his family’s house failed to forward his mail. Next, Richards began poring over the rare book catalogs that arrived, marveling over Shakespearean volumes and Galileo’s tomes. Finally, Richards began believing that he could hold those pieces of history in his hands and use time-honored tools to restore them to their
original glory.

 

Richards, owner of Byzantium Studios, has carved out a niche in history – as a bookbinder trained in the classic techniques of book restoration. His clients now span the globe, but his work remains in Oklahoma with hundreds of tools and a desire to restore ancient books.

 

“We’re global, but in a very small way,” Richards says of his business. “Our clients are at OU and in Europe, in the Czech Republic, in Russia, San Francisco and all over. We have clients in numerous countries, and I’ve worked with every material known.”

 

Richards’ journey to book binding began when he was 12 years old and his family moved to a home in Blackwell near the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The house was previously owned by a man who collected rare book catalogs – but he forgot to leave a forwarding address. So Richards began receiving his mail and found himself fascinated by
what he saw.

 

“To a kid, to read about a $500,000 book gets your imagination going,” Richards says. “I would take the catalogs to school and look at them. We’d be studying Shakespeare, but I was reading about the nuts and bolts of who printed his first folio. I was learning about the types of books when I should have been learning about the stories.”

 

Years later, he got married and moved into an apartment – a small area for someone with a book binding interest. But when he and his wife bought their first house, he bought an antique book press and some tools of the craft.

 

“My friends asked me to fix old books. I was self-taught at that point. Then they started paying me,” Richards says. “I had a job as a counselor at a mental health facility, but I thought, ‘Book binding is fun. I could do this.’”

 

Richards investigated how he could seriously learn the craft. His research kept leading him to Jan Sobota, a renowned name in book binding. After months of searching, Richards finally located Sobota and began his quest to apprentice under him. Eventually, Sobota accepted Richards as a student, and he booked a flight to the Czech Republic. For three months, he studied intensely with Sobota, learning the intricacies of his work and tools. He worked with every material imaginable – calf, goat, sheep and even human skin.

 

His most unusual project was one where a woman wanted her Bible rebound in human skin. She had undergone surgery to remove excess skin from her sides, and she kept the excess skin for this request.

 

“Jan finally agreed to the project,” Richards says. “The skin was pale, an ivory color that looked like pigskin. It would spring back if you unrolled it. I did all the preparatory work on it.”

 

In 2003, Richards returned to America, and he hasn’t slowed down since. He performs all restoration work for OU, and word-of-mouth has brought business from all corners of the world. Much of his restoration projects are 16th- and 17th-century books, often in the science genre.

 

A single book restoration can take two months to complete, although he’s usually working on multiple projects at a time. It’s a costly endeavor, too. A restoration of a Book of Common Prayer owned by King Charles II, complete with a picture painted on the ends of the pages, ran about $4,500.

 

Richards still employs the ancient techniques he learned from Sobota, traditions he proudly carries into the 21st century. He still mixes his own glaire, a fixative made of egg whites, a drop of vinegar, milk or cream, then whipped, fermented and strained. He also uses 23-carat gold for the fine gold
leaf work.

 

“Some traditions you just keep,” he says. “The biggest thing I took from my apprenticeship is the idea of lineage and history – not in a familial way, but a craftsman has a lineage that is almost as important as a
blood lineage.” 

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