Scratching the Surface: Disguising and Embellishing Wood with Daniel Essig

This blog post is the first in a series of four posts detailing the presentations I attended at the Guild of Book Workers 2011 Seminar on Standards of Excellence in Hand Bookbinding.

It isn’t my intention to describe these presentations blow-by-blow (although I’ll probably do it anyway). Instead, I hope to give you the flavor of each presentation, along with highlighting interesting tips and/or techniques.

I was late to the first seminar because I experienced some travel confusion (stupid Boston traffic…grumble, grumble). Thankfully, I had a wonderful travel companion to help keep my spirits up – thanks Jill!

First up – Daniel Essig‘s Scratching the Surface: Disguising and Embellishing Wood. Since I arrived late, I ended up in the back row. Here’s the view:

Daniel Essig presentation from the back of the room

It’s just like you were there…isn’t it?

Dan said that when he researches wood finishes, he looks to African sculpture for inspiration. Among his techniques for distressing wood: burning, scoring, scraping, scratching, hammering, gouging, and carving. He likes to create no more than five marks with any one tool.

Dan Essig's tools

Quartersawn boards are more stable and are therefore, preferable for book covers. In a nutshell, they warp less. One of the funniest things Dan said was how if you carve wood with your hands in front of your chisel, then you are working in the “ER Position”. (I’m probably the last to hear that one.)

When burning wood, you’ll get a more dramatic effect if you use wood with an open grain. You should always burn wood on both sides to help avoid warping (the technique dries out the wood).

Wood demo pieces

 Among his other tips:

  • Use oil-free steel wool.
  • “You can’t steel wool too much.”
  • Use a Dremel to outline the wood grain.
  • Cloth-backed sandpaper holds up better.
  • Carve with the grain of the wood to prevent splintering.

Daniel Essig presentation on a video monitor

Among Dan’s finishing products – milk paint, paste wax, and Kiwi shoe polish.

You can buy milk paint in powder form and mix it yourself. If you keep the paint powder in an airtight container, it will last longer. Extra-Bond can be used as a base for creating your own milk paint colors.

Wood demo pieces

When applying paste wax, use a soft cloth. To polish, use a rough paper towel.

Wood demo pieces

Dan spent some time talking about his use of Cave Paper, which everyone at the conference seemed to love (it was pretty fabulous). He applies the paper to wood and after painting the surface, it looks just like leather.

He crumples up the paper, opens it up, then crumples it up again. Repeating this process breaks up the gelatin sizing and creates random cracks in the paper’s surface.

He advised that using a weatherproof glue is preferable when applying the paper – he likes Titebond II because it has a good initial tack. When attaching the paper, get rid of the air bubbles, but keep the ridges.

Book artist Daniel Essig

Dan with some of his work

The best part of the presentation was when Dan talked about the centipede binding (a.k.a. caterpillar binding). I have had mixed success with this binding and have been desperate to conquer it. He recommended that when plotting out the centipede’s path, keep it in a straight line. I think that this is what has been my downfall, getting too creative and curvy with my centipedes.

Dear Dan, that tip alone was worth the price of admission. 🙂

He said that the centipede binding was developed by Keith Smith in 1988. I’ve also heard references to Betsy Palmer Eldridge with regards to this binding. In order to avoid taking sides, I’m going to claim simultaneous development.

I’m still flabbergasted by the fact that I actually touched his work. My hands were on his books. See the books in these pictures? I touched them.

Handmade books by Dan Essig

Handmade book by Dan Essig

Dan Essig's wood tools

Handmade tools

LOVED Dan’s presentation.

I’ve always wanted to take one of his classes and was thisclose to reaching my goal this past summer. Unfortunately, the class was canceled. Poo.

Mark my words, one day it will happen. Oh yes, it will happen.

4 Responses to “Scratching the Surface: Disguising and Embellishing Wood with Daniel Essig”

By velma - 19 October 2011 Reply

elissa, i’m making the drive over when you get dan to come. you did a lovely job here, and thank you for the tips. i, too am a cave paper fan, and iowa paper, too.

By Elissa - 19 October 2011 Reply

Velma –

What’s Iowa paper? I did a web search and came up with a janitorial supply company!

The Book Arts Guild of Vermont is determined to get Dan to come for a workshop…I’ll keep you posted.


By velma - 19 October 2011 Reply

they call it case paper, and talas sells it, but you can check here:
i love it LOVE it!

By Elissa - 26 October 2011 Reply

Velma –

Ooohhh…do you mean the PC4 Flax Paper Case? It sounds delicious!


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