As far back as I can search into my memories, I simply cannot recall time a time that I was not constantly reading, my nose buried in the pages of a book and completely oblivious to the world around me. Books have been my constant companions, my trusted comrades, and my partners in crime since I was old enough to stretch out on my tip-toes, grip a title from a dusty shelf in my chubby little hands, and lisp out through loose and wiggly baby teeth the most thrilling of all possible phrases, “…Once upon a time.”
Ah, books! How do we love thee? (Quite a lot, as you might ascertain from the enthusiasm for our Stacked feature!) Sturdy spines enveloping stories and secrets yet untold, gilt-embellished covers, glimmering and hinting at undiscovered worlds, the rasp of papery promises as one by one the pages turn and the tale unfolds! And no one, I think, has a better understanding of how to create the perfect vessel for these mysteries and adventures, than Nate McCall of McCall Company.
McCall Company, a small bookbindery based in Poulsbo, WA specializing in finely bound leather journals marked by their outstanding craftsmanship and artistry, is owned and operated by husband and wife duo, Nate and Leila McCall. McCall Company was founded in 2013 when one day, Nate McCall decided that he could probably make a better journal than the ones he was shopping for at a major retailer. A week later, his apartment office was flooded with boxes upon boxes of supplies, and a bookbindery was born. Nate has always had a passion for books, and strives to create beautiful bindings of the highest quality. Between constantly learning new techniques and working on commission orders for beautiful bespoke books, journals, and sketchbooks Nate spoke with us about his genuine love of books, the art and craft of bookbinding, and shared some distinctly exciting news for discerning bibliophiles.
Haute Macabre: I know that you have a passion for books, and are no doubt a dedicated bibliophile. Is this what drew you to bookbindery, and did it grow out of this passion? Can you tell us how a love of books and stories grew into the craft that you now practice?
Nate McCall: I’ve always been obsessed with books, as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved to touch them and smell them and look at the little details, even things as simple as the corner folds. My books are my most valued possessions, and it shows…I have paperbacks that I’ve owned for more than 25 years (and read through countless times) that look like they just came out of the box from the publisher. But even though I always had questions about how they were made, oddly enough, I never really thought to look into it. It wasn’t until 2013 or so when I joined Instagram that I even realized that bookbinding was something people could do – I found Margaux Kent and the work she was doing with Peg and Awl, and seeing her bookbinding work blew my mind. The thought that I could make my own books had never occurred to me, but once it did, I knew I had found my life’s work! I just couldn’t resist the idea of being able to make these things that had always been such a huge part of my life. I learned the basics from a blog post, and since then my “education” has mostly consisted of digging through lots of repeat information, reverse engineering old books, and learning from my many, many mistakes along the way.
You note on your site that you love being able to take historical inspiration from across the centuries and bring it together to create something new and unique. I’d love to hear more about your particular inspirations and influences and perhaps how they may have evolved over the course of the years?
Since I make new books and am not really tied down to a specific historical style, I feel like I’m free to pick and choose and combine what I want. If I want to make a book inspired by medieval bindings but executed using 19th century tool designs, I can! I like having creative freedom like that. I also feel like my work is somewhat unique in that even with my designs that are pretty much completely modern or inspired by fantasy instead of history, I’m still using historical techniques to tool the designs by hand, rather than the more modern stamping techniques used by publishers. I love the opportunity I have as a bookbinder to create something unique with a modern combination of old tools and old techniques. To me, it feels like I’m doing my part to preserve, yet push forward an art form that many people, including myself not too long ago, aren’t even aware exists anymore. It’s a pretty great feeling and definitely drives my work.
Lately I’ve been obsessing over fine leather bindings from the late 19th to early 20th century. There are so many complicated little details in the tooling of that period, and my obsession has actually been improving my own tooling. A big part of gold tooling is actually learning the techniques, which is very difficult to begin, and it’s a constant learning process, even once you have a firm grasp of it. But something that I didn’t really think about when I was starting out is how hard it can be to design…it’s not like painting or drawing – you’re limited to the tools that you have, so you have to stretch your creativity to be able to make different designs with the same set of tools. Staring at pictures of old bindings (or the few that I’m lucky enough to own) has definitely helped me do that. It also has an oddly calming effect on me…I work as a baker as my second job, and that can be very stressful and exhausting. Spending my days fantasizing about old bindings keeps me sane, haha!
Did you start with restoring old books before you moved to the creation of new ones? And is there anything really cool that you’ve restored, or that you are especially proud of?
I’ve never actually done any restoration work, though I would like to learn the skills someday. Since I’m largely self-taught, I haven’t felt comfortable doing that yet, but I’m getting to the point where I’m gaining a better sense of how that type of work is done. I do have one book in my collection that I plan to do a rebind on soon, and I feel like it’ll be a good place to start since it doesn’t need a ton of repairs, just a tighter binding and a new cover.
I believe that most of your books are leather bound; you ever use more unusual materials? (I don’t imagine you’ve got any books bound in human skin laying around, haha!)
Haha not yet! Maybe I’ll leave it in my will to have my skin used on a book. I do mostly work with leather, but I’ve also done a fair amount of cloth bindings, and I also cover books with faux leather, which I like because I can tool it just as well as leather. Someday I’d really like to try my hand at a vellum binding.
I know you also take commissions, can you talk about the kind of requests you get, or if there’s been anything you were really excited to do?
My favorite commission requests are when people give me a vague idea of what they’re looking for, and then I get to go crazy with coming up with ideas! That’s probably the most common for me. Some of my customers know exactly what they want, and those are great too – I love being able to bring people’s vision to life. I’ve also been getting more requests for books with content, and those have been a lot of fun because it forces me to improve my tooling skills. With a journal, you can pretty much do anything design-wise, but when you have to account for a title, there’s a whole new aspect of design to consider, and that’s what I obsess over.
I’m always interested in a creator’s interests that aren’t necessarily tied to their craft–what are some other things that you are into? Any films you’ve loved recently? Music? Ok, of course we have to get back to books–any recent titles you’ve been loving lately that you’d recommend to Haute Macabre readers?
My favorite movie of the last few years (although possibly ever tbh) is Mad Max: Fury Road…it’s just the perfect movie to me. I’ve watched it probably 20 times since it came out, and I actually listen to the soundtrack a lot when I’m binding. Keeps my work intense haha. Music-wise, black metal will always be my first love, but lately I’ve also been super into artists like Agnes Obel, The National, Run the Jewels, and Arvo Pärt. My favorite books of all time are Illium and Olympos, by Dan Simmons. Some recent series that are contending for that second place spot are The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, and The Expanse by James S.A. Corey. Lev Grossman also wrote a really cool novel about books called Codex…a great read for anybody, but especially someone who loves book history!
What if someone is passionate about bookbinding and wants to learn more?
Well, a bookbinding course would definitely be the easiest way to learn. I did it the hard way! But if that’s not an option, the internet is full of information on the basics, and once you start to move on to the more complicated stuff, there’s still info out there, but you’ll have to dig for it. Either way you’ll have to spend some money – you can’t learn this craft without making a lot of mistakes on a lot of books that you’ve put time and money into! It’s always painful, but I believe that knowing what not to do is more valuable than knowing what do to, so it’s worth it in the end. One of the most frustrating aspects of researching the craft that I’ve run into is how few books there are that are actually useful to someone who isn’t already a bookbinder. But if I were to recommend one book, it would be The Craft of Bookbinding, by Manly Banister. You won’t be able to learn everything from it, and its not always super clear, but I definitely found the most amount of practical information in it out of all the other books I’ve read on the subject.
Lastly, I’d read that you are going to be publishing and binding very limited runs of public domain classic books, with original illustrations by various independent artists. And that the first two you are doing are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and an Edgar Allan Poe collection. When can we look forward to this? Do you have any other peeks or details that you can share?
Yeah! Super excited about this project. It’s actually looking like I’m going to be doing Dracula first, Frankenstein second, and then an Edgar Allan Poe collection. The project is still definitely in the works, but I’m taking it slower than I originally planned. I came up with the idea when I was working in IT and had a lot more time and energy to work on stuff. Now that my second job is baking, I’m pretty much regulated to working on books three days a week, and most of that is spent working on orders. So I’m working on that and other future projects whenever I get the chance, but hopefully once business picks up and I can focus more exclusively on bookbinding, it’ll all come together nicely from all the preliminary work I’ll be putting in this year.