I have a much better appreciation for the volvelles, or circular computers, that survived from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the present day.  Fragile, finicky and prone to moving right went you don’t want it to, the volvelle is the brainchild of Raymond Llull, a Catalan Catholic theologian of the mid-1300s AD. 

I want to make a volvelle to go on the inside front cover of a hand bound book I’m designing. As you can probably tell, this volvelle is astronomical in nature, but Llull’s was intended to be logical and grammatical, designed to explore theological concepts and train missionaries to work in Islamic regions (he failed to win many converts).  

The volvelle remains. This one has pointers for the seven visible planets of medieval astronomy (less the Moon, because I lost the paper cutout between cutting it out and assembling the volvelle). It also has a horizon line, and a “sphere of fixed stars” that includes both the Decans of the Zodiac and the Mansions of the Moon; as well as the fixed ground of the twelve houses of astrology. 

And it doesn’t work as smoothly as I’d like. I need to replace the brass brad with a paper system, as is used in medieval and renaissance volvelles. The brass brad is too thick, and doesn’t allow for smooth or independent rotation of the parts. Back to the drawing board. 

Chinese sewing book


I’ve been fascinated by the Chinese Thread Book, or (zhen xian bao) since I first found out about it several years ago.  It always seemed too complicated. Today, I followed the tutorial here on how to construct it.  There are other tutorials, but this is the one I chose to follow.

The results are not ideal.  The paper I used is really cardstock, and too heavy for this purpose.  It does make it less likely that you’ll rip the twist boxes in the course of opening and closing them, but all in all the book turned out nicely despite being made of paper scraps from my collection of leftovers from other paper projects.

By and large, the most difficult piece of the work is folding the pieces that become the twist boxes.  This involves cutting an A4 piece of paper to the correct size, measuring it, folding it into fifths and halves, and then folding it in a series of diagonals to produce the twist.  All in all, though, an elegant design.
This book contains seven compartments, but I missed an opportunity to add at least two more, if not six more. No matter. I was following a tutorial, not designing my own box from scratch. I do see, from museum examples, that there are some ways of adding more complex compartments to the book — one large one the size of the whole cover, another two on each side, and another pair opening underneath the two compartments on the right-hand side.  Plus there’s maybe space for a couple of ‘envelope’-like pockets under the left and right side compartments.

Here’s the second thing I like about it, despite the heavy paper (or perhaps because of it).  It’s clear that this is a thing with a specific purpose — thread. You’re not going to be storing cauldrons and alembics and elaborate machinery inside of this.  It’s for thread.  Maybe some needles.  I saw a museum-quality example once, really from southwest China, that was large enough to store pattern pieces for sewing shoes in it.  This one is not that big, as you can tell by my hands.  But it’s still a thing rooted in geometry (even if I used a ruler and was measuring in centimeters to make this particular example.  The people who built the originals did so using geometry for the most part, not measurement with measurement-units like inches or centimeters.  They made these things according to geometric rules, which I started to get a handle on as they made these beautiful objects.

Third — as some of you might guess from the paper choices for the twist boxes — there are potential uses for this book of boxes in magic.  I can see Gordon populating this with some of his sigils, for example, or maybe treating the paper as sigil-surface.  It can certainly be decorated, far beyond what I’ve done here.  Or sigils could be secreted inside the various compartments.

This one, I’m going to use in my bimonthly roleplaying game as a prop.  It’s a little too rough and weird and heavy to use as a regular-use object, and I don’t really have a use for it (yet).  But if I make some counters or things to put in the compartments, then maybe this is a wizard’s spell book, or a special-purpose version of something like a deck of many things, or a similarly special-purpose bag of holding. (Just because the compartments can’t hold cauldrons in our world, doesn’t mean they can’t in another world…)

So, that’s the basics of it. Not complicated, really, though it looks intimidating.

Books of secrets


Each of my nieces is receiving a A Book of Secrets this Christmas. That is, they’re getting a blank book to use as a journal, with a nice note from me on the front cover. But this journal has a secret in it.In truth, it has several secrets. Several dozen secrets. Scattered among the blank pages are a number of diagrams and tools for young ladies that are not entirely appropriate. Secrets like, how to write in coded letters and ciphers, how to speak in semaphore, how to write morse code messages around the edges of notes, and how to draw things that no one else knows how to draw, like horses and princesses. How to fold origami besides cranes. How to tie useful knots.  How to write in runes, and Greek, and the two Japanese syllabaries. How to draw in isometric perspective and 2 point perspective. How to make beautiful repetitive patterns like Zentangles.   How to draw complex geometry using only a ruler and compass.Thanks to the invention of modern quick copy machines and the Internet, this is not particularly difficult to do.

I created forty-eight sheets of secrets using public domain imagery from the Internet, traveled to the local photocopy shop, and made two copies of these ‘secret pages’. Then I bought another ream of the paper they used to print them, and made another six or seven quires/signatures for each book; and interleaved the ‘secret pages’ in amongst the others. The result?

A journal that also doubles as a teaching aide.  A teaching aide on how to be difficult and interesting and smart.  And I hope that the act of giving this book to my young nieces will encourage them to be interesting and smart and knowledgable about complicated matters, and to care about ideas and where they come from.

There’s no one book that can do all of that, of course. But a journal that is not quite like any other journal in the world, hand made just for you, with a group of secrets that you share with only your not-quite-sister… I hope that will be tempting enough.

Because no one quite decides to become interesting on their own. Interesting people — like interesting teachers — take an interest in young people (without too much of an interest, of course), and nourish and encourage them in the right ways at the right times. For me, it was an uncle who gave me lots of books about architecture and archaeology and history and science. Later he taught me to sail, and later still he took me and my family on a sailing tour of the Greek islands (I was supposed to go on the sailing trip to Denmark and Sweden, but it didn’t work out).

In any case, here we are: two books of secrets — where ‘secrets’ stands in for the idea of “things that you have to learn by doing them“.

And that’s at the core of what it means to be a Maker.  I would not have thought to make a pair of books for family members, each filled with secrets, without first training myself to be a bookbinder; and I wouldn’t train myself to be a bookbinder without first identifying myself as a Maker and a Designer.  The two go hand in hand.  We can’t be Makers without some clarity about what it is that we make; we can’t be designers without some sense of what it is that the world needs to have in it to be a better place.

For many Makers and Designers, that means making new things, like robots and blinking LED gizmos. And there’s a place for that. For me, there’s benefit in making new things in an old way — and sharing mindsets and methodologies with young people that machines and electronics are not the only things worth having.



Coptic stitch

Poetry has been a special concern of mine for decades. I’ve written a lot about poetry; and I’ve written quite a lot of poetry, from the Orien fragments to the Neo-Orphic hymns, and a bunch of stuff in between. Usually poets in the 21st century publish chapbooks, or small paper pamphlets of their work. I delayed, and delayed, and delayed. But I’ve finally felt like I’ve reached an important stopping point. 

And so I’m taking the time — a lot of time, really — to print and hand-bind the collections. There are going to be (probably) a hundred copies each of four books: the Book of Splendor, shown here; the Behenian Stars (I gave out six very special editions last weekend); the Mansions of the Moon; and the Decans of the Zodiac. The last two are still in development, but these first two are essentially done. I think. 

Nothing left to do but the binding. I did ten copies of the Book of Splendor in an early edition, a special run of ten copies, to test out different binding processes. I decided that I really liked the Coptic stitch best.  So now I’ve started on a run of 100. I’m at odds with myself, whether to do all the covers in black with blue endpapers, and the binding in white thread; or whether to change it up by groups of ten or twenty-five. The text will remain the same throughout. 

I also haven’t decided if I should sell them as I make them, or wait until I have a big pile of them. I’ve decided that ten or maybe twenty or so will be gift-copies; but most are going to be for sale. 

It’s a funny feeling in the gut, to know that the covers, the binding and the book and the text inside it are all your own work. Feels like a responsibility. Feels like a happiness, too. 

Bookbinding: For the Behenian Stars


Update 23 January 2017: You can buy a copy of these poems through my Etsy store. Would you be interested in buying the book-block, so you can hand-bind the book at home?

A few days ago, a friend asked me if I would make a few of my poetry pieces available for a weekend intensive workshop he’s running. I said yes — but he was planning to photocopy the work, and make seven copies. I thought about this, and decided this was silly. I have the text block more or less ready to go as a PDF file. There are only seven people in this particular intensive… how hard could it be?

Boy, are my fingers tired...

A stack of hand-bound books

Two days later, I have seven “special edition” copies of a book that’s not quite ready for print, and I’ve made a few discoveries I hadn’t expected to make. First of all, this book will need to be longer in the next edition if I intend to bind it using the Coptic stitch, as I did here.  Second, I learned that if you’re going to get all fancy with the stitching, it’s a good idea to get the geometry correct, too — although I do like the star (because a book about stars, and full of star poetry like this, should have a star on it, right?  And it should be worked into the theme and design of the book, right?)

I have a lot of complaints about this edition, as a result.  But I also have a really good idea now of how many copies of a book I can produce in a few days, on short notice — and how many I can produce if I’m really taking my time and being careful with each and every book. I couldn’t be that careful with these; I didn’t have time to slather all over these with a noon deadline for myself today.

But I also learned quite a bit about setting up a production line, as I did with carpentry — make seventeen sets of covers for books; then let them dry while you cut and fold pages; weight the pages while you pierce the covers for the stitching; pierce the pages while you weight the covers again to help them loosen up a bit before stitching.  Stitch the books one at a time while watching cheesy ol’ TV shows to keep yourself seated and on-task making the books. Clean up as you go, or face massive piles of paper.  There’s a Flickr album of photographs from the process if you care to see the process.  Otherwise, you can just admire the books from afar.

Special Edition for Twilight Covening 2016

Always nice to see your name in print… even on your own handiwork.

And now there are seven copies of this book that were not in the world before. In any form.  Are they perfect? No.  Are they real?  Yes.

But real is a tricky thing when it comes to books of poetry, as any working poet will tell you.  We issue chap books for ourselves and our friends quite frequently, and make copies of our work in the hope that it will somehow outlast us.  I spoke to someone only last night, sharing a poem with them, and — when they asked if they could read it to someone else — said that it was part of my immortality spell.  I was only half-joking.

But even a chapbook is a fragile thing.  How many copies do you need to put into the world, for your words to outlive you?  How many beautiful art books must come into the world for a single one to survive the drift of ages?  Likely far more than I can produce by hand.

Unless I make them beautiful.  Unless I make them worthy of love and care and protection. Unless I attend to the effort to make my words and their repositories something larger than simply myself.

These copies are reserved.  I intend to inform the people to whom they are given that this is a gift, and in exchange for this gift I ask them to respect my copyright, and not to publish them, copy them, or hand the book on to someone else.

If you would like a copy, you will have to contact me.  I will be making more; but those will be for sale.

Magic: light for others



mystery for dessert

these will be filled with goodies

Robert Mitchell has a good post about the hermetic mysteries of Christmas.  I’d forgotten his detail about St Francis of Assisi inventing the concept of the Nativity scene or crèche, but it turns out to have been a brilliant idea. He’s quite right about the nature of Christian Mysteries, though — there are a lot of them. Easter pageants, nativity scenes, the Mass or Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and more.  For the last few days, I’ve been listening to a good many of them in the form of Christmas carols, wassail songs, Gregorian plainsong, chants, and more, celebrating Word Made Flesh, spirit entering into matter, and light coming into the world.  Of course the shepherds are afraid.

One of the things that I feel called to do, as a Maker and … other things…  is make a little mystery for people from time to time.  My mother is expecting eight dinner guests tomorrow.  And so I’ve made nine origami boxes in the shape of stars, as containers or plates for tomorrow night’s dessert. They’ll contain a small variety of treats — a few cookies, a bit of chocolate, a candy or two.

These boxes were a lot of trouble to make.  This sort of paper doesn’t fold easily, and once folded it wants to crumple in on itself in horrifying ways. Their very fragility speaks to the vulnerability that Jason talks about in that link about the shepherds’ fear; it speaks to the wonder we allow for ourselves when we allow ourselves to visit the manger, to “come to Bethlehem and see,” a baby who is already a king, a God who chose to be mortal, a word that chose to be flesh.

A Territory that chose to become a Map.

In light of Gordon’s recommendations, I find myself reading The Internet is Not the Answer, about the fundamental disruption of the world at the hands of the software-eats-world crowd.  We lived, once upon a time, in a world with a multivalenced global culture and a complexity of local/regional cultures, and a murmuration of languages.  Increasingly, though, a Babel of computer languages has taken the place of all of that.  We’re flattening the territory into a map, making flesh into Word, real life into executable code.

What must it have been like for divinity to take on flesh? It must be something like being a thirty-year employee of Kodak or another giant of the old economy, suddenly discovering yourself old and helpless in a rotting northern industrial city while the rich kids of Instagram eat your retirement fund in an evening out.

Six boxes made, three to go, earlier today I ruined four pieces of paper trying to get those last three boxes made.  I expressed my frustration and dismay to my mother the artist, who sympathized but would not let me give up. “Effort to make magic for others is never really wasted.”

So whether you visit the Nativity in your dreams or upon your parents’ mantlepiece or at a churchyard on a nearby street, whether tomorrow you celebrate a long-ago birthday or not, here is my wish for you, for us: Peace on earth, and goodwill to all people; mystery, sweetness, and joy in the coming year.  May your words be made flesh.  May your maps become territory.  May the magic you make for others be successful.

Make Summer Camp: Hungarian Map-fold book


This is part of the Make Summer Camp series of posts. As my regular readers know, I’ve been spending the summer practicing skills related to the work I do in the Design Lab. Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, or rather fortunate events that resulted in way too much scheduled time this summer and not enough tinkering time, I wound up having to leave aside much of what I planned to do in terms of carpentry and mechanics.  The result has been a great deal of paper engineering, including this. 

The Hungarian Map-Fold Book

I’m not entirely clear why these photographs are A) so blurry, and B) so huge. But it is what it is.

This is a Hungarian map-fold book.  It has seven pages, each of which is a folded square of paper 12″ by 12″.  When folded up, as you can see in the video, it becomes a house shape — which seemed appropriate for a book that will eventually contain poetry and images intended to honor the seven planets, the seven virtues, and the seven liberal arts.

Or maybe just the seven planets. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get text or images into this, except with a lot more glue — and the thing is already pretty heavy with glue.  I’m worried that it will dry in the locked-shut position, actually.  Some of the pages are pretty sticky, and there’s no way to lay it open to dry. Only one panel of the book can be open at a time.

Which is part of the reason it suggested itself to be a book of the Seven Heavens.

As a Latin teacher, I get to play with the concept of the Seven Heavens in my classes. I remind my students that this isn’t exactly the way that the world works — but that from the point of view of an observer on earth, it’s very difficult to imagine things working other than this: a fixed earth, with seven wandering stars between us and the fixed stars above.  The Romans may not have believed that, but their successors certainly did; and it remained a part of the imagined cosmology until the 1500s AD, at least in the Western world.  It was not how the world actually worked— but it’s terribly difficult to understand a great deal of ancient thought without at least understanding this mindset.

Part of me wishes I’d added in three more pages — for the Hymns of Silence that Sam has written about, and for some introductory and concluding material.  The pages do funky things as they open and close, and it would be terrific to have some place for explanation.  On the other hand, the book does a fantastic job of being both beautiful and slightly creepy as it opens and closes.  I like it a lot.

When closed, as you can see in the video (although not for very long — time-lapse videos are awfully hard to make long), the book’s shape is that of a house, or a five pointed object. Part of me wishes I’d made it an actual pentagon, but I didn’t think of it until I’d finished constructing the book. Maybe next time.

I learned about the Hungarian Map Fold, and books to be made from it, in this post about it, which I found through Pinterest. Greenchair Press also has some tutorials on the making of this style of book which I found helpful at the start; once I’d actually committed to making the book, I sort of did my own thing without reading many directions, which was probably a mistake. Still, I owe Susan some serious thanks; I’m not sure I could have built this book on my own without her inspiration.

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