Alumni Profile • Vernon Wiering '92
New life for old books

Vernon Wiering '92Vernon Wiering ’92 can still recall how certain of his father’s books felt in his hands 30 years ago. A tactile learner in a home without a TV, he entertained himself by studying how things were put together and making versions of his own: boxes and picture frames, for example.

And book bindings, the first of which he made as a teenager — a replacement binding for a library book he’d lost, paid for, then found, falling apart. Crude as it was — scrap fabric, stiff cardboard and contact cement — that binding gave Wiering a particular satisfaction, so that he began to teach himself the rudiments of bookbinding.

Today, Wiering makes new bindings for books out of fine leathers. He uses brass type set in a stamping press to print titles and authors’ names in gold foil or gold leaf. To the red goatskin cover of a 1545 missal from the Abbey of Gethsemane he attaches darkened silver clasps. With antique hand tools he carefully imprints ornaments distinctive to the era of the book’s first publication.

This is the rare art of book restoration, an art that’s attracted more attention in the last 50 years. “That’s when people began to value old things again, including books,” Wiering said. “Instead of throwing them away, people wanted to preserve them.” But by then the traditional way of learning bookbinding — apprentices working alongside master craftsmen — had crumbled. Wiering had to teach his hands the art by reading books — and practicing a lot.

It pleases him, being paid to practice what had, until four years ago, been simply a well-loved hobby.

“When I was in college, I bought tools from a small bookbinder who was going out of business — $200 for everything he had. I kept them in my apartment, and for pleasure and distraction I’d make journals and bind books for my friends — that sort of thing.”

After graduation Wiering and his wife, Lorilyn Kamps-Wiering ’91, moved to Zuni, N.M., to teach. For the seven years they were there he made journals and art books and sold them through a local gallery. He expected bookbinding to keep that kind of place in his life.

But in a job search crisis the Spirit led otherwise. When Wiering and Lorilyn moved back to Grand Rapids in 2000, he looked for a teaching job and didn’t find one. To make ends meet he did odd jobs, including binding the manuscript of a family memoir. Word got out. Wiering discovered there was a market for bookbinding and began gradually to advertise his services, setting up shop in his home and teaching himself restoration skills one step ahead of each new project.

His fine craftsmanship has earned him restoration work from the Grand Rapids Public Library, Calvin’s Meeter Center and Western Michigan University’s rare book room, which houses collections from other small institutions — like the Abbey of Gethsemane — around the country.
Businesses are also clients; he recently rebound a mechanic’s manual for a local car repair shop. Private individuals come to him, too, sometimes with one-of-a-kind challenges, like the man who brought an eight-inch scrimshaw whale tooth and the ship’s log of the Civil War-era whaler who made it. He commissioned Wiering not only to restore the logbook, but also to make a box to display both book and tooth together.

“I feel like I’m giving new life to objects with history and meaning,” Wiering said.

And a beautiful new life it is.

To learn more about Wiering’s skills and services see his Web site: www.wieringbooks.com.