Obsessing on a 1935 bookbinding machine

I get obsessed about my projects.

My current obsession is the restoration of a 1935 Smyth book sewing machine in the Shakespeare Press Museum at Cal Poly (I was the faculty advisor before I retired). That machine sews the spines of hard-cover books. It’s a pretty good bet that every production case-bound book in the world is made with Smyth book sewing machines.

This is the Smyth book sewing machine. At the top, center are the spindles for thread, on the right is the old motor controller, and below that, the 1935 Westinghouse three-phase motor. (The spittoon on the floor is completely unrelated to bookbinding.)

The machine in question is on very-long-term loan from the California Department of General Services. It was used for many years to bind books produced by the State Office of Printing. When they no longer needed it, they put it in a glass case in their lobby, where it sat for many years as an antique curiosity.

A few years ago I paid a drayage company a tremendous amount of money to move the machine to Cal Poly. They broke the glass case, which didn’t matter because I didn’t expect them to try to ship that with the machine and I didn’t care when it showed up in shards.

A Smyth machine weighs in at just under a ton. It’s difficult to move without damaging the machine because its many cams hang below a common main shaft that runs laterally under the machine. Lifting and moving it requires jacks and solid steel rollers. The most difficult part was getting it off of the pallet. The machine was lifted into the air with jacks and 4×4 timbers, then the pallet was taken out from underneath. Once that was done, the machine was carefully lowered onto blocks of wood on the corners by our skilled team of drayers (me).

This is the identification badge that is affixed to the machine. This, and the printed instruction manual both show dates that put this machine’s manufacture at 1935.

Moving it into position was relatively easy. I used “crabs” which are small steel skateboards with solid wheels. Once in position, it had to be lifted off of the crabs, then gingerly lowered onto the floor. Dropping a machine like this – even an inch – can be fatal to the cast iron parts (for this I had help). We managed to get it to the concrete floor with long steel pry bars and ever-thinner slips of wood. The last quarter-inch was announced with a bang, but nothing was damaged.

Since the machine had been sitting for years in a glass case, it was in beautiful condition. No rust, no dust, but also no movement. The lubricants in the machine had solidified, and the mechanism was inoperative as a result. The main clutch was frozen, the delivery table gears were stuck. It was, internally, a no-go mechanism. It was also missing a couple of key parts. Two long springs are normally on the bottom of the cam followers, ending on a center foot of the machine. One of those springs was missing. I tried to order one, but couldn’t find any the correct size, so I went to McMaster-Carr in Los Angeles, and they quoted $275 for a single spring to be custom manufactured. Another custom spring maker in Los Angeles quoted $750 for one spring.

Then I called Smyth, whose headquarters had moved from the original Hartford, Connecticut home to a new facility in South Carolina. After a couple of tries, I reached Jennifer at Smyth who told me that, yes, they still stock that part (they still use the same part in modern Smyth machines). Yes I could order one, but, she cautioned me, “We have a $25 minimum order.” She suggested that I buy two of the springs at $7.95 each, and then buy something else that I might need for the machine. I bought 100 needles and 100 crochet hooks, and two springs, and I spent about $125.00. I am now outfitted for the next decade for needles and hooks. The springs fit perfectly; I had them installed in minutes.

Getting the machine turning was more challenging. The State Printing Office sent a technician to San Luis Obispo to help (it is their machine, after all). He was successful in getting the main clutch turning again, and he and I got the main shaft turning. My friend Bill and I got the feed table gears freed-up with lots of back-and-forth and a lot of penetrating oil. Now it’s moving smoothly again.

Here is a better view of the motor and controller as we received the machine. Both have been replaced with modern technologies that will allow us to run the machine and sew book blocks. In this photo was a pallet I built that ended up not working well under the machine. Its thinner parts were too weak to hold the weight and they cracked. I removed it and put the machine on the floor.

The original motor, a 1/2 HP Westinghouse 208 volt 3-phase motor was not in good condition, so I decided to scrap it and start over on motive power. And therein lies the root of my current obsession. The original motor had a speed control that was made in 1935. That speed control consists of huge wire-wound resistors with multiple taps in the middle, connected to a series of copper contacts that are touched by a rotating lever on the control panel. It was old and it no longer worked correctly. The technician from the State Printing Office also said it was dangerous (large exposed live electrical contacts), so the decision to replace it was easier. I always strive for historic accuracy, but in this case I chose safety over authenticity. The machine itself is still historically accurate.

I decided to replace the motor with a modern 1 HP 3-phase sealed and fan-cooled motor. These are common and easy to install and connect. The problem was the speed control. The motor I bought runs at 1340 rpm – only. I need something much slower for this machine, probably 500 rpm, or perhaps less.

A comparison of the old motor, top, and the new motor. The original motor was a 1/2 HP device operated by a complex controller that used multi-tap resistors to control speed. My new controller uses a Variable-Frequency Drive to power the new 1 HP motor.

On machines of this type it’s common to see mechanical variable-speed pulleys (our Heidelberg Windmill press has this type of speed control). I couldn’t use that because the main clutch is encased inside the main flywheel, which is also the main drive wheel. There is no practical way to engineer this without making a secondary pulley system; that was too complicated. So I decided to use an electronic motor speed control instead, and that is covered in the next part of this story. Read about the wiring and the utility box, and the Variable-Frequency Drive.

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and was a Guest Professor at Hochschule München from September, 2021 to September, 2022. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
This entry was posted in Adventures, Bookbinding, Education, History, Imposition and Pagination, New technology, Printing and Printing Processes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Obsessing on a 1935 bookbinding machine

  1. Joseph Heimlich says:

    I owned and worked on those sewing machines for 40 years. if you need some help or advice, I’ll gladly help you. Joseph

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Joseph,

      I might call on you for advice at some point. I’m working in Germany for a year and will not be back in the company of the Smyth until I return. There is one problem I am having with the clutch where your input might be needed.

      Best wishes,
      Brian P. Lawler
      The Blognosticator

    • Stephen says:


      Do you have any leads on purchasing a Smyth machine?

      Best and thanks,

      • Brian Lawler says:

        Hi Stephen,

        That’s an interesting question. I have never looked for one, but I’ll bet they show up on eBay from time to time. There are also used printing machinery dealers around who might have one for sale.

        I’m always surprised by the availability of parts and supplies for these old machines. I wouldn’t surprise me if there were machines in the back shops of printers around the country. I would start with an inquiry to Smyth. Their e-mail is: support@smythusa.com.

        They may be able to direct you to a used machine.

        Best wishes,

        Brian P. Lawler

  2. Ted Gortemaker says:

    Hi Brian and Stephen,
    Ran across this post looking for other things printing related. Just wanted to make sure you are aware of Howard Graphic Equipment and the printing museum that Nick Howard and his family own and operate in Ontario, Canada. They restore all kinds of equipment and might have leads that can help you. Check out http://howardironworks.org/
    Cheers Gentlemen! Wish you the very best! Ted

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Ted,

      I just recently learned about the Howard museum. I watched a video on YouTube about it. That’s an impressive collection, and I will one day visit!

      Thank you,

      Brian P. Lawler
      The Blognosticator

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