The Smyth book sewing machine is now running!

Some of you may recall my obsession with a 1935 Smyth book sewing machine and all of the steps it took to restore it and get it running again.

This is the now-completed Smyth book sewing machine in the Shakespeare Press Museum.
The museum is part of the Graphic Communication Department at Cal Poly, where I taught before my retirement.

After my return from Germany last September, I worked a lot on that machine and got it to the point of actually sewing signatures of a book into book blocks. There are still some small adjustments to make to get it working perfectly, but after over three years of work, it’s finished and I’m mighty proud that it sews books.

That machine, a 1935 Model 12 Smyth book sewing machine, had sat on display in a glass case at the California State Printing Office in Sacramento for about 20 years. The lubricants in the machine had turned to a waxy adhesive, and the clutch was locked in the engaged position by the stiff goo. The wheels wouldn’t turn; the screws wouldn’t budge. The motor was dead.

It also had outdated and illegal electrical wiring, with exposed high voltage contact points that were not to-code in the 21st century. I remedied those electrical problems by putting the old motor and speed regulator into e-waste and starting over with a new totally-enclosed motor and a fancy variable-frequency drive to control it.

If you want to read about that part of the project, it is serialized here.

I spent the better part of three years working intermittently on this machine.

In late November, 2022, I demonstrated the Smyth machine to a class of 37 young women studying Book Design Technology in the Graphic Communication Department at Cal Poly. During that demonstration I broke a part on the machine – a result of allowing a reciprocating arm to fall into the machine and shear-off an aluminum guide bar. Fortunately, the Smyth Machine Company is still in business, and they still use the same part on their modern machines! I ordered a replacement, and it arrived last week.

I was successful in sewing signatures together with the machine using six needles and six threads. The machine uses a combination of punches that come up through the spine of each signature, a needle with fresh thread in it, and a crochet hook that grabs the thread after it goes through the spine of the signature, turns it 90 degrees, and pulls it back up through an adjacent punched hole in the signature. From there that thread gets hooked by the next stitch, and that combination of actions makes a chain stitch that holds the book together for binding.

Despite the broken part, I was able to make a complete book block, ready for subsequent operations to make a finished case-bound (often called a “Smyth-sewn”) book.

Project completed!

You can read the related stories about the restoration of the machine here.

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.
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