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Eugene Stahnke still enjoys bookbinding after 66 year of practicing the trade

Eugene G. Stahnke is surrounded by the tools of his trade in his basement bookbinding shop. In the foreground are two refurbished history volumes, next to their original battered covers. (Hudson Star-Observer photos by Randy Hanson)1 / 9
The curvature, called the round, is hammered into a book spine.2 / 9
Two newly rebound history volumes lay on top of a book still in the process of being repaired.3 / 9
After 66 years of practicing the trade, bookbinding still makes Eugene Stahnke happy. He’s holding a roll of cheesecloth used in the process.4 / 9
The guillotine cutter is used to trim pages, giving a book uniform sides.5 / 9
A Kwik Print letter press stamps the authors’ names, book titles and artwork into book covers in gold type.6 / 9
Type for the Kwik Print press is set the old-fashioned way, a letter at a time. 7 / 9
Two boards with metal edges are used to make the joints, or hinges, the book covers swing on.8 / 9
Worn-out covers from two history books Eugene Stahnke recently repaired lay on a workbench in his shop.9 / 9

Eugene Stahnke is one of the last of his kind.

He was a bookbinder at West Publishing for more than 40 years –- and 26 years in into retirement is still practicing the trade.

“I have a protégé who worked with me at West Publishing. He’s trying to get into the act a little bit. He may get some of my stuff, because none of my kids want it,” Stahnke says of a possible successor.

Are there any young people learning the trade?

“I doubt it,” he says.

In the basement shop of his house on Second Street, Stahnke puts new covers on old books (and on new books of poor quality) using equipment from a bygone era.

The Hudson School District is one of his biggest customers, dropping off anywhere from 50 to 100 or more broken textbooks for him to rebind over the summer.

He gets a lot of family Bibles to repair, as well as old books from antique shops.

When Steve Anderson had his Ross & Haines Old Books Co. in downtown Hudson, Stahnke did considerable work for his customers.

He also bound self-published new books, including many for Willis Miller, the late publisher and editor of the Star-Observer.

The process

Stahnke removes the damaged book covers and makes new ones using as much of the old cover boards as possible. He takes the laminated fabric off the old cover boards and glues on sheets of chipboard to reinforce them.

“The bigger the book, the thicker the board has to be,” he explains. Sometimes it takes three or four layers of chipboard paper to make the cover strong enough.

Meanwhile, the spine of the book –- the place where the pages come together –- needs to be repaired.

Stahnke removes the old, brittle glue and cuts grooves in the spine, through which nylon thread is strung. Then a cheesecloth-like material is glued to the spine, reinforcing it and holding the pages together.

Books used to be sewn together, and the expensive ones still are.

But in the interest of cost-cutting, many new books are simply glued together, Stahnke explains. The glue becomes brittle over time and the pages break loose, often when book is dropped or subjected to other abuse.

Well-made books are produced in sections called signatures. Each signature is made of a single sheet of paper, folded numerous times and then cut on three sides. The result is that a page in the front half of the book is fully connected to a page in the back half of the book. And each signature is sewn together to make the spine.

“I’ve got my own system for sewing them,” Stahnke says of the damaged books he gets. The details are a trade secret, however.

The book covers are completed by gluing a laminated material to the boards and forming the joints for the covers to swing on.

It’s all put together in a process known as the “turn-in.” The cover material is stretched over the boards, folded in on all four sides and glued. A chart hanging on his shop wall tells Stahnke how much space to leave between the covers for the spine.

It’s a difficult process to explain, he says. You really need to see it happen to understand it.

“Most of your time is spent waiting,” he adds. “Everything that I make has to have pressure on it. And you have to wait for the glue to dry.”

Finally, Stahnke uses his Kwik Print letter press and to stamp the author’s name, the book title and artwork onto the cover using 16-carat gold foil as the medium.

A well-made book, he says, has a rounded spine and pronounced joints for the covers to swing on.

A long career

Stahnke got his start in the graphic arts in his sophomore year of high school when he was hired as a printer’s devil at the North St. Paul Courier, a weekly newspaper.

“You did everything. You swept the floor. You washed up the presses. And you were in training to learn how to set type,” he recalls.

After high school, he stayed with the Courier until shortly before enlisting in the Air Force in 1943.

The Air Force put his printing knowledge to use, too, first assigning him to the shop at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, that printed the specifications for airplanes.

He spent the second half of his service at Hickam Field, Hawaii, where he worked in the finance office, doing payroll for all branches of the military.

Upon returning home in 1946, Stahnke worked for the Northern Pacific passenger rail service for a year. But his father, a longtime railroad man, recommended that he go back to the printing business. William T. Stahnke said he didn’t think there was much of a future in passenger trains given the proliferation of automobiles -– and he was right.

Stahnke went to work for West Publishing in 1947.

“I was hired in the bindery and learned the bookbinding trade, because I was already familiar with a lot of the equipment,” he says.

He progressed to do the binding of all the company’s specialty and prototype books.

When he retired in 1987, he was the company’s last hand bookbinder.

He wanted to stay active in retirement and set up his own bookbinding shop in his home, then on County A (now Baer Drive) on the south side of Lake Mallalieu.

“I’ve been in the printing trade –- in the graphic arts –- for a good 75 years,” he says. “I started in high school and just kept on with it.”


Stahnke and his wife, Mary, moved to the town of Hudson in 1956, building a home on nine acres that his father had purchased.

William and Rose Stahnke built their house next to Lake Mallalieu, but Mary, Eugene’s wife, preferred staying closer to the road.

Mary passed away a year ago.

The Stahnkes raised two children at the place on Baer Drive. Their son, Mark, and his wife, Wendy, live there now.

The older couple and the younger couple traded houses so Mark and Wendy could have more room to raise their children -– Brandon and Vrielle.

Mark works for Zappa Brothers Excavating. Brandon is a manager at Art Doyle’s Spokes & Pedals, and Vrielle Anfinson is a special education teacher at North Hudson Elementary School.

Eugene and Mary’s daughter Deborah Fristad is a choral director. She and her husband, a chemist and troubleshooter for a German company, have lived in the Detroit area.

But they are planning to relocate, and when Mary passed away, Deborah came to Hudson to spend time with her father. She subbed for Hudson High School choral director Kari Heisler when she was on maternity last year, and directed choirs for the popular holiday concerts.

The Fristads also have two children. Carl is a St. Paul building contractor. Kristen lives in California and works for NASA.

Welcomes work

Stahnke welcomes bookbinding jobs.

“I wish I was doing more. It keeps me occupied,” he says. “I try to stay active, both at this and physically outside.”

He says he typically charges $15 to $40 per book, depending on how much work and material is required.

Stahnke describes his business as “bookbinding and its allied crafts.” To inquire about having a book repaired, call him at (715) 386-3033.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066