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On Paper: A Book Review

On Paper: The Everything of it’s Two-Thousand-year History
By Nicholas A. Basbanes

This book took me by surprise in several ways. When it arrived I was disappointed to see that it was written by a journalist. I had been expecting a scholarly history of paper written by, say, a hand paper maker; someone with an artistic love of the subject.

My fears were quickly allayed and I have to admit that I’m so glad Mr. Basbanes took up the topic! He used his journalism skills to seek out all kinds of information that I didn’t expect. Yes, there is the very well researched and written section on the history of paper, but there is so much more substance to this book. The author discusses the people involved in papermaking, the inventions of machines, the evolution and uses of paper. He covers the past, the present and the future of the subject and the techniques in making it.

I was satisfied with this book both as an artist who uses paper in bookbinding, and as a curious human who loves receiving the answers to questions I hadn’t thought to ask. My biggest surprise was that it made me cry. Yes, it’s a non-fiction book about paper that had me bawling through the final chapter. I don’t want to give it away, but let’s just say that this book brought home the 9/11 attacks and the human impact like nothing else that I had seen or read before.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys paper, history, or just a good read. You’ll come away with a greater appreciation of the subject and its affect on our culture.

Purchase the book from Amazon from this link:
On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (Vintage)

Happy 4th!


Here are 2 hot publications for your Independence Day consideration.

The first is a great article from The Public Domain Review showing representations of fireworks from past centuries.

The next is a 1785 manuscript showing how to build fireworks. It can be read online or downloaded as a PDF.

Both were fun reads in anticipation of the displays of patriotism scheduled for the day.

Silver Tracker App

With the wild range in prices for silver it’s wonderful to have a new app for the iPhone / iPad called Silver Tracker. It has useful historical charts and currency conversions, but the best feature is the price monitor. In an icon badge it shows the current price of silver (you don’t have to open the app to see the current price), but you can also set it to notify you if the price dips below a price you set. I chose $18 (I’m an optimist) so that if it ever gets below that I can shoot a stock-up order to my vendor.

It only requires iOS3 so it works with older phones and it’s only $1.99. They also have the same type of app for gold.

Get it in the App Store.


$1,000 prize went to the first person to identify the script

$1,000 prize went to the first person to identify the script

A recent contest to identify the script in a 150 year old copy of “Homer” resulted in a huge online response and a mystery solved!

Check out the full article from UChicagoNews here

Old Gold

I love a new challenge and this one was a blast. My friend Lauri and I decided to take some old gold jewelry and turn it into sheet. I had a couple of pieces of 14k gold jewelry that I knew I’d never wear again so we studied up, melted it down and rolled away. What started out as a very ugly nugget bracelet and an old wedding ring are now 2 small 23 gauge sheets of gold ready for my creative vision. We learned a lot through the process.

There was definitely a learning curve on the adventure as neither of us had ever melted down anything in a crucible, only silver on a charcoal block. We set up a little kiln using firebricks. This would allow us to hold as much heat inside the crucible as possible. I had a brand new crucible (a ceramic dish made to take the heat) so it needed to be prepared ahead of time. The crucible needs a glaze inside to prevent the metal from sticking or being absorbed into the ceramic. We had read online that it could be done in an oven so we assumed that we could do it in the kiln at no more than 500 degrees or so. Bad assumption. We chose a mix of borax and boric acid, neither of which melts at 500 degrees. The powders kept getting harder and harder inside the kiln. No signs of liquid to swirl around and glaze the crucible.

We decided to be brave and use a torch (MAPP gas because it was handy). We got it unbelievably hot: so hot that the crucible was glowing orange! I kept expecting it to blow up and kill us at any second, and then lo and behold we saw that the borax and boric acid were melting! Suddenly we had another problem in that our crucible tongs were absolutely the wrong type for the job. We couldn’t swirl the borax mixture around to coat the inside of the crucible. A quick trip to the kitchen and one pasta server later, we had a great little tong setup that made us feel like maybe we weren’t going to drop the whole mess and melt my floor. Sometimes my kitchen is the best supplier of metalsmithing tools.

Crucible seasoned, we started experimenting with pieces of the old bracelet. We figured out early on that one torch wasn’t enough so we put 2 torches to the task. Lauri held the torches while I stirred the gold and borax mixture with a graphite rod. Hotter and hotter it all became until the gold melted into a little glowing orange blob. I poured the gold into a graphite ingot mold while Lauri kept the torch on the crucible to prevent oxides from forming.

We felt like amazons! There were problems, but we forged ahead (PTP) to the rolling stage. I rolled the ingot into a tiny sheet, but because it wasn’t as homogenous as it should have been it started to develop air bubbles as I rolled. We had a feel for the process now so it was a no-brainer to melt it all again and start over. Besides, it was really fun. Given all the heating, I’m pretty sure that my 14k gold is more like 18k now.

This time we added the rest of my ugly bracelet and the wedding ring and melted down the hold shebang in 2 batches. It took a lot of heat to melt down .87 oz of gold! The keys to getting the perfect ingot were to add more borax as we were heating, to stir well with the graphite rod in order to burn off any impurities, and to follow the crucible with the torch all the way through pouring into the mold.

Once the ingot was made I started rolling, annealing, rolling, annealing until the sheet was down to 23 gauge, which is where the project is now. I just love my little sheets of gold, and the fact that they are made from old jewelry is wonderful. After we were finished Lauri and I searched our jewelry boxes for more gold to melt down! I have an old herringbone necklace that is in serious danger.



“Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique” by Marc Drogin

I have a whole bookshelf full of books on calligraphy, but this title is extraordinary. The author wrote it in 1980 as a frustrated calligraphy teacher who wanted a comprehensive book for his students. He felt that most other books on the subject were either too simple and glossed over important information, or were written for scholars and therefore inaccessible to the average student. “Medieval Calligraphy” is the result, and an impressive one it is!

The book is full of history and technique, but more importantly, it’s eminently readable. Most books on calligraphy are heavy on technique (unfortunately “modernized”); more of a reference than a good read. I sat and read the book as if it were a novel, looking forward each day to my private reading time, and as with reading any good novel I was sad to come to the end.

The scripts are explained in chronological order so there is a clear historical line drawn from, say, Roman Rustic to Roman half-uncial and the scripts in between. Drogin explains the pressures of the day, the movement of people, the politics and other factors that went into the development from one script to another. Included are dozens of pictures of original documents so that you can see the scripts in their native habitat. The author also includes technical notes on each script, though full alphabets are not included. Other interesting sections show page layout used by the scribes and also how to order facsimiles.

If you are passionate about calligraphy and are hungry for more than mere technical guidance, I highly recommend this book.

Get it on

2013 in review

Thank you to everyone who read and recommended my blog in 2013. I plan to do even more with it this year.  In the meantime, the stats helpers prepared a 2013 annual report for the Volcano Arts blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


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