The NSW Guild of Craft Bookbinders had its genesis in a three-hour weekly hobby course known as ‘Bookbinding for Table Hands’, which was conducted in the School of Graphic Arts Building at the Sydney Technical College. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s, lack of funds put future classes in grave doubt.

Ralph Lewis, one of the members of the 1979 class, a quiet but determined man, envisioned the formation of an organization for amateur binders with their own workshop where they could practise their craft. Ralph’s aim was to give people who love books a creative activity, and to try to preserve and foster interest in manual binding skills. As a result of Ralph’s work the NSW Guild of Craft Bookbinders had its inaugural meeting on 1 November 1979 at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library.

The attendance of thirty-three individuals at this meeting demonstrated that there were enough people sufficiently interested in the craft, at least in Sydney, to justify the formation of a binding association. The following steering committee was elected:

President: Ralph Lewis
Vice President: Lloyd  Walters
Secretary: Rosemary Peel
Treasurer: Graham Stone
Committee: Jennifer Alison
Ken Plummer
Keith Turnell
Marie White

The aims of the new organization were set out as follows:

  • To perpetuate traditional and other types of bookbinding skills
  • To hold meetings at which speakers would address members on aspects of the craft
  • To produce a Guild magazine, possibly quarterly
  • To eventually set up a workshop where members could do their own binding

Ralph Lewis had a valuable ally in Keith Turnell, the Head Teacher of Binding and Finishing at the College. It was Keith who found the Guild its first home. This was, for the first three years of its life, in the Technical College itself. At this time the Guild did not have its present fine collection of tools and equipment. Thanks to Keith, however, Guild members were able to use the same professional facilities available to College students. Obviously, official classes had precedence and members timed their visits accordingly.

By April 1980 the Guild had fifty-one financial members and was growing steadily. In those early days, however, there seemed to be little prospect of members having their own workshop. The committee discussed the question of the Guild establishing its own home but it was decided that members would not be willing to pay the necessary amount. An unsolicited invitation from the Crafts Council to share premises, rent free, at their centre in George Street was received in 1982 but the space was not suitable for a workshop.

After a period of negotiations by the Committee with various organizations a real break through occurred in May 1983 when the Crafts Board of the Australia Council allocated an amount of $2,933, with the Guild members matching this, to enable the purchase of equipment such as a hand-operated guillotine, a blocking press, finishing tools and work benches. Negotiations then began with the Sydney College of the Arts.  After a few months the principal offered a rent-free lock-up room at the College’s Glebe Annexe. Enthusiastic members fitted out the room, which was officially opened on 15th February 1984. The Guild was now truly in business. What many members had once considered too ambitious and expensive had been achieved. The room at Glebe was to be the Guild’s home for the next six years and was named the Ralph Lewis Workshop in memory of the late founding president.

The Guild continued to prosper. Membership numbers grew, further items of equipment, finishing tools, brass type and other binding materials were acquired and members loans, raised to help establish the workshop, were fully repaid. The Guild became an incorporated association in November 1991.

In November 1990 the Sydney College of the Arts advised that their Glebe Annexe was required for other purposes and the Guild had to vacate the premises by the end of January 1991. After another search for a suitable workshop, a room became available at the NSW Writers’ Centre, located in the historic Garry Owen House, built in 1840, and located in the beautiful grounds of Callan Park. The Guild took up residence in these premises, which is now named the Ralph Lewis Bindery.


The naming of the workshop after the Guild’s first president was a fitting tribute to the man who steered the Guild in its early years. The Guild supports all Ralph’s aims to make a workshop available for the continual use of members. For a small fee the workshop provides bench space, plant, and what would normally be costly tools and equipment for individuals to purchase.

The Bindery is outfitted to a professional standard. The equipment comprises blocking machines, lettering type, presses, guillotines and other specialist items, including a fine collection of some 400 finishing tools acquired from the defunct bindery of Canisius College in Sydney. Some of these tools can be dated back to the early years of the nineteenth century.

Attendance at the Bindery also provides members with enthusiastic company, support and advice.

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