Retiree restores antique books in his workshop

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter



Joseph Ziemba is proof of the old saying: “One man’s trash is another’s treasure.”

In this era of electronic books, Ziemba searches for antiquarian books with broken bindings and soiled pages and restores them in his workshop at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

“I’m the old bookbinder in the attic,” Ziemba chuckled.

Even his tools are old. On a wooden sewing frame is a hefty volume titled “A Copious and Critical English Lexicon,” published in 1858 in both English and Latin. Ziemba has separated the book into sections called signatures and is painstakingly resewing each with needle and thread.

Another volume that Ziemba has reglued with archival wheat paste is gripped in a backing vise. A Victorian iron press applies pressure to a third book that’s further along in the restoration process.

Most of the books he restores are family Bibles. One of the oldest books he’s restored, a “decrepit” circa-1630s Book of Common Prayer for Scotland, was a prototype that sparked a revolt. King Charles I attempted to force the English prayer book onto the Scottish Presbyterians. During a church service in Edinburgh, a woman pitched the prayer book at the minister, starting the revolt that eventually cost the king his head.

Ziemba buys rare books online, then restores and resells them to collectors. Cradling an 1850 first-edition “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens, he explained how he cleaned the intricate, illustrated plates by soaking the book in a chlorine-based safe bleach. To further protect the volume from the environment, he crafted an archival clamshell box.

He also created an archival box for “The Journal of Rev. John McCarty.” The first missionary Episcopal priest in the Washington Territory, McCarty preached at Fort Vancouver in the 1850s, helped found St. Luke’s Episcopal in Vancouver and was the first permanent rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland. Both churches still thrive.

Ziemba’s interest in working with paper harkens to Catholic school, where he says “the nuns always had me cut things out.”

While working in Washington, D.C., as a certified public accountant 40 years ago, Ziemba learned book conservation through workshops at the Smithsonian Institution and began restoring books as a hobby. Along the way, Ziemba learned how to make marbled paper, marbled paper boxes and journals he sells at bazaars. Like everything in Ziemba’s work, paper marbling is an ancient craft.

“The Turks marbled paper,” Ziemba said, noting that the art developed in Ottoman Turkey and other places.

In North Carolina, he taught bookbinding and paper-marbling classes, but he hasn’t found an outlet for teaching classes since retiring to Vancouver. To learn more about Ziemba’s work, e-mail him at

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4515;;