What fine craftsmen have in common are steasy hands, a keen eye and a feel for the thing they do.
William F. Bryant Jr., master bookbinder, is no exception. One of the last of a dying breed, he measures flawlessly with his eyes, he cuts an arrow-straight line free-hand and he knows the precise moment a gold-stamping tool is at the perfect temperature to do its job.
"If the tool is not hot enough the gold won't stick," he said recently in his large, musty shop at 815 Munroe St. N.E. near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
"And if it's too hot, it will burn," he said. Asked the optimum temperature, he smiled a craftsman's smile - not condescing, not intimidating, but the smile of an initiate instructing a neophyte in the mysteries of the craft - and said.
"Who know? You put it up near your face and see how it feels."
Ryan, whose father was a bookbinder trained in Hartford, Conn., and whose grandfather was a bookbinder, trained in liverpool, England, is retiring at the end of this month after 53 years in trade. He was 12 years old when he began binding books in his father's shop on Michigan Avenue NEnear Catholic University.
He says he is retiring a happy man, partly because he has always enjoyed his craft and partly because he has found a successor. Lloyd Meyers, 30, who has given up teaching for bookbinding, has bought Ryan's 100-year-old press and other equipment for $1,500 and will serve many of Ryan's steady customers in Meyers' shop in Waterford, Va.
What are the satisfaction of the job, aside from turning out a superbly crafted object? "It's not monotonous, Ryan said. "Every book is different in size and color. But more than doing the work. I'm going to miss the contact with people."
And what people Ryan has had contact with. Back in 1937, there was Franz von Papen, Nazi Germany's ambassador to the United States.
"There was a National Geographic special edition on Germany," Ryan recalled. "Von papen wanted a copy bound to give to Hitler. I went down to the embassy and von Papen told me what he wanted.
"He had sheets with a silver background and red and black swastikas. He wanted those to be used for the endpapers. I didn't think much of it. It was all in a day's work."
Ryan was more impressed with former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who turned up at his door one day with a four-volume edition of Carl Sandburg's bioography of Abraham Lincoln to be rebound in blue morocco.
"I told him I alwasy wanted to see the Taj Mahal," Ryan said, "and a couple of years later I got a carved model of the building in the mail. It was a beautiful little thing."
Ryan and his father bound books in morocco for Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower and in white calf for the Vatican library.
Most of their customers, of course, were less renowned than presidents, prime ministers and popes, but the jobs they brought were not necessarily less interesting.
There was, for example, the man who ran a laundromat and collected "birds-eye maps," which Ryan mounted on linen for presentation to the Library of Congress.
A birds-eye map is a highly detailed drawing of a town containing every manmade structure, right down to the fire hydrants. According to Ryan, new towns on the frontier of America would have drawn to lure settlers and it was not known for them it was not known for them to contain fire hydrants - and even livery stables - that were still only a gleam in the town father's eyes.
Then there was a job that Ryan's father did for a French priest, who had translated some Coptic texts and had them printed on special folio-size sheets. The priest had claimed poverty and Ryan Sr. charged only for his labor.
He later learned, however, that the book was destined for the collection of J.P. Morgan, and Morgan was paying the bill. "My father never quite got over that," Ryan said.
Ryan, a blue-eyed man who wears steel-rimmed glasses and whose frequently smiling face suggests his German-Irish heritage, says he has no regrets that he followed his father's trade rather than his own academic training as a historian.
He admits to being a bibliophile in the true sense of one who loves books both for their intellectual content and their esthetic appeal. His own taste in literature runs to Civil War history and railroad history.
He says he never gets bogged down reading the books he is binding. That is clear from the pace at which he works. Ryan says he can do a standard buckram cloth binding in 40 minutes if no sewing is needed.
The cahrge for a job like that is about $5.50 if it's a standard-size book. Sewing would run the cost up another couple of dollars, Ryan said.
A morocco binding with relatively little gold stamping would run about $25, but a lot of gold work could run the price up considerably. Ryan believes that the most expensive job he and his father ever did was a genealogy that West German government prepared as a gift for President Eisenhower. The price was $150.
For the last seven years Ryan's wife, Mary, has helped him in the business, starting as a typist and general assistant and graduating to journeyman binder doing everything except the most sophisticated gold work.
Ryan said that he and his wife are planning to travel during their retirement, especially to visit their children in Colorado Springs and Green Bay, Wis. He also says he plans to "pester (his young successor) to death."