There are anglers who tie their own flies and anglers who build their own split-bamboo rods. And there is S.A. Neff Jr., of Sewickley, Pa., an angling artisan beyond compare.
Neff, 52, is a veteran flytier and rod builder. Most notably, he is an angling bookbinder of renown. Among his 1,800 books on fishing are some four dozen he put together by hand. "Rod-building is child's play compared to binding," says Neff.
Sidney Neff doesn't simply "bind" books. A passionate fly fisherman since age 15, he seeks, through his craft, to express his personal vision of the trout's world. "Fishing is a spiritual experience," says Neff, and his work conveys this spirituality. His bindings have been praised by sophisticated mainstream bibliophiles who cannot tell a mayfly from a duck. "Sid has exquisite taste," says Silvia Rennie, an internationally known Swiss binder who now lives in Questa, N.Mex. "His pictorial bindings are very delicate and very fine."
Neff's route from obsessed teenage fisherman to angling aesthete was a meandering one. After graduating from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1960, he worked as a graphic designer in Pittsburgh. In 1966 he moved to Dublin, largely because he wanted to fish the legendary trout and salmon streams of Ireland. In 1968 he returned to Pittsburgh and married Sue Allardice, a grade school art teacher. Neff established himself as a free-lance designer; his principal assignment was as art director of Trout magazine.
January 14, 1991
In 1981, Neff decided to repair some worn volumes in his angling library. He attended a few workshops on binding and was quickly hooked. "When I get involved," Neff says, "I really get involved." He got so involved that he gave up graphic design altogether, and he took to making fine bindings and boxes for corporations, a line of work he continues today.
In making his masterpiece angling books, Neff uses only the finest materials, such as Oasis, which is the trade name for a goatskin from Nigeria. Why Nigeria? "No barbed-wire fences," Neff says. "Goats from countries with barbed wire will be scarred." Needless to say, Neff is a fastidious craftsman.
And his is a complex craft. Neff begins by drawing the design he wants for the book's binding. He copies sections of this impression onto several sheets of dyed Japanese paper. He cuts the shape of each design with a fine knife, and glues the pattern on top of thin gilt foil—paper the color of gold. He then trims the foil so that the barest portion of it—no more than 1/16 of an inch—borders the pattern. He repeats the process for each individual design. He first lays the larger shapes—the sky, the water—on the book's cover. Then he applies the more detailed designs. By the time he has finished one pictorial, he will have used several thousand pieces of Japanese paper and gilt foil.
Only six months after Neff began serious binding, a jury of bibliophiles selected a set of his books for display at the Guild of Book Workers' 1986 national exhibition. That unique edition of A Book of Small Flies—composed of four suitably miniature volumes (they measure 2¼ inches by 2 7/8 inches each)—took Neff 4½ months to complete. The first volume contained the text, the second held the actual fishing flies that Neff himself had tied, the third included photographs that Neff had taken, and the fourth featured samples of the feathers and fur that Neff used in creating the flies.
Such extravagant work has drawn widespread acclaim. The Rhode Island School of Design has exhibited his bindings of A Modern Dry Fly Code and In the Ring of the Rise. Carnegie Mellon recently honored Neff with a one-man show of his art. New York's Grolier Club, the most prestigious bibliophilic association in the country, selected Neff's three-volume Miniature Nymphs for an exhibition of American bindings that is now in Brussels and will move to New York next March.
Neff is envisioning ever more elaborate projects. "I'm planning to move into leather and even needlepoint to decorate bindings. I'll need several years to develop each technique, so there go the next 10 years." It's a painstaking avocation, but for Neff it is irresistible. "Angling binding is a piece of my soul," he says.