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Waltham engraver restores a 19th-century treasure

Johnny Carrera peered under his grandfather’s favorite reading chair and found a tattered old book. What he discovered that summer day in 1995 changed the course of his life: an 1898 edition of the International Dictionary, one of the first pictorial dictionaries printed in the United States.

Leafing through the book, he became engrossed by the 80 pages of engravings at the back — the Colossus of Rhodes, exotic animals, trains.

What a shame they were hidden away in an out-of-print dictionary, he thought. What if he brought them to life?

‘‘The funny thing is, when I started, I thought it would be a fun, quick moneymaker,’’ said Carrera, who at the time was enrolled at the North Bennet Street School, Boston’s arts and crafts institute.

Next weekend, ‘‘The Pictorial Webster’s’’ makes its offi- cial debut at the Waltham Mills Open Studios, where Carrera has his printmaking business, Quercus Press. Between its leather-bound covers are more than 4,000 engravings, most from the same blocks used to make the illustrations of the 1859, 1864, and 1890 editions of the International Dictionary. Along with those are a sprinkling of images Carrera carved himself.

The book is subtitled ‘‘G. & C. Merriam Dictionary Engravings of the Nineteenth Century Printed Alphabetically As A Source for Creativity in the Human Brain, With Additional Dissertation.’’

While slightly grandiose, that does indeed describe what you’ll find inside.

The ‘‘quick, moneymaker’’ Carrera launched more than a decade ago turned into an all-consuming obsession. It called not only on his skills as an engraver, but also his talents — old and newfound — as a philosopher, biologist, philosopher, literary scholar, and treasure hunter.

Caution: artist at work

At first glance, Carrera’s Waltham Mills studio looks like a disaster zone.

Every flat surface is covered by sketches, mockups of projects, typesetting equipment, handmade posters, family photos, paper stock, and smudges of ink. The eye hardly has time to settle on one object before being lured away to another, perhaps the African masks on the wall or the disembodied bicycle parts near the ceiling.

But look closer, and you’ll find order in this chaos, such as the thousands of pieces of metal type — letters, symbols, and punctuation — sorted into meticulously labeled drawers.

Lining the partition by the entryway are plastic shoeboxes filled with neatly folded pages of ‘‘The Pictorial Webster’s.’’ Its introduction was set on a 1Æ-ton cast-iron linotype machine that dominates a corner of the studio.

Presiding over this printer’s paradise is a thin, boyish man with a shock of graying dark brown hair.

A month ago Carrera sported a long beard, but he ceremoniously shaved it off after finishing the 100-copy press run.

He moves quickly, jumping up to grab a book or shuffle through a pile of papers in search of the perfect object to illustrate a point. His conversation rockets among topics.

At one moment he’s explaining how he assembled the book; the next he’s describing the growth of literacy in the 19th century; then he digresses into a history of the ‘‘War of the Dictionaries’’ between the Merriam brothers, who had purchased the rights to Noah Webster’s dictionary, and the reference book published by Joseph Worcester.

Carrera can’t tell you how many hours he spent cleaning, collecting, cataloging, and printing each engraved image. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being a project and started being a lifestyle.

‘‘The amazing thing is that somehow this book has gotten done,’’ he said, as two helpers folded pages at a table behind him.

Buried treasure at Yale

Shortly after Carrera returned to Boston with Granddad’s old dictionary, a Bennet Street classmate gave him a copy of a Globe Magazine article about Merriam- Webster Inc. When Carrera saw that the main office was in Spring- field, he decided to approach the company about financing the project.

Merriam-Webster thought it was a great idea and began to make plans for a hand-printed edition as well as a mass-market version that could be sold at bookstores.

But as the logistical complications became more apparent and Carrera’s vision for the project more esoteric, Merriam-Webster dropped out. However, the company gave Carrera permission to go it alone — and told him where to find the original engravings.

They were stashed away at Yale University — 13,000 blocks locked away in storage drawers in a dusty corner of the Sterling Library. No one had bothered to organize them since Merriam-Webster donated them 20 years before. Carrera would spend the next year of holidays and weekends commuting to New Haven from Waltham, cataloging and identifying each one.

‘‘Initially I’d go down and rent a room at Motel 6. Then I realized that the guards never came down to the area of the library I was in, and then I could just work all night,’’ he said with glee.

He drafted a loan agreement with Yale and began taking them back to his studio in batches for printing.

Pictures with a story Some of the engraving are so farfetched that it appears that the engraver had never set eyes on what he was depicting. An illustration of a sea lion looks like a seal with the head of a St. Bernard. Others are strangely evocative, like an image of a weeping willow that leans to one side like a person crumpled in grief.

As the book took shape, it became less a source of answers than a springboard for questions. Like a traditional dictionary, it is arranged in alphabetical order. But it makes no pretense of being complete. Rather, with its whimsical choice of subjects and curious juxtapositions, it invites the reader to look at the world in new ways.

Back in the 19th century, the lines between academic disciplines were much more blurry. Today no single reference work would attempt to cross so many boundaries.

‘‘Is it science? Is it art?’’ Carrera said, as he talked about the project.

Carrera researched how printers operated in Victorian days. He tapped into what he learned when he flirted with biology as a student at Oberlin College, where he ended up majoring in English and minoring in environmental studies.

And he got lots of practice. He painstakingly restored some blocks, adjusted the height of others by hundredths of an inch so they would print properly. He went through countless drafts and ruined pages.

In the midst of this, he somehow got married; watched a friend and mentor, Sam Walker, die of cancer; and had two children.

When his daughter, Ember, now 3Æ, and son Orion, 2, were born, he started caring for them at least two days a week while his wife, Carol Waldmann, a doctor, worked. The challenge was how to keep working without compromising his time with the kids.

‘‘I really wouldn’t say that it took away from his ability to be active in his family life. He could really integrate both,’’ said Waldmann, who recalled Carrera working at the press with Ember strapped to his chest in a baby carrier.

‘‘He works nights, but he comes home in the evening and eats dinner, and works while the rest of the family is asleep.’’

His personal Big Dig

Carrera began to make an annual tradition of saying he’d be done in one more, maybe two more years.

‘‘I always said I would beat the Big Dig,’’ said Carrera. ‘‘At some point I said, ‘Well, if I can beat the [decoding of ] the human genome. . .’ And then they did drosophila [the common fruit fly], and then the human genome, and I was like, ‘Oh no.’ ’’

At times the work was taxing.

‘‘The enjoyment and passion of the work is wonderful, but there are these moments that it’s like, ‘Well, what about me?’ ’’, said Waldmann, laughing. ‘‘There were periods of time when he was stuck on letter ‘S’ or letter ‘Y’ — well, ‘Y’ not so much, but when you’re still in the C’s . . .’’

It didn’t help that Carrera liked to experiment. After mistakenly printing one page atop another, he decided to dabble in double-printing. For example, he superimposed an image of a grivet — a type of monkey — over a twowheeled velocipede.

‘‘That’s what I was so excited about from the start, how these images fall together with each other on the page and start to make something new,’’ said Carrera.

Carrera financed the effort himself, relying on a free clinic for his healthcare, pro-bono lawyers to negotiate copyright and business agreements, and finding capital by ‘‘gradually selling off everything my parents had given me.’’

He doesn’t know how much he’s spent. He figures $3,000 for paper alone, and several hundred dollars for the antique dictionaries he uses for reference. He tried working on the side as a book restorer, but decided that took too much time away from the dictionary project.

For extra cash, he taught occasional courses at Bowdoin College and other schools, and he produced two posters based on engravings from the 19th century dictionaries (mollusks, fishes, ships — sea-related words figured big in the vocabulary of the time). In another artistic detour, he and collaborator Martha Kearsley created a tiny book almost entirely out of cut-up American currency, featuring the faces on the bills as characters in a drama involving a kidnapped George Washington and the bungling rescue attempts of his presidential successors. Carrera doesn’t expect to make a windfall from ‘‘The Pictorial Webster’s.’’

‘‘I’m hoping that with the sale of the book I can retroactively make $25,000 a year for the past 10 years,’’ he said. Last weekend, a dozen bookbinders sewed the books together at a party in Maine. The scene left Carrera’s wife with mixed feelings. ‘‘It has become part of that fabric of my life as well as his life,’’ she said. ‘‘In a way I’m nostalgic about this coming to an end. But it really is exciting, and to see the book actually coming together — I loved this past weekend in Maine.

‘‘And that hallway with all the pages — to see all of them printed perfectly . . . that’s really amazing.’’ This weekend, the public can see that hallway, and the books themselves at Waltham Mills Open Studios. Carrera will be on hand to talk about his work and methods.

Some 75 artists will open their doors noon-6 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. for Waltham Mills Open Studios, 144 Moody St., Waltham. Works include paintings, sculpture, collages, ceramics, glass-works, textiles, photography, and jewelry. A reception will be held Friday night. For details, visit wmaastudios.org/os.asp. Stephanie V. Siek can be reached via e-mail at ssiek@globe.com .

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: A hand's on dictionary
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