A Book and a Model of a Book

model and book

A two image gif: a model of an 18th century French binding and a real 18th century French Binding

Conservators often make models of bindings in order to understand how materials, structures, and techniques interact. Models are different from a facsimile or pastiche bindings: they are not intended to look like an old binding, but are made as closely as possible to replicate an historic structure. Making models helps conservators understand subtleties and procedures of construction, and aids in determining what physical evidence is essential to preserve. While acknowledging a model’s new materials, conservators can also use them as a mock-up to test treatment options.

The model above was made by following the technical descriptions in Diderot, Dudin, and Gauffencourt. (1)  How does this gif inform our understanding of the relationship between the model and historic binding?  How can the lacuna between them be interpreted? In this gif, the model simultaneously bursts out of the historic binding as the binding disappears into the model, possibly analogous to our conceptual understanding of the two.


1. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert Encylopedié ou Dictionnaire Raisonne des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, Paris, 1751-1780; René Martin Dudin L’Art du Relieur-Doreur de Livres, Paris: Saillant & Nyon, 1772; Jean-Vincent Capronnier de Gauffecourt Traité de la Relieure des Livres (originally 1737) trans. by Claude Benaiteau, Austin: W. Thomas Taylor, 1987.

Added 17 Sept 2014:

Model and book

The Ely Edge Knife

A smooth, well-cut edge is a functional and design aspect crucial to many styles of bookbinding. Historically it has served to differentiate between a what are often considered permanent and temporary binding styles. A cut edge can be left alone or form a basis for further edge treatments: coloring, paste-decoration, guilding, and gauffering. Many bookbinders do not have a massive guillotine or a reliable plough. Artist Tim Ely has been using a round French or Swiss style knife for some time to precisely cut edges. He grew increasingly frustrated at the edge retention of commonly available knives, and found the handle interfered with this different use of the knife.

For the past year or so, we have been exchanging ideas and at this point I am pleased to announce The Ely Edge Knife is available for sale.

ely edge knife

The Ely Edge Knife. Top knife with Mahogany handle, bottom New York State Cherry.

For anyone that has taken one of Tim’s fantastic workshops, you will likely recognize the shape that he came up with.  The top mounted hardwood handle is roughly 7 inches long, 1.5 inches wide and 1 inch in thickness. It is attached by epoxy and screws to the blade, made from the same A2 steel I use for my French and Swiss knives. The size of the handle makes it easy to grip using both hands.  I find that by using your dominant hand near the cutting edge, and pushing with your other, it is possible to get a very clean cut, as shown in the image from Tim Ely below.

ely edge knife 2A perfectly cut edge, trimming off previous edge decoration. Photo by Tim Ely.

Because of the hand control on the knife, there is less of a tendency to take too big of a “bite” which can often happen with a plough. It forces you to think and feel the cutting action a bit more, rather than just run the plough back and forth. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical when Tim first told me about this method a number of years ago, and since I have a couple of well functioning ploughs didn’t try it until last year. The edges I’ve done are equal, if not better, than my ploughed edges.

ely edge knife 3

An experimental knife made with multiple blade bevel angles.

One thing I noticed is that the blade angle is not as critical as it is for paring leather.  This round blade cuts basically as well from 13-26 degrees.  In fact, I would guess a steeper angle results in even better edge retention, and many plough blades are in the 25 degree range. The knife I now sell comes with a 13 degree angle, so it can be stropped into shape for quite some time and perform well, even as the angle becomes more obtuse.

The round shape of the blade also has the advantage of providing a variety of sharp areas to use, rather than just dulling a single pointed tip. It also provides a nearly zero effective blade angle in use, which Tom Conroy discusses and illustrates in his article “The Round Plough” in The Abbey Newsletter, Vol. 13, No. 3, June 1989.  This allows the blade to perform at a lower effective blade angle than it actually is, so it is actually sharper.


Hasluck’s carriage for a chisel from 1912.

Conroy briefly mentions two earlier uses of a freehand round knife for edge cutting in his footnotes. Paul Hasluck’s 1912 Bookbinding contains measured drawings of a wood carriage that holds a chisel or plane bade. Hasluck’s design seems needlessly complex, is more like a hand advanced plough, and quite limited in terms of the thickness of the book that can be cut. Also it is only cutting using one edge which would dull rapidly. Handheld ploughs are also related to the odd looking Dryad version I previously wrote about.

unsucessfull handle shapes

Unsuccessful handle and blade shapes. I thought these larger and heavier grips would aid holding and driving the knife, but instead they create instability. 

A few concerns, though. When using this knife, it is necessary to have a dead flat press cheek, at least the one the knife rides on. I also doubt this knife should be used for cutting in-boards, since modern binders board is so abrasive. When resharpening, it is best to treat this knife like a plough blade: concentrate your work on the bevel (since the back arrives flat and sharpened) and just clean off the burr at the end on the back, since it should be kept flat or it will want to ride up on the text block as you are using it.

ely in action

Tim using the knife. He is pushing into the text with his right hand and using his left to control and guide the knife, pulling it towards himself. Best results are achieved by slicing only  a leaf or two at a time. Photo by Rich Spelker.

I would also like thank Tim Ely for providing the specifications of this knife, and more importantly, for being my first bookbinding teacher. Without his encouragement who knows if I would have even ended up in this field. It is an honor to be able to work with a former teacher.

The Ely Edge Knife. Overall length 9-9.5 inches, 1.5 inches wide. Top mounted hardwood handle 7 inches long. The blade is A2 steel, Rc 63, 13 degree single bevel.


Upcoming Event: Time and the Book, Yale University, September 12 and 13, 2014

Next week, on September 12 and 13, 2014, I will be participating in a symposium sponsored by the Yale Program in the History of the Book.  Registration for the symposium is full; however, Kathryn James’s lecture, “Time in Place” is open to the public.  It is great that academics are becoming interested in the book as a material object; I suspect there will be some fascinating discussions.



A Beautiful Binding

The Ultimate Historic Structure

A class present from “Historic Book Structures for Conservators” students.

At the end of an exhausting and exhilarating five weeks of teaching “Historic Book Structures for Conservators” in Boston, the students demonstrated what they had learned by making this binding for me.

The folding is uneven. Some of the pages have the imprint of the bottom of a shoe. The book is sewn on three recessed tapes, sometimes bypass, sometimes all-along, sometimes two-on, and sometimes three-on. There are very large weird knots in the sewing thread and untrimmed sewing thread where the joins are. At points the thread misses the gutter by an inch. The spine is lined with blue painters tape. One edge is partially trimmed. Several sections are out of alignment by half an inch. The back half of the book is case bound, though the turn-ins are on top of the end sheet. The spine piece is missing. The front of the book is laced on with tapes that begin on the inside of the board. Some corners of the board are exposed, some turned in without trimming.  All of the squares vary wildly, with the front board smaller than the text block. The entire book is skewed. The pastepaper covering material is not properly adhered, with large areas popping away, and there are some extremely odd cuts in it. There is a small piece of triangular leather on the spine that seems inspired by a “Tomorrow’s Past” binding we discussed in class. The lower board, not visible in the image above, contains numerous handwritten inscriptions: “Peachey” within a circular object that appears to be a peach. The title on the spine, not visible in the image above, is made with glitter and reads “NBSS 2014″ as it the “JP” initials on the front cover, off center.

It was great to have a class who were sophisticated enough to realize that doing everything wrong can be a measure of how much they learned. Bravo!

Summer Hiatus, 2014

The voice-over at the beginning of The Seven Year Itch informs us that the Manhattan Indians had a custom where “Every July, when the heat became unbearable, they [the husbands] would send their wives and children away.”  This continues into the 1950’s, and is the reason that Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) happens to be living alone for the summer and meets “The Girl” (played by Marilyn Monroe).

But times have changed.  Now, it seems husbands, wives, children—everyone?—vacates Manhattan for the summer, myself included.  So my book conservation and tool business will be on hiatus until September 1, 2014.  I will be teaching in Boston, working on some new tool ideas, then on a brief vacation.

Please email if you want to schedule something for the fall. Stay cool!


Everhard Ball Bearing Beveled Stitcher

Fillet or creaser?

At the massive Brimfield Flea Market last month, I picked up this unusually well made tool. Note the ball bearings barely visible around the axle. Not only does is spin freely, but there is zero play side to side. And the wheel is very heavy.

At first I thought it was an unusual fillet, used for marking lines in leather. But it turns out it was made for the tire/ rubber industry. It is marked “The Everhard Mfg. Co.”, and is known as a beveled stitcher,  used to smooth wavy edges of uncured rubber. It also bears a striking morphological resemblance to a leatherworkers wheel. Even if it can’t be usefully adapted for bookbinding work, it is still a wonderfully well made object to have.

Yikes! Have I started down the slippery slope from tool user to collector? Is this a problem?