In Dita Amory’s recent book on Cezanne, one section discusses the sketchbooks he used and includes a footnote referencing my claim that the early nineteenth century publishers three piece cloth case is the most radical innovation in book structure in centuries. This reminds me that I should be supporting this claim by working on my book about early nineteenth century bookbinding rather than writing this blog post.
Image: Ref 1996.8.1
Any guesses what is pictured in the above image?
I’m really happy museums are collecting this kind of thing.
It is from the Maritime Heritage East, and it is a hunk of beeswax that sailors waxed their whipping cord with, much like traditional bookbinders do with sewing thread. Looking at this, I can see how someone pulled the thread through it, likely holding it in one hand between their thumb and forefinger and rotating it 90 degrees occasionally to prevent the thread from cutting through. In fact, the museum notes that Harold Scot, an orphan sailer, received this wax in 1933 when he was 16, and used it for the next 66 years. It is unusual to have this type of provenance concerning tools and craft materials.
So what? Why does this ugly hunk of beeswax matter? Because here we have a physical record of technique, seemingly frozen in time. We can interpret the technique from this object, and it is an interesting object because it is a material that acts like a tool. The thread is shaped the wax, somewhat like a potter’s rib shapes clay. It is difficult to know, from this isolated example, if this was a common technique or waxing thread, a local custom, or possibly novel. It would be interesting to compare other examples of beeswax, possibly from other trades. Was this hand sized square of wax a common size?
We do know that using beeswax to prevent kinking and reducing abrasion of sewing thread was common in many trades, including bookbinding. Yet materials like this are not commonly passed on when a bindery is sold. The use of beeswax seems to be waning, because of concerns about acidity and the fact it is not really necessary if the needle is the right size, and the thread properly relaxed. In fact, the sewing thread of most early bindings I’ve examined does not seem to be waxed.
A 20th century “innovation” in beeswax is the plastic holder pictured above, which is marketed to bookbinders and other sewing related crafts and even sold at Walmart. I suspect that one motive was to sell more tiny disks of beeswax, and the holder encourages waste because only part of the wax can be used. To be fair, the holder does keep the beeswax and the workers hands clean. But unless you are very careful, it is easy to abrade the thread on the sharp plastic edges, in contrast to the advertising claim that this device “strengthens” the thread. What does the holder, with its regulated placement of the thread imply about the marketing and deskilling technique in modern craft? Is the holder akin to training wheels?
Since the history of craft technique is generally unwritten, it is the responsibility of craft practitioners and conservators to interpret—or at least preserve and draw awareness—to these physical traces of past technique.
Below are four inexpensive and useful items that I imagine any bookbinder or book conservator would love to get.
If, perchance, you are thinking of getting me a gift, I really, really, want the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM5. Black, please. Thanks in advance!
1. The Southmedic disposable plastic handled scalpel. The blades are not removable, which makes them feel quite solid. The blade cover easily slides back and forth, protecting them while traveling. I stop mine (with a small horsebutt strop) to keep it sharp and they last for quite some time. They come in two of my two favorite shapes, #11 and #15. There is a useful metric scale at the end of the handle for determining the depth of puncture wounds. Great fun for kids! McMaster-Carr sells them. About $3.
2. Japanese Feather brand double edge razor blades. Apart from vintage, NOS blades, these are the best I have found for Scharfix and Brockman paring machines. The Feather company may be familiar to some, since they also make scalpel blades. Hipsters love them for use in vintage double edge razor blade handles. Many vendors on Amazon sell them at various prices, around 30 cents each.
3. Delrin Folder. Delrin folders are new, and to my knowledge far I am the only one making them. They combine many advantages of bone and teflon. I know who has them if you are buying a gift, just ask! But get one for yourself as well. These are designed to perform a number of common scoring, folding and smoothing tasks bookbinders need when working with paper, cloth and leather. The big boy pictured above is $65, smaller ones are also available starting at a mere $35.
4. Small AIC PhD Target. It is awesome to finally have a small, affordable color bar to use for documentation. It used to drive me crazy fitting in a larger bar, which would almost be equal to the size of the book in some cases, resulting in the loss of detail, messing up framing, etc. Robin Meyers Imaging produces and sells them. Excellent! $75
I’ve done some research and ramped up the quality of the bamboo I use to make hera.
First I have decided to use Tonkin, a super strong and resilient bamboo which is used by bamboo fly fishing rod makers. As evident in the image above, it has a preponderance of dark “power fibers”, which give it strength and a pleasing density. Look at the end of a chopstick for comparison, which is generally pure white weak pith. There are over 1,000 species of bamboo.
I’ve also decided to heat treat the bamboo after initial shaping. Dr. Wolfram Schott has a fantastic paper, Bamboo in the Laboratory, if you are interested in more details. His Bamboo under the Microscope is also highly recommended. Both breaking strength and modulus of elasticity increases according to his research and tradition in rod making. I’m not totally convinced it makes a difference for such small tools, but it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt. And the stove adds a comfortable warmth on these increasingly cold fall days!
Appletons’ Modern Mechanism Supplement of 1895 contains an excellent bookbinding machinery section. The article mentions that machines haven’t changed significantly in the past decade, but performance and efficiency are improved. Chamber’s rotary board cutter is a particular beauty. I find these hybrid cast iron and wood machines quite interesting since we usually think of machinery as consisting one of the other, not both. Note the automatic board advancement pins on the bed of the machine, which are called “feeding fingers”. OUCH!
Be sure to tighten the blade holder with the blade in place!
Almost every bookbinder I have met uses 9mm Olfa snap off knives. Simply by squeezing the blade holder a bit tighter with a needle nose pliers, the performance and feel of any Olfa knife is greatly improved: it doesn’t wiggle around so much, it is easier to place more accurately, the knife feels more solid, there is no more annoying rattle, and the blade breaks off more consistently. Why didn’t I think of this 25 years ago?
Some of my dividers.
Sara Bryant of Big Jump Press wrote a breathlessly enthusiastic ode to dividers last month on her blog. Apart from extolling the virtues of comparison measurement, she wondered aloud if she perhaps was becoming a hoarder beause she has six pairs, and if it might be a problem.
My dear Sara, rest assured, you do not have a problem.
My favorite dividers, a 19th century Stevens & Co. Note the unusual, and extremely elegant position of the adjustment screw above the pivot point.