Tag Archives: bookbinding

The Coolest Watermark Ever


Detail of a sheet of Katie MacGregor’s handmade paper. My collection.

Papermaker Katie MacGregor’s structure of cellulose watermark.  (C6H10O5)n  rules!


PM-V11 Spokeshave Blade for Leather

Modified 151 spokeshaves are used by bookbinders and leather workers for reducing large areas of the thickness of leather and are especially good at creating a long gradual bevel. They are also indispensable for working calf, which is difficult to pare using a Scharf-Fix machine. I’ve been experimenting with the somewhat new Lee Valley PM-V11 spokeshave blade. PM-V11 is a proprietary steel designed for woodworkers, and reportedly has the ease of sharpening of 01 steel and the durability of A2.

I’m glad they did some testing of O1, A2 and PM-V111 metals, but have some problems with their methodologies. Most importantly, the assigning of a 0-10 rating for wear based on subjective visual examination, rather than the industry standard CATRA testing machine. Then a deceptive XYZ plotting of wear testing, impact resistance, and ease of sharpening all together creating a three-dimensional triangle. Where is Edwin Tufte when you need him?  They have developed a clever method of quantifying ease of sharpening, however. Oddly, at the bottom of The PM-V11 story page, they negate the need for testing, and lay on some aw-shucks folk wisdom, claiming that woodworkers don’t need an advanced degree in metallurgy or a scanning electron microscope to realize PM-V11 is a better blade.

In any event, I was still curious.  In order to work effectively on leather, first I reground the blade to 20 degrees using a 2 x 72″ belt grinder. Then I hand sharpened an A2 and PM-V11 blade side-by-side. There wasn’t much difference in the time it took. The PM-V11 blade did feel a little gummy, which some woodworkers speculate may be due to vanadium in the blade. Edge retention seemed quite similar, though possibly the PM-V11 lasted a bit longer. PM-V11 did seem to have slightly better initial cutting performance (sharpness), however. Most importantly, PM-V11 was quicker to strop back into action than A2; it felt more like an M3 steel.

Even though PM-V11 and A2 don’t seem to be massively different, I will continue to experiment. Both of these steels are excellent. Yet, concentrating on subtle differences can reinvigorate interest in repetitive handwork, helping to stave off the inevitable boredom which looms at the edges of all professional craft work. Or, put another way, buy more tools.

Information about the history of 151 spokeshaves. At the end of this post there are tips on how to modify and use them for leather work.

Or you can purchase a already modified 151 spokeshave and blade for leather.


Note the thinness of this leather shaving from a 151 spokeshave and PM-V11 blade. Spokeshaving should produce shavings, not dust.


A display of very regular shaving morphology. A sign of a sharp blade that stays sharp.


A New Book Press



In preparation for an upcoming workshop, I realized we could use an extra press. I wanted something slightly nicer than the a basic four carriage bolt type, but didn’t need another real book press.  This version, which we will test out in July at the Winterthur Historic Structures Class, fulfills several basic requirements: relatively inexpensive, rock solid, the platen stays up so that you can accurately load it, and it is easier to use than carriage bolt style presses.

Most of the hardware for this came from Mc-Master Carr, including the Acme bolt assembly and aluminum platen reinforcements.  This version fits books up to 9 x 6 inches and has almost 5 inches a daylight.  I think this press could be scalable, using thicker aluminum, and possibly even four Acme assemblies.

Boil Your Flour Paste

From somewhere in The Paper Box Maker and American Bookbinder

For all my collegues who insist that instant or microwaved paste is “the same” as cooked paste.

Blind and Armless Bookbinders: Where is the Locus of Hand Work?

Peter Verheyen is doing some fascinating research, beginning to delve into the history of bookbinding as rehabilitation.  His post contains some shocking, truly bizarre, graphic images of German WWI era bookbinders equipped with prosthetic bookbinding tools. Imagine bone folders, polishing irons, hammers all screwed—”plug and play” as Peter puts it—into holsters strapped over their stumps. Yet, judging from the images of the bindings, their skill level would put many modern fine binders to shame.

His investigation provides a counter narrative to the all too common notion that bookbinders are just “good with their hands”. I still encounter this, most often in academic contexts, from someone who is “good with their head”. Sometimes it is said out of ignorance, but sometimes it is an attempt to belittle the multiple intelligences, hard work, experience and knowledge it takes to work with your hands. Peters research illustrates you can be good with your hands, even if you have no hands. But you do need a head.

The ability to dexterously manipulate one’s hands creates doubt in the minds of others about brain power, for some reason. Even in 2015, this is still a problem in the field of book conservation, where many of us work all day with our hands. The ranking of the hand below the head is linked closely to ideas of class, and is possibly more prevalent in England than here in America. I’d be curious to hear about other countries. This may also be part of the reason for the relatively low salaries in the field of conservation, when compared to other professions with similar training and professional development expectations.

I was also reminded me of an article concerning a blind bookbinder from the 1950’s, which I reproduced below. In some senses this blind bookbinder is working with his hands twice as hard as the rest of us: simultaneously binding the book while judging the tactile feedback on what he is doing, rather than having the additional advantage of visual feedback. Obviously, his head is still involved.

I tried this once, and recased a book while blindfolded. WARNING: it isn’t pretty. Images here.

Click on the image to enlarge to a legible size. From: Bookbinding and Book Production, June 1954, p. 45. Private Collection

Goldschmidt on Restoration

“There is no such thing as restoring an old binding without obliterating its entire history.”

E.P. Goldschmidt, Gothic and Renaissance Bindings I, 1928, p. 123.

The Dinkification of Tools

French knives

The dinkification of French leather paring knives. A completely unscientific approach. L-R: Big old knife, Medium moderately old knife, Small modern version.

Sometimes I half-jokingly refer to the dinkification of tools —the tendency of tools to get smaller, lighter, more flimsy, and often less functional — over time.

The above photo of three French Style leather paring knives from my collection illustrates this tendency nicely. I’m pretty sure they are arranged from the oldest on the left, to the newest on the right. Observe the cheapening of handle material: from ebony, to a stained wood, to a varnished one. The blades get thinner and narrower. The changes in the curve of the cutting edge is also of interest. The narrowest knife also has the greatest curve, which in my experience indicates it is designed for scraping than cutting, which runs counter to what I know historically about the history of leather paring.