Tag Archives: bookbinding

Zombie Attacks: Is Book Conservation Doomed?

A zombie idea is one that we are not quite sure where it came from, keeps popping up, and stubbornly refuses to die. The latest undead idea I’ve been hearing more and more of is that book conservators do not need to know all that much about the craft of bookbinding.

I’ve asked Cathy Baker, Chela Metzger, and Maria Fredericks to respond to this question: Do book conservators need training in the craft of bookbinding?

Cathy Baker is a paper conservator, educator, editor, printer, proprietor of The Legacy Press, and an inspiration to many of us.  There is a great interview with her on The FIne Books Blog. I often consult her book From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation. For more of her thoughts related to this topic, see pages xii-xiii, 3-5, and 236.

Baker writes: I feel it is essential to the development of conservation sensitivities to have extensive practical experience in the craft(s) that was/were involved in the creation of artifacts if one is to make informed decisions about their preservation/conservation, and this holds true for any conservation speciality. Thus conservators of art on paper should practice traditional hand papermaking, all of the major printing techniques–relief, intaglio, and lithography–and drawing mediums–pen and ink, watercolors, dry-medium drawing, etc. And for example, how anyone can expect a book conservator to understand the best way to preserve/conserve any book while having little/no practical bookbinding experience (both one off AND edition binding) is beyond me. If that should ever be the case, I think the conservation profession is doomed: either conservators will routinely make serious treatment mistakes or treatment will cease altogether because of the (unconscious?) discomfort the conservator feels about her/his lack of understanding about artifacts. Neither situation is good for the preservation of our cultural heritage.


A few of my own thoughts: Possibly this idea was born when book conservation was founded in the US in the 1980′s. More specifically,  the integration of book conservation into the larger arena of art conservation, the concept of minimal intervention, and the concept of collections conservation likely had influence.  Most other art conservation specialities, while encouraging and requiring students to learn about the materials, techniques and history of the art form, are no where as closely related as book conservation is to the craft that produced them. So it is understandable why someone from an art conservation background might question the uncomfortably close relationship between bookbinding and book conservation. It is likely not a good idea to project too much on the abstract idea of minimal intervention which will mean different things to different people. The concept of collections conservation unintendedly reinforced the idea that the head and the hand were separate entities and the head (the conservator) could direct and abstract hand (the technician) to perform repetitive or mundane tasks, or work on material not considered valuable enough for a conservator. The beginnings of separating out craft from a conservators skill set?

Since bookbinding craft skills are still transmitted in the traditional manner of close contact with skilled practitioners, I would posit that book conservation, as a field, has an additional responsibility to preserve not only the bookbindings, but the craft skills and techniques that produced them. And the intimate knowledge of these craft skills not only manifests itself in treatments such as rebinding (traditionally almost the only treatment?), rebacking, resewing, but in the ability to determine what should not be treated, which are sometimes the hardest and most time consuming decisions. With objects as numerous, international, and subtle as bookbindings, it can take a long time to understand what might be unique or rare and what is oridinary.

As Baker mentions, lack of skill in performing more advanced or invasive treatments could lead to fewer of them being done, possibly to the detriment of the object. Then again, a cruel irony is that once an object is treated it tends to be re-treated in alarmingly short periods of time.

Everyone—hand bookbinders, book restorers, conservators, technicians and repairers—should know something about edition binding, but I have found it to be almost a completely different field: possibly more akin to music or some type of athletic performance.  It takes very long repetitive training and constant practice to gain and retain the hand skills and speed to make it profitable. I wonder it it is even possible to expect a modern conservator to be able to learn this in a three or four year program? Bookbinding training programs like North Bennet Street School give a solid foundation, but even old-timers have confided that skills can deteriorate in frighteningly short periods of time; things that once were easy had become hard again.

So I guess another question is what kind of hand skills can a book conservator possibly have, given the lack of practice and repitition, and the fact that all materials present unique challenges and circumstances?


Maria Fredericks is the Drue Heinz Conservator at The Thaw Conservation Center of The Morgan Library and Museum. She has been a leader in the field of book conservation for decades and teaches widely.

Fredericks writes:  In my opinion, book conservators should continue to learn as much as possible about the technical history of craft binding, in exactly the same manner that conservators in every other specialty devote years of study to the technologies and materials used to make the objects under their care. Understanding the structural and material evolution of the codex form over time is essential to recognizing what is significant and authentic about bound objects in their cultural context(s), which in turn informs the conservator’s judgment in the selection of appropriate preservation options. In more practical terms, a deep understanding of binding mechanics is required so that books may be repaired or re-bound in ways that prevent further deterioration, while preserving historically significant features. A profound knowledge of how bindings work can only be gained through a combination of observation and hands-on practice, including patient exploration of a vast number of structural and material variations, and repetition of core skills. Even in a culture of minimal intervention, re-binding or significant structural intervention is required often enough that a book conservator must possess the skills to re-sew and re-bind text blocks with a broad range of requirements for safe handling and display (e.g. manuscripts on parchment, printed books on fragile or brittle paper, photo albums, ledger and stationer’s bindings, amateur bindings, Islamic bindings, East Asian bindings, to name a few).

An important question is how to acquire these diverse binding skills, and keep them fresh enough to be used with assurance when they are needed. We are far removed from the kind of fast-paced repetitive production work carried out by trade binders and restorers of the last several centuries, that honed certain skills but perhaps discouraged creative thinking. Conservators, by contrast, must consider each item or group of items individually, and because library collections are often quite diverse, the opportunity to repeat a complex repair technique or re-binding structure with any frequency can be rare. In addition book conservators must be educated in the conservation of paper, parchment, leather, and other materials that tend to appear in books. A strong, early foundation in bookbinding would seem ideal, creating a repertoire of basic operations (variations on sewing, forwarding, covering) that becomes instinctive and is always ‘on tap’. In recognition of this need, the North American conservation training programs, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, offer both intensives and semester courses focused on practical bookbinding in their curricula for library and archive conservators; the European programs with which I’m familiar also have this type of course work. Some new post-graduate fellowship opportunities for rare book conservators, which will allow important additional training and research time for recent program graduates and other emerging book conservators, are encouraging, and I hope mark a new trend. In summary, the acquisition and use of binding skills continue to be central, in both the training and the ongoing work of book conservators.

One last thought on minimal intervention. In spite of criticism from proponents of more traditional restoration, minimal intervention in conservation treatment now feels right in step with the seeming explosion of academic programs of study in the ‘material book’, and the growing number of opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion of books and manuscripts as physical objects. Conservators may have been ahead of that curve for a few years, but it now seems universally recognized that over-restored books, like other similarly abused artifacts, are stripped of a significant percentage of their meaning. The excellent news is that conservators, curators, bibliographers and humanities scholars are increasingly working together to interpret material evidence found in books and bindings. Hurray!


Chela Metzger is Conservator of Library Collections and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. Quite likely she has more experience teaching book conservation than anyone in the US, and her research interests include blank books.

Metzger writes: In 2006 the consdist list, a conservation list serve, had a several month long back and forth discussion that is relevant to the intersections of craft skills, minimal intervention, and ethics in conservation.

Here is the first post. “From: Frank Hassard <f.hassard> Date: Thursday, June 15, 2006 A very well respected and senior member of the international conservation community recently stated the following: “It is my belief that ‘minimum-intervention’ is an institutional ploy to save money and to cover up a lack of skills.” This fundamental tenet of professional conservation, which functions with “reversibility”, is related directly to the ethical acceptance of “non-like” restoration. This is reflected in a wide variety of material applications in conservation education and training today; for example, the use of synthetic resins (commonly known as car-body filler in the UK) to replace wood-carvings and as a general wood-substitute in loss-compensation, the use of Paraloid B72 as a surface-coating in place of oil, wax or shellac, the use of digital photography to replace missing veneers and so on. Therefore, can anyone disprove this assertion by providing me with examples of “non-like” restoration (such as those listed above) that require greater practical expertise to apply? Also, comments on the following is welcome: Are “minimum intervention” and “reversibility” conservation”s big cover-up–as the citation above suggests? -Frank Hassard PhD Research, Faculty of Design Buckinghamshire Chilterns University c/o Brunel University, United Kingdom”


(Scroll down to “conservation principals”)

Mr. Hassard never revealed the senior conservator who made the quote that starts the post, and he also noted in later posts in the thread that he was mainly interested in furniture and decorative arts conservation. The entire thread is archived under the subject heading “conservation principles” in the COOL site. I enjoy thinking about the issues of craft in book conservation. I must entertain the idea that minimal intervention is a possible curtain to hide lack if skill, since it is not uncommon to hear that critique of conservators.

I see conservation as an an approach and as a problem solving activity. I think it is better described as a thought process and a set if relationships than as a list of techniques. That said, a book conservator should be very clear about when an agreed upon best treatment is beyond their skill level. Conservation treatment, which is not the only thing many conservators do all day as a general rule, must be done with unalterable respect for and curiosity about the materials and those who made them. I would argue that we are not the last hands that will touch these objects, and should not put our treatment hand skills above the actual book in question. It’s an interesting professional disappearing act sometimes.

Personally, I find the decision to rebind agonizing most of the time. But once that decision has been made, rebinding can be very straight forward compared to a “minimal intervention” treatment. Engineering an appropriate minimal intervention can be very time consuming and tricky. It can also involve skills and materials not typical in one-off or edition binding. Bookbinding skills are necessary, but not sufficient to the book conservation decision-making process in my opinion. We have lots to learn from object and paper conservators.

Should anyone be especially interested in my further opinions on book conservation, especially educational issues, feel free to watch my lecture:


For Sale: Guttenberg Bible

Nuremberg, 1454-1455. 2 vols.  1,272pp.  This is the first book printed with moveable type in the Western World, only 48 copies known to exist, and only 21 are complete. This is the only one currently available for sale.

BACKGROUND. Detailed records of Gutenberg’s life and work are scant. He was born around 1400 in Mainz, where he trained as a gemstone cutter, goldsmith and door to door Bible salesman. In 1438, after moving to Strasbourg, Gutenberg entered into a partnership with Andreas Dritzehn, which enabled him to conduct experiments in printing with moveable metal type. It worked. He decided to release three collectable versions: the Gutenberg Bible, the Mazarin Bible, and the B-42.  Gutenberg is credited with being the father of modern printing. There is much speculation who the mother is.

PROVENANCE. Although completely undocumented,  this copy most certainly belonged to King Villhelmzholt of Strasbourg.  For many centuries this volume must have languished in a remote castle in the Alsace-Lorrane. Then a little bird asked someone to ask a friend to ask me to sell it for them.



DESCRIPTION. To date, this is the only know copy with the author’s signature “in the beginning”, an inscription from the author in Psalms XXX, containing a mysterious reference to “new top ten commandments”, and the original professionally unrestored dust jacket. Except for a few gaping holes at the foreedge, the dust jacket is is superb condition and has the only known photograph of the author. The lower margin of the text has intermittent light soil, some faint offsetting, a lingering odor of dog breath and tobacco smoke, and other trivial imperfections, but quite well preserved considering this grand old dame is over 500 years old!  The binding is broken, the corners have cracked, the flyleaves have flown, the clasps no longer clasp, the foreedge is fricasseed, bosses are broken, head caps are decapitated, and the spine suffers from scoliosis. Else fine.

This exquisite volume speaks eloquently of an antiquated age; of a time when skilled artists and craftsmen honored their Creator by creating churches, paintings, and books which combined spiritual contents with material beauty.  A very handsome and proper copy with a flawless, professionally unrestored dust jacket.  Without a doubt the centerpiece of any book collection.   $175,000,000.00 OBO. Buy now! Won’t last!  Shipping within continental US $4.14 USPS Media Mail.

Three Methods of Measuring

1. DIRECT.  If at all possible, I prefer to measure directly, as this is often the most accurate, easiest and quickest. For example,  you are measuring a book for a box.  Put the book on a squared corner of binders board and mark the height and width directly on the board.

2. COMPARATIVE. This involves two steps. For example, you want to measure the width of a spine.  You could take a piece of paper and fold it around the spine, marking the width with a fold, pencil mark, or thumbnail indentation, then this can be used comparatively to transfer the measurement to a spine piece. An additional benefit of this method is repeatability. Dividers (technically called divider calipers) also measure comparatively, and they are often used in bookbinding to space sewing holes or holes. A jig (aka. template or guide) would also fall into this category, since they are a separate materials set at a desired measurement. Examples of this include using the width of a ruler to trim turn-ins after the boards are adhered to the covering material, or a corner jig to cut a precise 45 degree corner.  Also, the inner and outer gauges on a board shear (which can be set comparatively or numerically) are technically fixtures, not jigs, since the hold the workpiece and don’t guide a cutting tool.

3. NUMERIC. This is often what people think of as measuring. It involves taking a comparative measure, then transferring it to numbers, then transferring the numbers back to a comparative length. This gives you three chances to make a mistake. But for large projects, or ones with multiple workers, this is often the best method. Vernier, Dial or Digital Calipers can be used comparativly or numerically, in fact if they have Statistical Process Control (SPC) they allow a third party to track and record the accuracy, possibly placing them in a different category altogether. Digital box measuring machines, such as the KASEMAKE Book Measure, also convert physical dimensions to numbers.

There is not one best way of measuring for every circumstance, but it is good to evaluate options depending on the task.






Christopher Sower Junior Died While Beating Books

“He began the process of binding these books by the laborious employment of beating them, as is usual, and imprudently completed as much of this work in half a day as is usually done in a whole day. The weather was warm, and by this exertion he became overheated. He went out to a spring where he drank so freely of water as to produce a fit of apoplexy, which soon after terminated his moral existence.”

-Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America 2nd. Ed., Vol. 1. (Albany, N.Y.: : Joel Munsell, printer., 1874), 280.

Christopher Sower Jr. (1721-1784) a Pennsylvania German Anabaptist who, like his father, was a papermaker, bookbinder, printer and jack of all trades. He reportedly preferred walking to any other method of travel, and could maintain four miles an hour. Although bookbinding research is generally a somewhat impersonal activity, this story struck home with me. First, I come from an Anabaptist religious tradition. Secondly, I have been spending a lot of time looking at the Pennsylvania German wood board bindings that Sower made, as well as the Bibles he printed. Thirdly, I recently wrote an article about the beating of books.

I think I will take it easy the next time I beat a text block when making a model….

19th c. “Recycled” Leather

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 5.14.20 PM

Charles Tomas Jacobi The Printers’ Handbook of Trade Recipes, Hints & Suggestions (London: Chiswick Press, 1891), 256.

Quite possibly too good to be true, but nevertheless a delicious conceit: “fashionable people” are unknowingly hanging reconstituted stinky old boots and shoes on their walls to imagine themselves “going away back to mediaeval times”. Note this embossed leather is also sold to carriage-top makers and bookbinders.  Because this type of leather is actually made of leather, it can be very difficult, sometimes, to tell it from the real thing, or an artificially grained split.

Upcoming 2014 Workshops and The Treatment of a Nuremberg Chronicle

April 26, 2014. Delaware Valley Chapter of the Guild of Bookworkers. Philadelphia.  One day Sharpening/ Knifemaking workshop.

July 14 – August 15, 2014. Historic Book Structures for Conservators. Boston. This five-week class meets Monday – Friday each week at the Bookbinding Department of North Bennet Street School. Field trips are scheduled for some Fridays, and other Fridays will be open lab days. The course is designed to further develop basic bookbinding bench skills and to explore historic book structures in the context of the conservation of books as historic artifacts. Readings, research on book structures and bookbinding history, and creating models of historic structures are the basis of the course. Class presentations, short essays, a midterm and possible online publishing are required. The course is for students who are serious about bookbinding history and who are interested in further exploring conservation of books as cultural heritage. Class size is limited. Admission to the class is determined by application. Application requirements include a personal statement on the role of the class in your work, a portfolio of three-dimensional studio work that exhibits fine detail, and a recommendation (from a professional in the conservation or preservation field if possible). Students will need to supply their own hand tools. For workshop registration contact North Bennet Street School.

I’m already getting excited about this class.  Since it is five weeks long, we will be able to dive in deep. Additionally, it will be a joy to teach at the bookbinding department of North Bennett Street School, which I feel is one of the best equipped bookbinding teaching facilities in the world. The syllabus is not set in stone yet, but is largely based what Chela Metzger did for the past two years. The class will move backwards through book history from now to the beginning of print. A 20th century library binding, boards binding, a half leather binding, late 18th century French binding, a limp vellum structure, early 17th c. English trade binding and a late gothic German wood boards tawed structure are all likely canidates. This class will be taught at a graduate level, and I would love to have participants with a range of backgrounds: pre-program, grad students, technicians with professional ambitions, and mid-career conservators who want to get their hands off the keyboard and back into some books.


Lou Di Gennaro, Special Collections Conservator in the Barbara Goldsmith Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory at New York University’s Bobst Library has an informative blog post titled “Mending Split Wooden Boards on a 16th Century Binding of the Nuremberg Chronicle”.

I consulted with Lou on the project, and the treatment we designed was based a paper Alexis Hagadorn and I wrote, “The Use of Parchment to Reinforce Split Wooden Bookboards, with Preliminary Observations into the Effects of RH Cycling on these Repairs”,  Journal of the Institute of Conservation 33 (2010) pp. 41- 63.

Lou’s post:

“Much has already been written about the Liber Chronicarum better known to English speakers as the Nuremberg Chronicle. A simple Google search will bring up a myriad of information about the book’s history, production and distribution, as well as many images of the beautiful woodcuts. Printed in 1493, the Nuremberg Chronicle is a history of the world beginning with the Book of Genesis and continuing through biblical and Roman history to the early 1490s, detailing a number of important western cities. The book was one of the most heavily illustrated of its time and one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations….” Read the rest

(03) uppper.cvr

Image courtesy Barbara Goldsmith Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory, Bobst Library, New York University.

Old Horse Butt

horse butt

Detail from: Frederick W. La Croix  The Leather Specimen Book (Milwaukee: Pfister and Vogel Leather Co., 1915) Winterthur: TS965 L14. Courtesy Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.

This small sample of horse butt is interesting because it is the earliest dateable horse butt I have seen, almost 100 years old.  Also note it is called a “Razor Strop Butt.” The skin itself looks much like the modern horse butt strops that I sell in my tool catalog, though it is almost twice as thick, suggesting an older animal. I haven’t found any material that works as well for stropping leather paring knives, which at 13 degrees approach the acute angle of a straight edge razor blade, which are often around 10 degrees. Horse butt has the right combination of elasticity, durability, firmness and density to make the perfect strop. It always cheers me up a bit to see a natural material—like hog hair bristles for our brushes—that hasn’t been supplanted by an artificial invention; perhaps because they subtly challenge unspoken assumptions of our technophillic culture.


Do you know

Du Pont Fabrikoid Co., Do You Know the Story of Book Finish [ca. 1920] Front Cover, Promotional Pamphlet. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library

Fabrikoid Co. was one of the predominant American manufactures of artificial leather, incorporated in 1902 and purchased by Du Pont in 1910.  Du Pont managed to get Henry Ford to use it as the covering on his Model T in 1914, putting it on over 130,00 cars. It was used for upholstery and other applications. The book in the pamphlet above is actually made of Fabrikoid book finish artificial leather, and mounted behind the cover in a cut out, creating this striking image. The chiaroscuro figure, surreal shadow, and pointing finger create an ominous, almost accusatory impression. The story of book finish is serious stuff.

how many hides has a cow

Du Pont Fabrikoid Co., Book Finish [ca. 1915] Detail of Back Cover, Promotional Pamphlet. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library

Another great advertising campaign was the “How Many Hides?” Since Fabrikoid was essentially a less nitrated- nitrocellulose dissolved in castor oil, alcohol, benzene and amyl acetate, which was called pyroxilin (py-ROX-i-lin), it could be applied to different substrates: cloth, paper, or leather splits.  Du Pont hoped to capitalize on emphasizing the artificiality of “genuine” leather, and also casually reminded readers that Fabrikoid  was much cheaper. Sets of books such as Colliers Encyclopedia and the Harvard Classics were often bound in Fabrikoid. There are literally hundreds of variations on color, substrate, and texture just in book cloths.


Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Presenting a New Material: From Imitation to Innovation with Fabrikoid” in The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850-Present, No., 19 (1995), pp. 8-15.

Robert Kanigel  FAUX REAL: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007.


Surface cleaning an entire book can evoke a range of emotions, from mind numbingly boring, to mind numbingly repetitive, to mind numbingly tedious. The problem is that you have to remain acutely aware of tiny changes in the paper surface, dirt composition, tears, soiling, stains, etc. to avoid damaging the pages. After hundreds of pages (hours of cleaning) of back and white text, I almost fell over when I suddenly saw colored fur.



Certaine Sermons or Homilies appointed to be read in Churches…. London: Printed by John Bill, 1623. Collection David Kastan. Top: Hair on mouse skin. Bottom: detail of the flesh side. Why did someone put it in this book?

In section 3, on page 123, I found the remains of a very cute mouse.  When I inspected it, it appeared tanned with the hair on, the tail and legs removed.  Even more oddly, it was not causing any staining or damage, so I left it in place. The homilie where the mouse was found is titled “Concerning Prayer”, and for the curious, there are no textual rodent references on the adjacent pages. It is difficult to believe that this was an accident, and there were half a dozen other more usual items put into this book: leaves, ferns, seeds, scraps paper with notes.  It is tempting to concoct a story why the mouse was put there: possibly as an alert from a teacher to see if the student was actually reading these dry sermons?  A wake up call? A reminder of the inevitability of death for living things, as compared to the longevity of the written word?

Hymen Lipman and the Winterthur Museum and Library

During the month of February 2014 I will be continuing research into early nineteenth century bookbinding while on a Fellowship at the Winterthur Museum and Library.  Conservation and tool business will be on hold until March 3, 2014, but feel free to email me. Apologies for any inconvenience.

The Winterthur has one of the premiere collections of decorative arts in America, and one of the premiere book conservation programs, Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. The librarians seem to have a good sense of humor. Below is a excerpt from a blog post about their collection of trade cards, which mentions Hymen L. Lipman, who was a stationary bookbinder in Philadelphia:

“Hymen Lipman, born in Jamaica to English parents, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1829. Eleven years later he succeeded Samuel Stewart as the city’s leading stationer remaining at the 139 Chestnut Street address until 1849. His real claim to fame may be either as the first person to patent the revolutionary invention of a pencil with an attached eraser in 1858 or as having one of the five funniest names in history as posted in a YouTube video  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8c9mRklqQM.”

In The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Henry Petroski notes Lipman did indeed patent a pencil with an attached eraser, though after some litigation with Eberhard Faber in the 1860′s, a judge declared both patents invalid. Petroski’s book is very readable, encyclopedic and highly recommended.

Don’t miss the image of Hymen Lipman’s trade card on the Winterthur blog.

The Excelsior Metal Folder

Using bone to make tools is likely very early in human history, maybe just after the rock and the stick.  Bone folders are still very common today in several trades, mainly because a better synthetic substitute has not been found, much to the dismay of hard-core vegetarians. Wood, bamboo, teflon, carbon fiber, steel, and a few other plastics are useful for specific tasks, however are not as useful overall.  Bone as a material is so ancient, traditional, simple and perfect it is hard to imagine any way to improve it.

Around 1889, J.C. Forman of Cleveland, Ohio, wanted a harder, less breakable bone folder and thought an aluminum alloy might be the answer.


Forman’s Patent #398,825. I find the shape quite elegant and useful.

The patent specifies that the tool is made from “aluminum metal in alloy thereof, having the required degree of weight, strength, hardness, and as best adapted to resist the oxidating influence to which it is subjected in its use. These essential properties are required in the article for the purpose above mentioned, to prevent the paper and binding of books from being discolored and injured by a metallic oxide.”  The patent later mentions the tool is useful for rubbing signatures down between bands, tapping down band-points (?) and creating an even swell.  It is touted as especially useful for blank account-books because of the strength of the material and its hardness. Although the patent drawing has a complex tapered shape, the image of the folder in the advertisement below seems to be simpler, with an essentially flat surface along the length. The semicircular shape of the rounded end is similar to a modern tongue depressor. According to an unverified wikipedia link, both wood and metal tongue depressors were available in 1865, though I haven’t seen an image of one.


The American Bookmaker, Vol. 8, May, 1889, p. 124.

Since I was unable to find an example of this tool, I decided to make a replica. I first used 6061 aluminum and copied the dimensions mentioned in the Bookmaker article. Forman variously refers to the metal as aluminum, aluminum bronze, or “aluminum metal in alloy”. 6061 aluminum alloy, however, caused black skid marks on the paper when rubbed.  It also was much lighter than described.  This is a case where a description of the color of the metal would give us a much clearer idea of the metal. I also thought aluminum might have had a certain luxury appeal at the time, since it recently become a “non-precious” metal, plumenting in price from over $500 a pound in the mid nineteenth century (it was used for jewelry) to $2.00 a pound at the end.  In 1884, an once of aluminum cost $1, about the same as an average day laborer’s salary. It was Andrew Mellon (the Mellon foundation is well know today for its generous funding of conservation activities) who founded the aluminum monopoly which later became Alcoa, beginning in 1888.

The American Bookmaker, Vol. 8, May, 1889. p. xi. Forman implies there were already knock-offs of his design being made and sold. Note the dubious claim “Less effort with greater results”. Note the puzzling claim “The most complete Blank Book Folder ever made.” 


Next, I experimented with some aluminum bronze alloys, specifically types 954, 655 and 642. All these alloys are basically brass with around 10% aluminum, 3% iron, and varying trace amounts of manganese, nickel and cobalt. They were surprisingly difficult to work by stock reduction, which made me curious about the edge retention of an axe or cutting tool made from one of these alloys. I’ll put it on my list…. The 642 seemed closest to the “aluminum bronze” mentioned in Forman’s advertisement in terms of composition, weight and the fact that it barely marked the paper when rubbed vigorously. Forman, however, claims his metal alloy did not make a mark. Did I have the wrong alloy or was Forman exaggerating the qualities of his folder? I wonder if this small amount of offsetting might have been unnoticed or acceptable to late nineteenth century stationary binders. Possibly there are marks to look for along the spine edge of account books from around this time, if the folder was in fact adopted by some binders?

The American Bookmaker, Vol. 8, May, 1889, p. 124. This image seems to indicate a flat, rather than tapered shape for the majority of the folder, unlike the patent drawing.


Some kind of surface coating might mitigate this to an acceptable degree, but Forman doesn’t mention any. A thin coating of wax virtually eliminated the offset, though wears off quickly and itself offsets onto the paper. Possibly the heaviness of the folder was unpopular, it is roughly 2-3 times heavier than teflon or bone— 8.25 ounces (234 grams) for the replica I made, which is consistant what Forman reports.  Forman also mentions using this folder to tap, rather than rub, which solves the offset problem.

In the end, I really couldn’t find many advantages, besides the touted durability and unbreakability. Foreman’s patent is referenced by a 1965 claim by Hunt Manufacturing, but the base of this baren is made of teflon or similar material.  Bookmakers does sell a stainless steel folder, which they market as a “creaser”, and I think it is meant for scoring paper, not the traditional meaning of a “creaser” which is used to make blind lines on leather.

Here the trail runs cold. Did Forman discover an aluminum alloy—or coating—that didn’t mark paper when used, as he claims?   Were these folders used by binders?  Are there any examples of these folders around? Moving forward, might there be other materials used to create a better bone folder? What would need improving?

Three copies of Forman’s folder I’ve made: On the top 360 Brass, in the middle 6061 Aluminum, and on the bottom aluminum bronze.