The Battle of 1667 Physica Curiosa and the Book Conservation Fixture

Nice to see my Book Fixture getting a workout at the UCLA Library Conservation Center, battling all 1,389 pages of Gasper Schott’s 1667 Physica Curiosa. Typical of alum tawed books from this time, the spine is now very inflexible; note that the leaves start to drape about 2cm from the folds. These books are a bear trap, err, make that an elephant trap in this case.

Thanks to Chela Metzger, Library Conservator at UCLA, for initial impetus for the fixture.  And she is now Tweeting!

Peachey Book Fixture battling Physica Curiosa. Photo Chela Metzger, UCLA Library Conservation Center.

Peachey Book Fixture battling Physica Curiosa. Photo Chela Metzger, UCLA Library Conservation Center.

 

The 1564 Ausbund in the News

Top: Before, Bottom: After. The only known copy of the first printing of the Ausbund, an Amish Hymnal. Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen College, Goshen, IN.

My recent treatment of the only known copy of the 1564 Ausbund has been getting some press from my hometown area and in Mennonite publications. The Ausbund is one of the earliest Protestant songbooks, still in use by the Old Order Amish.

The treatment is especially interesting since two parts of the book were rejoined after being separated for almost 90 years, and the treatment also involved a textblock infill to deal with the missing leaves, while preserving all the extant spine. The book is a Sammelband, so contains the Ausbund and a number of other texts. The history and provenance of this book are a fascinating story. Reportedly, a dealer tore the book in half in 1928 so that a Goshen College professor H. S. Bender could purchase only the most “valuable” half for $10.00.

Ervin Beck (a former English Professor of mine) wrote a short version of the story for The Goshen College News (3 April 2017), then the story was picked up by the Goshen News (4 April 2017, though behind a paywall), The Elkhart Truth (8 April 2017) , The South Bend Tribune (9 April 2017) and Mennonite World Review (p. 19).

If you are interested in a longer, detailed history and description of the treatment, Ervin and I wrote an article:  “Ausbund 1564: The History and Conservation of an Anabaptist Icon.” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, October 2016. (pp. 128-135) You can read it here.

Ausbundmania?

Or just a small pond?

 

The Earliest Description of Paper Splitting?

The Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, Vol. 2, 1851 (p. 538)

This is the earliest description of paper splitting I’ve seen. It is also the earliest mention of splitting as a means preservation that I have found, though it does not specify why splitting a piece of paper into two might aid in its preservation. It suggests it can double your paper money, though.

An early attempt to monetize paper splitting comes from a bookbinder in England in the late nineteenth century. Kennington’s secret of paper splitting must have been quite simple since he required a non-disclosure agreement. This broadside is not dated, but looks ca. 1870-1880.

As recently as 15 years ago, machine paper splitting was still being actively researched, practiced, and machines developed. It is quite likely the last mass attempt to preserve brittle paper. Now we digitize.

splitting-paper

Splitting Paper Broadside, n.d. Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Bernard C. Middleton Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Improved Corner Cutting Jig and Loaded Stick!

Bookbindings are often judged by a quick check of their corners and headcaps. There is no shortcut to making a great headcap, but this corner jig will allow you to make perfect corners every time, in leather, paper, cloth or vellum.

The Peachey Corner Cutting Jig

 

Corner cutting jig adjusted for the thickness of the board

 

A perfectly mitered corner

Earlier versions of this jig had a wood or brass body, I realized Delrin would be the perfect material, since it is dimensionally stable and it is easy to clean PVA off. Why did this take 15 years to figure out?! This jig is adjustable for any board thickness between 20 and 200 point. Perfect for one-off and essential for edition work.

$150.00  Purchase here.

TIP: To make an neater standard 45 degree corner, make an extra cut as shown by the dotted line in the diagram. This little triangle is then adhered to the edge (thickness) of the board. This eliminates a double fold of cloth, resulting in a more seamless corner.

This small extra cut creates a neater corner

 

*****

I’ve also improved the loaded stick, by making the head out of stainless steel so there is no danger of marking the pages. The latest batch has mahogany handles, though this will change. Comfortable hand carved handle, all are slightly different. Around 10 inches long, the stainless steel head is 2 x .5 inches, which gives it a pleasing heft, but not too heavy.

$150.00  Purchase here.

A selection of loaded sticks with stainless steel heads and mahogany handles

Vertigo, the Suit

As a book conservator in private practice, I’m sometimes a bit envious of my colleagues who work in libraries. They often deal with a wide variety of objects other than books. So I’m excited to start planning a housing for Kim Novak’s grey suit that she wore in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo. This is for a private client who collects movie related items. As she pointed out to me, this suit is more than a costume, but an essential part of the storyline, much like Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.

grey-suit

Kim Novak’s grey suit worn in Vertigo. Made by Edith Head. My Photo.

 

An Overview of Leather Paring Knives, Tools and Machines

Many bookbinders, when getting into leather binding, are surprised by the wide variety of leather paring knives and machines. In bookbinding terminology there are four basic styles of knives and they are named for the nations that generally use them: English, French, German and Swiss. Other leather crafts use different terminologies.

In addition to paring knives, many binders use paring tools and machines. Most commonly a modified 151 style spokeshave, a double edge razor blade paring machine, or more rarely a razor blade plane. If you have a lot of work, skins can be sent out to be split. A few also thin leather by sanding or grinding. Below are my observations on the advantages and disadvantages of all of these.

 

1. English Style Knives (a straight blade, usually around 45 degrees relative to the length)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In North America, most binders use an English Style knife for edge paring, followed by a spokeshave for making a long, gradual bevels. This type of beveling is used for English style fine bindings and rebacking. The knife making firm G. Barnsley made the most common knives used by English bookbinders in the 20th century.

ADVANAGES

DISADVANTAGES

  • Can only be used for edge paring
  • You will need a different style knife, a spokeshave, or a razor blade paring machine to thin larger areas

 

2. French or Swiss Style Knives (usually a slightly rounded blade, Swiss knives do not have a handle)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

French style knives are very popular with fine binders, many of whom were French trained. One defining stylistic feature is a center mounted wood handle, however. The handle on the French knives has always puzzled me, since you tend to hold it more on the blade and rest your palm on the handle. The handle protrudes onto the leather, limiting the angle the knife can be held. To get lower paring angle, I was the first to introduce the top mounted wood handle.

ADVANTAGES

  • One knife can do it all, though some binders use this in conjunction with an English style knife
  • Can be used with a scraping motion for thinning anywhere in a skin, useful for headcap or spine areas
  • Round blades seem to stay sharp longer, since there is at least some area that is still sharp enough to get a “bite” into the leather

DISADVANTAGES

  • Much more difficult to resharpen
  • More difficult to learn to use
  • More difficult to control
  • Scraping with a knife is more dangerous than spokeshaving or using a razor blade paring machine

 

3. German Style Knives

german-knife

Joseph Zaehnsdorf. The Art of Bookbinding. 2nd. ed. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1890), 91.

I’ve only used these a couple of times, so don’t really have an opinion. I did have a German trained student who used it expertly.  The one I have is slightly flexible. In  Zaehnsdorf’s 1890 The Art of Bookbinding, the German paring knife looks like a regular chef’s knife. Even the modern versions have a wedge shaped taper, so that the back is fairly thick and the opposite edge is sharp. Did the modern German style knife morph from a regular chef’s knife?

 

4. Modified 151 Spokeshave

spokeshave

A modified 151 style spokeshave is a powerful and effective tool for making long, gradual bevels in leather; ideal for rebacking or an English style full leather binding. It can also be used to bevel binders board. It is a lot of fun to use. These were originally intended for woodworkers, and I think binders started to modify these for leather starting in the 1920’s. Here is some of my research, and a tentative type study of 151 style spokeshaves.

ADVANTAGES

  • Much faster than a French knife for reducing leather thickness over a large area
  • Less chance of tearing through leather, especially with a shaving collector
  • A must for calf, which tears or gets marked in a razor blade paring machine

DISADVANTAGES

  • Difficult to modify a regular 151 style spokeshave
  • There is a bit of a learning curve to learn to use them
  • The leather must be clamped to the stone or glass, or the leather can be traditionally held with your stomach
  • Can’t be used with leather smaller than 6 inches or so in one direction, to allow for room for clamps and motion of the spokeshave

 

5. Razor Blade Leather Paring Machines: Scharffix, Bockman Paring Machine, and the forthcoming Felsted Skiver

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-9-23-19-pm

Pre-Production Felsted Skiver. Photo: Malcolm Raggett, http://www.felstedskiver.com

Razor blade paring machines, including the Scharffix, Brockman and the new “Felsted Skiver” all use a very similar arrangement: a double edge razor blade suspended above an anvil or roller. These are very useful for thinning small or large areas flat. Razor blade machines excel at paring leather very thin. Common bookbinding applications include millimeter bindings, spines and corners for half bindings, and most commonly leather labels. A spokeshave is sometimes used to clean up ridges created from overlapping cuts on larger pieces.

My favorite paring machine is the original style Brockman, which is not available new anymore.  One advantage of his design is a curved bed for for the razor blade, which gives it significant rigidity and positions it to cut into the the leather straight on, rather than at an angle. Older hand held double edge razor blade handles also bend the blade like this. Brockman told me he made the first 100 of them himself, which are painted blue, and the later black ones were manufactured for him. A third green cast version was briefly produced in the 2000s (?), which looked very nice, but I haven’t tried it.

There are rigidity problems with many Scharffix machines, so make sure to test them out before purchase.

I’m looking forward to trying out the newest machine, the Felsted Skiver. Malcolm Raggett designed and is selling these. He has tested a variety of commercially available double edge razor blades, which is very useful research, and confirmed the Feather as one of the best blades.. But as I mentioned, I haven’t tried them out yet.

ADVANTAGES

  • Short learning curve
  • The best for paring very thin, flat areas of leather, like labels or half-leather bindings

DISADVANTAGES

  • Difficult to create bevels (at least for me)
  • Almost impossible to use on vegetable tanned calfskin
  • Blades wear out quickly and need to be replaced
  • Some of the machines can be tempermental
  • Changing the blade can alter the cutting depth

 

6. Razor Blade Planes

I wrote a brief history of them, then added some tips on their use, and later recorded my failed attempt to make a better version.  I ended up tearing a lot of leather, and went back to using a 151 modified spokeshave and razor blade paring machine. One skin can be as expensive as any of these tools.

 

7. Sending your Skin to a Specialist

This used to be common for french design binders, who even indicated what thickness the leather should be at various areas, through use of a template.  I’ve heard these specialists are disappearing, though. We do have leather manufactures who will split a skin (or more likely a dozen) down to a certain thickness. This is an excellent option if you are an edition binder. If the skin is thick enough you can get both sides back. The machine that does this is like a toothless horozontal bandsaw. I’ve used Hohenforst Splitting Company and they did an excellent job on a difficult leather: undyed and unfinished calfskin.

 

8. Sanding or Grinding

I wouldn’t recommend either of these methods unless there are extraordinary circumstances. Not only do these methods produce a lot of hazardous dust, they are very slow and, at least in my experience, grinding is very uncontrollable. I have done this if the leather is exceptionally weak, or need to level chatter that has resulted from an improperly tuned spokeshave. In this case choose a very coarse sandpaper, around 80 US grit. Sanding an entire piece of leather for rebacking or covering is very tedious.

Conclusion

After saying all of this, I think any knife made from good steel, properly hardened, that is hand sharpened, can work. I did some testing of tool steels and a summary is posted here. But I do think it is easiest to start with a hand sharpened knife, like the ones I sell in my store, in order to feel what sharp is, then learn to maintain this by stropping and eventually by resharpening.Happy paring!

Conservation Police

police

Photo: Shannon Zachary

It’s hard to know where to start.

“But, but, Officer, I wasn’t putting PVA directly on the spine….”

Others?