The Puck Building and the Remains of the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company

The Puck Building, NYC.

The Puck building once housed the largest lithographic printing press operation under one roof in the world.  This gorgeous 1887 Romanesque revival building is located in Nolita, New York City, and was home to Puck magazine between 1871 and 1918. Puck was the first political satire magazine in the United States, and the first weekly to use color lithography.

The building primarily housed printing related industries throughout most of the twentieth century, though in the 1980’s, another satirical magazine, Spy, had its headquarters there. Kurt Anderson, the co-founder of Spy, also has the distinction of being the first person to call attention to Donald Trump’s bizarrely small hands. Anderson also named him one of the 10 most embarrassing New Yorkers in 1986. Ironically, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have a condo in this very building, ostensibly to store their contemporary art collection, and Kushner Enterprises now owns the building.

Anyway, the first couple of floors are occupied by REI’s flagship store for outdoor performance sportswear. Even if you aren’t in the mood to shop for 300 different types of wool hiking socks, there is a fairly large collection of lithographic stones on display. These were discovered when the building was renovated in 2011.

Lithographic stones on display. I bet some of you would love to dig your knife into these babies!

Some are very damaged, but I’m glad to see them preserved and displayed. Some appear to have been in wet soil for quite some time. A small plaque mentions they presumably came from the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company, which began in the 1880’s.

 

About 20% of the stones in this display are right-reading, like this one.

The display includes a number of right-reading stones. Terry Bellinger calls these “mother stones” and describes a stone to stone transfer. The often used mother stone was printed onto a daughter stone (creating a reversed image), then the daughter stone was used for the printing onto paper, generating a right-reading image once again. The mother stones could also be ganged together onto a larger daughter stone. For example, four of these Board of Education certificates in the image above could be printed onto a large daughter stone, then all four images printed at the same time onto a sheet of paper. In addition to speed, he mentions this technique protected the mother stone from damage.

A recent thread on the Book-Arts_L Listserv, “Question about stone lithography and printing” raised some questions about stone to stone transfer, since it would be quite difficult to register the stone upside down, it would be prone to cracking, and difficult to lift off. Ludwig Mohr describes a method of first transferring the image from a right reading stone onto an Albumen saturated piece of paper, then is then used to print from, presumably pasted to a stone? If a wrong-reading image was printed onto a carrier, then it would transfer back to a right-reading final print.

Of course, different printers may have used different techniques to print from a right-reading stone, but given the prevalence of these stones it bears more investigation. I didn’t notice anything written about it in the 1904 Handbook of Lithography. Further info is appreciated.

Gigantic flywheel.

Also in the store there are also two massive cast iron flywheels from the original power plant. They form an odd contrast to the featherweight plastic performance hiking gear. But who doesn’t like monster cast iron flywheels? Or featherweight plastic performance hiking gear?

An undated photo of the original configuration of the flywheels.

Lithographed cartoons and illustrations formed a large part of Puck magazine’s content. So much so, that the letterpress department felt it humorous to issue the following notice in 1881, in an attempt to elevate their emoticons to the level of visual art that existed elsewhere in the magazine.

 

“What fools these mortals be”

The motto of Puck Magazine

Small. Really Small. Submicron Sharpening. Polyester Leather. SuperStrop.

Some of the stropping sprays, pastes, and substrates I’ve been experimenting with.

A meter was originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the South Pole where it passed through Paris. The Measure of All Things is a facinating book by Ken Adler which documents this feat of triangulation — in the middle of the French revolution, no less — and also explores how the defined length of a meter has since changed. A millionth of a meter is a micron. As a point of reference, a hair on your head is about 40 microns wide. A thousandth of a micron is a nanometer. Yes, I’ve been thinking small!

Typically, I hand sharpen following a grit progression of 80, 40, 15, 5, micron on 3M microfinishng films with water as a lubricant, strop with a .5 micron Chromium Oxide (CrO2), honing compound on the flesh side of a horse butt strop, then finish stropping on naked flesh side kangaroo. Don’t get me wrong, this works quite well. And there are many other ways to sharpen a knife.

Inspired by some other sharpening approaches, two aspects of my routine seemed to need a little tweaking. First, I eliminated the large jump between 5 and .5 micron, and found some finer grits for a final stropping.  Adding a 1 and .3 micron 3M PSA finishing film filled in the gap nicely during sharpening. And a final stropping with a .1 micron Poly Crystalline Diamond (PCD) diamond on polyester leather has dialed up the sharpness to eleven.

3M finishing film. The lime green is one micron, and the very bluish looking (in this image) white is .3 micron. The delrin plate is in the back.

PCD or Cubic Boron Nitride (CBN) compounds smaller than .25 micron don’t work well on real leather for two reasons: the expensive spray soaks into the leather and disappears alarmingly fast, and the natural abrasiveness of the leather itself is sometimes coarser than the spray.

One solution is to use a polyester leather, which is similar to “nanocloth”, a term Ken Swartz has coined and a great product he sells. Polyester leather is made from an ultra micro fiber that holds sub-micron sprays incredibly well, is very thin so the cutting edge does not become rounded, and is extraordinarily durable. Human hair is roughly 20 denier, but this ultra micro fiber is .04 denier. Denier is the mass in grams of 9000 meters of a given fiber. It is difficult to imagine how small and light this fiber is: 9 kilometers (over 5.5 miles) of it only weights .04 grams! All of these tiny little fibers hold the diamond particles loosely while allowing them to move around a bit, exposing new sharp edges.  I think this is why they last so long.

In other words, this polyester leather is a perfect substrate for .25  micron and smaller sized sprays. I’ve experimented with the  .25 micron (~64,000 grit, 250 nanometer),  .1 micron ( ~160,000 grit, 100 nanometer), and .025 micron ( ~640,000 grit, 25 nanometer). These are available in PCD and CBN. The diamond seems to stay sharp longer (because of the shape and hardness?), cuts a bit faster, though is more expensive. The .25 micron is pretty close to the .5 micron CrO2 I usually use, and though it does cut quicker and lasts longer, it seems an unnecessary expense. Waxy pastes don’t apply or stick well to polyester leather.

In terms of initial cutting performance and cutting edge longevity, I can’t really tell much, if any, difference between blades stropped with the  .1 micron or  .025 micron. Even so, the idea of a one fortieth of a micron edge does have an almost irrational appeal, but is it just a placebo effect? Also theoretically, the smaller the grit progression in your sharpening sequence, the finer the cutting edge, and the faster you get there. But everyone has to decide for themselves if the trade off in time spent sharpening is worth the final result.

Diamond compounds are expensive, but once they are loaded onto the polyester leather they last for a long time. In my experiments, I’ve used a single polyester leather strop loaded with .1 micron for over 100 knives without recharging, and it isn’t dead yet.

I’m a convert to this new sequence.  It really doesn’t take much additional time, and the resulting edge is better. All the knives I make now follow a 80, 40, 15, 5, 1, .3 micron sharpening sequence, and a .1 micron stropping. When I am paring leather for my own projects, I do a two stage stropping sequence to keep the knife sharp. First, a  .5 micron CrO2 on horse butt followed by .1 micron PCD  on polyester leather. Once the edge becomes too obtuse, then it is time to resharpen.

Choose your poison and treat yourself to a sharpest knife you’ve ever experienced for this Christmas!

SuperStrop. Note how thin the polyester leather is on the far side, as compared to the horse butt.

SUPERSTROP

The Superstrop has a half inch thick cast acrylic core, which is the flattest plastic available, as well as being very dimensionally stable.  Flesh side horse butt is mounted on one side and flesh side polyester ultra-microfiber leather on the other. The strop has a nice heft, about 14 ounces, so it doesn’t move around on the bench while stropping. The polyester leather comes loaded with .1 micron Poly Crystalline Diamond (PCD) compound, which should last a very long time. Sub-micron diamond replacement sprays are readily available. Replacement PSA horse butt and PSA Polyester leather is also available. When working, I like to use the .5 micron Chromium Oxide (CrO2) honing compound on the horse butt, wipe off the knife to prevent grit contamination, then finish with the .1 micron PCD. Also available with polyester leather on both sides, loaded with .1 and .025 micron PCD.

SuperStrop.  14″ x 2.5″ x ~.625″.   $85.00

Replacement ~15″ x 3″ PSA flesh side horsebutt: $35.00

Replacement ~15″ x 3″ PSA flesh side polyester leather: $35.00

 

3M PSA FILM, ONE AND .3 MICRON.

3M finishing films.1 micron is lime green and .3 micron is white.

Delrin plate, machined and lapped flat. Fits into my sharpening system. 12 x 2 x .5″: $50.00

1 micron and .3 micron 3M PSA finishing film, 4 sheets each. 12 x 2″: $10.00

 

 

W. O. Hickok Box

W.O.Hickock box. My Collection.

How much can we tease out of this nicely made wooden box with a sliding lid? Someone once told me that with enough rigor, knowledge and time, the whole history of the world could be found in any object. Mmmmm.

The Hickok company is still in business, and has made bookbinding and paper ruling tools for over 150 years. On this box, the shipping label also keeps the lid from sliding open in transit. The addressee, “News Bookbindery” must have been associated with the Goshen News, which was the newspaper in Goshen, Indiana. The wood is Southern yellow pine and has finger joints which are machine made using circular cutting heads. The bottom has saw marks from a 12 inch diameter circular saw.

Given the size, and very sturdy packaging, my guess it that it contained fragile Hickock ruling pens. The end of the box not visible in this image has written in pencil “17 point”, which would also support the ruling pen hypothesis, and could indicate the box was also used for storage. There is a Hickok order number, which I haven’t identified yet.

1910 Gane Brothers Catalog. Specific mention of mailing a small package. Apparently this is novel at the time? Source: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433057476958;view=1up;seq=44

In a 1910 Hickok catalog, there is special mention that smaller packages can be sent through the mail, and this occurs on the page that lists the styles of ruling pens.  The 3 cent purple Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809 stamp on the outside of the was issued in 1938.  I’m a little suprised a ruling machine was still in use at this late date, even in a small midwestern town. This must have been near the end of ruling machines.

Hickok is still in Harrisburg Pa, and still has lots of spare parts for ruling machines, and they still sell bookbinding equipment, such as my favorite book press, the Hickok 001/2. I visited in 1998 and wrote a short piece, “The W.O. Hickok Mfg. Co.: 150 Years of Bookbinding Equipment” for the Guild of Book Workers Newsletter #121.

 

Prices of Hickock ruling pens from a 1910 Gane Bros Catalog. They cost .015 cents per point. Source: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433057476958;view=1up;seq=44

The history of the world in this little box? Physically, it is evidence of the timber industry and industrial manufacture, as well as transportation and storage. The label is record of printing technology and the postal system. If the box contained ruling pens, these were used to make the pages for record keeping by clerks and accountants. This spins out into record keeping, finance, written marks, memory, foundations of civilization….

Samson Paper Press

The Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking in Atlanta has one of the largest — and oldest — papermaking presses I’ve ever seen. Look at the size of the top beam, which is about two feet square!

The entire museum is fantastic. It started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, consisting primarily of Dard Hunter’s papermaking books and artifacts. Then it moved to the Institute of Paper Chemistry in 1954, was added to over the years, and finally landed at Georgia Tech in 2003.

The “Samson Paper Press”, constructed in 1790, was used by Hodgkinson and Co. in Wookey Hole England until the early twentieth century, according to the label. I’m not sure if the name refers to this press in particular, or is a generic term for any massive press.

It has an iron thread which generates much more power than a wooden one, due to the reduction of friction. I’m starting to think that all images of early nineteenth century presses with a ball above the platen also have iron thread.  Samson has a ratchet wheel and pawl mechanism to prevent the platen from backing off when fully tightened.

The tommy bar, or press pin, is lying on the black plinth in front of the press and is about six feet long! Not visible is the iron renforcement on the end of the bar which fits into the four holed iron ball. I imagine Samson securely attached to the ceiling or wall, and three or four men working together to fully tighten it. The daylight is roughly 3.5 feet, which would be about the height of a typical post (a stack of the newly formed sheets and felts). Possibly a century of use might account for the deterioration on the lower wooden platen, or it may have been sunk into the earth under the floor. The uprights are iron faced on the two short sides. A few decades later, by the 1830’s, most presses were made completely or iron or steel, making Samson an interesting transitional press, incorporating both wood and iron.

Around the same time, the French papermaking press depicted in Diderot’s Encyclopédie appears to have wooden threads, but a similar iron ratchet mechanism to prevent it from backing off. I have a hard time believing a small wood pawl could withstand the compression.

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

 

Leerdunmessen

My blog post “An Overview of Leather Paring Knives, Tools and Machines” was translated into Dutch and appears in the current issue of Handboekbinden (Jaargang 10, Nummer 3, 2017): 92-95.  According to Google translate, Leerdunmessen means “Learning Lessons”. Kind of cool!

Added 31 Oct 2017: A dutch friend let me know that Google translation is wrong, and Leerdunmessen actually means “Leather Paring”. Thanks Edith!

Phive Star Light

The Phive CL-1 illuminating a book being sewn on a Nokey sewing frame.

My first workbench light was a twin tube florescent I found on the street.  The long tubes illuminated very evenly, without casting shadows from my own hands while I was working. Eventually the buzz from the ballast became intolerable, and I switched to a 100 watt round swing-arm adjustable style, which most people use.

Recently, I decided to try out the Phive CL-1 LED lamp. So far it is a great light. It looks high-tech, the arm is easy to position, and more importantly stays in position. The 5000k color temperature is pretty close to daylight. The area where the LED’s are mounted is very small, so you can position it close to yourself or to your work.

The bulb does not seem to be replaceable, but the lifespan is estimated to be 50,000 hours, which is 17 years at 8 hours a day — very close to my own working lifespan.

Just Looking

Once a year I teach a knife sharpening and tool making workshop in the bookbinding department at North Bennett Street School (NBSS) in Boston.  NBSS has the finest bench oriented two year bookbinding program in the world. If you have the passion, drive, commitment, dedication — and are crazy enough to pursue this antiquated profession in the 21st century — this is the place to do it. You will find many kindred spirits in your cohort.

I cover all aspects of sharpening related to bookbinding: blade angles, bevel angles, types of steel, types knives, types of grits, grit progression, hand grinding using power tools, free hand sharpening, and stropping. These techniques can be adapted to virtually any type of sharpening system: oil stones, diamond stones, waterstones, lapping powders and finishing films. Free hand sharpening throws many students into the deep end, for a while, but ultimately equips them to sharpen most types of edge tools. Most bookbinding knives have complex shapes and handles  which preclude the use of jigs or honing guides.

The foundation of this class is critical looking. Critical looking is not only closely watching the instructor demonstrate a technique, but it is looking at what you have done. Often when sighting or aligning, one eye is better than two.

Once you can visually analyze what your hands have done, then you can correct, alter, adjust, repeat your hand technique. Critical thinking is taught via writing in undergraduate curriculums. Could critical looking be linked to drawing?  Taking a photo or shooting a video can be a useful shortcut for note taking that may gloss over important aspects, such as processing and replicating. Drawing really forces you to look closer, again and again and again.

Critical looking is different from just looking. In a narrow sense it means learning to interpret what you are looking at, what the scratch patterns, reflections, divots, rounded bevels mean in relation to how you were holding the knife. In a broader sense it means understanding  what the effect of your actions are. Critical looking is the basis of all sharpening, maybe all craft skills?

 

Below are some images of the 2017 workshop shot by Brian Burnett.

 

All Photos Copyright 2017 Brian Burnett. And he was critically looking.