Depictions of standing and lying presses tend to be very popular logos for bookbinders and conservators, but an image of a board shear might more accurately symbolize current hand bookbinding practice. More than any other tool or machine in a bindery, the board shear demarcates the difference between in-boards binding and case binding, it highlights the difference between the late 18th and early 19th centuries binding styles, it marks a major shift in the role of bookbinders from artisan to worker, and often today it reflects difference between an amateur and professional binder.
A board shear does one thing, it cuts a piece of cloth, board or paper at 90 degrees quickly and accurately. Physically, the board shear is often the largest machine in a hand bindery. My relatively small 19th C. 30″ Jacques takes up about 20 square feet. It quite heavy and expensive as well. For these reasons most amateur binders do not have one. It’s imposing presence, however, garners many comments from clients. Although the large blades appear dangerous, most accidents I’ve witnessed involve pinching one’s finger under the fence, then jumping away from the machine, and in the process stepping down harder with the foot clamp, which squeezes one’s finger even more. A torn off fingernail is often the result. And I have seen the counterweight fall off the end, which could have been deadly.
The earliest publishers case bindings appear around 1810, and the board shear around 1840. There are types of earlier case bindings, wrappers and related structures, but I am just considering publishers case bindings here. It is difficult to imagine a 19th C. publishers bindery without one, since it is made for dealing with the relatively new invention of book cloth and machine made binders board. Machine made binders board, with an even thickness, is perfect for cutting on the board shear. Earlier water leaf or paste board usually vary considerably in thickness (possibly explaining the remarkable amount of beating prescribed in historic bookbinding manuels) and make it a poor canidate for use in a board shear- the fence must hold the material being cut evenly and firmly, otherwise it will tear rather than cut. With a bound book, a plough is the most necessary piece of specialized equipment, not the board shear.
19th C. case binding, consisting of two boards, a spine piece and covered before gluing to the text block, requires much more accurate, repeatable cutting that a bound book. Late in the 19th C., after case bindings became prevalent, I hypothesize that their movement influenced bound books. In earlier binding structures, when the boards are opened, the spine also begins to move. When a cased book is opened, the front cover, for example, can be opened more than 180 degrees without any motion being transfered to the text block. Late 19th C. bound books move the same way. At this time, if the board of a bound book was opened fully, it was considered shoddy workmanship if the flyleaf moved at all. I I wonder if it was the public, bibliophiles or the binders who desired this new type of movement from a book.
The late 18th C. marked the end of the leather bound book as vernacular culture, and the cased book radically changed the nature of bookbinders work. Mechanization, repeatability, perfect 90 degree angles, reliance on adhesives rather than mechanical strength, interchangeability of a text and cover and the speed at which the binder had to work all came to the fore at this time. When making an in-boards binding, the craftsman has a sense of constructing or building the book, rather than simply gluing it together. Since the text and boards are ploughed at the same time, slight deviations from 90 degrees are much more acceptable that in a case binding, where difference would be diasterous if the turnins aren’t even with the boards. The bookbinder, previously an artisan was increasingly becoming a worker. And he was forced to emulate machine made standards.
In a roundabout way, all of this points to the importance of studying the tools and machines that made books, in order to better understand small, specific historic details and larger picture- how books have informed the human experience.
On Sept 2, 2008 Thomas Conroy added:
I’ve been looking at early binding equipment, and some of the six or eight 1824-1836 patents for “paper cutters” listed in my write-up on the guillotine may have been for board shears rather than guillotines. It isn’t easy to find out, since the Patent Office and all its records burned in 1836.
But the rotary board cutter was already in use by 1856, since an engraving of one appears in the edition of Pilkington’s “Artist’s Guide and Mechanic’s Own Book” that also has an early engraving of the roller backer:
The rotary board cutter would satisfy the edition binder’s need for squareness better than the board shear, so perhaps the board shear’s ability to cut square was less important than you suggest. In any case, do we know when board shears were first equipped with gauges? I don’t think early guillotines had them, and there were still guillotines being sold with only one side gauge into the 1890s.
March 20, 2009
I noticed that in Nicholson’s Art of Bookbinding, both the 1874 and 1856 editions have a picture of a man at a “Table Shears” on page 175. It doesn’t have gauges, as you mention, but it is in the section of the book that deals with cloth work, not in the section on bound books.
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