Good Diehl

Edith Diehl’s “Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique”, thanks in part to an inexpensive and ubiquitous Dover reprint, is perhaps one of the most common introductory bookbinding manuals.  Although frequently maligned for propagating innacuracies, especially the historical section, the practical section is informative and well done.  I use her sequence of leather covering steps when teaching– it is a clear, calm list of what needs to be done. Panicking students, covering their first full leather binding, often find it reassuring.  Her diagrams in general are concise and present the relevant information in an easy to follow manner.




This hammer came from her studio, via Gerard Charrier, who purchased many of her tools. It is a large London pattern cramping hammer and according to Salaman, Barnsley’s 1890 catalog of cobblers tools lists six sizes of them, this one is a “No. 1”.  It is similar to a French hammer and is used to paning the sole edge, heel breast and waists of shoes. He also notes that this style of hammer was already going out of fashion by 1839!  The head is quite large, 55mm, so I don’t use it for binding- more often to tenderize pork when making tonkatsu, or in place of a proper beating hammer.  Even though I don’t use it for binding, the feeling of using historic tools remains somewhat inexpressible. Touching the  smooth worn areas at the end of handle, examining dirt near the head, or polished areas around the cheeks, gives me direct tactile and visual information about how Diehl held it.  The makers mark is fragmentary, but it starts “CHAMMO…” with “CAST STEEL” stamped underneath.   This hammer must have been the one she copied for the illustration below, unless she had more than one of them.  The illustration is from page 143 of the Dover edition.




Diehl  likes a large and heavy  hammer, feeling they are less likely to damage signatures by leaving small indentations in the spine.  She also makes the point that when using a heavy hammer, its weight does most of the work, so there is less danger of forcing it and damaging the signatures.  She specifically recommends that the hammer should be weighted so that the face balances even if no one is holding the handle, as both the photo and figure clearly show.  I find it a bit odd, given the attention to detail in most of her diagrams, that she didn’t depict the eye in this one. There are two photographs of students using a similar London pattern hammer in Palmer’s 1927 manual “A Course on Bookbinding for Vocational Occupation”, found on the frontispiece  and on page 38. One is using the face to back a book, the other the  peen. 

I also have a book from Diehl’s library. Her gold stamped book plate is quite lovely. It only measures 35mm high and 27mm wide and I assume it is St. Jerome.






17 Replies to “Good Diehl”

  1. In the Museum we currently have up a small display of binding hammers. I always understood this to be a “German style” backing hammer, though I don’t know if it is used in Germany, and it is my impression that it is the commonest style in American trade binderies. Hickok used to offer three styles of hammer: what I call a “German style” under the name “Rounding Hammer” in two weights, 2 lbs. 2 oz. and 1 lb. 8 oz; one close to a large common cobbler’s hammer under the name “Backing Hammer,” in three weights, 2 lbs. 8 oz., 1 lb. 12 oz, and 1 lb. 4 oz.; and the huge “beating hammer” (although it had gone out of general use by the middle 19th century) in three sizes, 8.5 lbs, 7 lbs, and 5.5 lbs. The name “London pattern cramping hammer” was probably used only by British shoemakers, and quite possibly by few of them.

    Binders have picked up their hammers from many sources, most often shoemakers, and usually just called them “backing hammers” or something similar. I doubt any form of hammer has been used exclusively by binders. The common form of backing hammer in England is what the Barnsley catalogue calls a “London pattern shoe hammer. The square cross-pein style called a “French backing hammer” by American binders (and, it seems, actually favored by French binders) can be obtained on-line at much lower prices, and in a larger range of sizes, from an American company that makes blacksmiths’ hammers (the smiths call it “French” too). In the Museum have groups of hammers from binderies that include “Cordwainers’ pattern” hammers with the cross-pein bent down so far that it is useless (a favorite style in America, from the numbers around); “French pattern shoe hammers” with voluptuous curves but a face that is angled in so far that it is useless for rounding or backing; common cobblers’ hammers so tiny they would barely move paper. I have backed books with handleless “paste-fitters’ hammers,” with riveting hammers long enough that the forefinger can be laid forward along the head and used for aiming, even with an ordinary ball-pein hammer. It seems that pretty much any hammer will do for rounding and backing if the face is the right size and shape and if it is heavy enough (Diehl was right about that), but binders get accustomed to one style and that becomes the “correct” style to their students. The same could be said for many of our tools.

    Now, though, I have another line of investigation. I’m sure that the Japanese have a special form of hammer for pounding tonkatsu. If I can find one, maybe it will turn out to be the perfect size and shape for rounding and backing.

  2. I looked into the Japanese tonkatsu hammers a little. Following an advertisement in “Art and Archaeology, Recent Setbacks”, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1993, I contacted the maker of the “Notsoshiti” Japanese paper, and was directed to the sole surviving tonkatsu hammer maker, who, by the way is a “National Living Treasure”. I’m guessing swine flu has had a much longer history in Japan, hence the decline both in quantity and quality of these speciality hammer makers. As most of us know, Japanese blades consist of laminated steel. Japanese tonkatsu hammers consist of three layers– an extremely hard (Rc 75) shell, surrounded by a softer (Rc 45) inner core and most remarkable an inside bulls-eye made of bamboo end grain. The bamboo bulls-eye aids in the maceration of the pork fibers as well adding a zen archer sense of aim. I haven’t tried it yet when backing a book, but will report later.

  3. Hey Jeff – I recently aqquired a hammer very similar to this one. The person who gave it to me told me it was a backing hammer, but I had never seen one like it so I did a bit of research and saw that it was nearly identical to the one Deihl illustrated. Mine was made by Hammond in Philadelphia. I found an old Hammond catalog which did in fact have it listed as a backing hammer. I’m out in LA right now, but I’ll send it to you when I get home. I find the size of it a little bit uncomfortable for my little hands, but the weight of it sits in your hand very nicely. Someone painted the cast iron electric blue and carved their initials into the handle, but I have no idea who it belonged to. Please excuse any typings errors – I am tapping this out on my cell phone. Will send you that catalog when I am back on the east coast. -Bexx

  4. The backing hammer shown in Sellen’s Dictionary of American Hand Tools is also very similar to the one Diehl illustrates, but not quite the same.

  5. Hi,
    Would you mind awfully if i used your image of the Diehl hammer (the illustration from the old catalogue) in a project I’m working on.
    My Grandfather was a Cobbler and I still have many of his old worn out tools.
    I’m thinking of using the Cobbling Theme for a possible future Micro-Brewery venture, its just in the research stage at the moment and that Hammer illustration might make a good logo for me.
    Any fuurther details of where the image came from would be great too.
    Thanks 🙂

  6. It says directly under the image where it came from, and there is a link. Just click on it and ask Garry!

  7. Sorry, had the wrong post. The line drawing is in copyright, but you can use the photograph.

  8. I’ll have to do my own line drawing using it as reference.

    What is the “Dover Edition”? I assume its still in publication or less then 75 years old?


  9. I used Edith Diehl’s book as a reference when I was at college back in 1985, I found it very useful. I bound it soon before leaving.

    The hammer discussion is interesting, thank you for sharing your knowledge everyone.


  10. Hi Jeff! I just stumbled upon this as I prepare to write a wiki on Edith Diehl. I think I recall that she used an uncredited graphic illustrator who in some cases may have been working from provided photographs of tools – some details may have been in shadow. I’ll have to go back to my notes to see if I recorded anything where she commented in letters about working with the illustrator. ED wrote the manuscript(s) mostly at her home in Brewster, NY, after outlining, selecting and corresponding and getting the photographs of bindings for the illustrations of Vol 1. In Vol. 2., I personally enjoy how she had the illustrator appropriate but update the fashion stylings of the lady seated at the sewing frame (from Cockerell, 1901)!

  11. I was looking for hammer handles for the exact hammer you are showing in the picture (cramping hammer). I found the head along with 3 shoe-size anvils. Although I don’t have a use for it I would like to see it displayed. I would like to find a handle. If you have one or could recommend a source I would be grateful. Thank you for your research.

  12. Good luck- handles usually wear out much faster than the heads, therefore are very difficult to find.

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