Interpreting a Plough: Observations From the Bookbinding Tool Expert Tom Conroy

Jenny Hille, a book conservator who is perhaps best known as the co-author of the invaluable practical manual “Endbands From East to West and How to Work Them“, sent me some images of a plough she owns, and wondered what I could tell her about it.

I contacted Tom Conroy, a bookbinder in Berkeley and bookbinding tool expert who is perhaps best known for his essential article on how books function, “The Movement of the Book Spine”, and his groundbreaking reference book  “Bookbinders Finishing Tool Makers: 1780 – 1965“, for some assistance.

Tom kindly shared what he knew about this plough, and he wanted to remind readers of this blog that his writing here is informal, unedited, and taken from email correspondence. All the lovely photos are by Jenny Hille.

Ploughs were traditionally used for cutting the edges of books, and seem to have started when book boards shifted from wood to paperboard boards, and textblocks from parchment to paper in the 15th century. Ploughs were a mainstay of binderies until the second quarter of the 19th century, when they were replaced by guillotines for most trade work. Some fine binders today still use them, since the resulting  book edge is much smoother than a guillotine, and they are more portable.

Top view of a the plough.

Tom writes:

I’d say English or just possibly American, last third to quarter of the 19th Century. Not French, not German.

Blade and handle end cheek. Note the cut-outs on the top of the cheeks.

The cheeks are a slightly unemphasized version of what I call a “snail’s-horn” plough, the common English form in the late 19th century and first third of the 20th century. Cut-outs on the top edge, front edge, and back edge create little hornlike protrusions that remind my fancy of a snail’s horns. The Hickok variant of this, the commonest variant in America, has one cut-out at each rounded corner and a rounded-over corner, creating an s-shape. After WWI the plough was pretty much out of use in trade binderies in both England and America, with as far as I can tell just two makers surviving: W.O. Hickok in Harrisburg, PA for American style ploughs, and N.J. Hill/Hampson Bettridge in England. The half-sized ploughs made by Dryad for school arts-and-crafts binding classes were not worth professional attention. By 1960 Hampson Bettridge had shifted from the snail’s-horn profile to simple rounded-over corners. I have no precise dating criteria for the changes, because (metal process-engraved) blocks made for use by the 1870s were re-used in subsequent catalogue editions until the 1930s, and were loaned to publishers for use in manuals.

Profile of the handle and wrought iron wing nut on the end cheek. The wing nut shape is strangely reminiscent of a strong man pose. The checks in the wood do suggest some age.

As Jeff points out, the big wing nut is a diagnostic point; but to me it suggests English-not-American even more strongly than age. On Hickok ploughs the blade-holding mechanism and other metal parts tend to be machinists’ work, while on English they tend to be blacksmith’s work. Not a difference of function (in fact the English style is functionally better than the more highly regulated American form) but one of style of finish. However, by the end of the 19th century most of the Hampson Bettridge presses I have seen have cast brass wing nuts, not wrought iron, though of similar less formal workmanship; so the wrought iron wing nut suggests earlier to some extent, as well as English.

One other diagnostic point is the use of round-section rather than square-section guide bars between the cheeks. This detail points rather toward America, not England; all Hickok ploughs I have seen have dowels as guide bars, whereas all full-size English ploughs have has square-section guide bars (the half-size Dryad plough, one of the commonest and least useful at this point, has round-section metal guide bars; but this was made from the 1920s onward for the use of middle-school binding classes, the market Dryad’s whole operation was set up for, and is little more than a toy; as are the late-period English ploughs copied from Dryad after the 1970s). The mixing of discordant diagnostic indicators is common on ploughs, which are usually highly individual; so ascription of date and place are usually a matter of balance, except in the most clear-cut Hickok and Hampson-Bettridge examples. Even there – well, I have a Hickok plough with a “bolt knife” (i.e. non-adjustable, very wide and long to allow for wear), and I know someone with a post-WWII round-cornered Hampson Bettridge with a bolt knife, though in general the bolt knife was out of use in England by the 1870s, and never spread at all to America.

French ploughs generally use one runner on the press, and the plough has one cheek with a central groove along its base to engage with the runner. German ploughs tend to have circular blades, and run next to a single runner on the press. It is clear that your plough is neither.

Signature stamped on the top of the guide cheek.

The signatures on ploughs are normally on the end grain of the cheeks, like those of wooden binding presses and those of wooden woodworkers’ planes. With just a name it is possible that you have an owner’s name, not a maker’s name; but I have never seen a binder’s name stamp of this kind, though they were common among woodworkers. Reason: many planes were a woodworker’s personal tools, whereas ploughs were shop-owned tools in a bindery. Stamped-in touchmarks don’t last well on flatgrain wood, so where they are used professionally they are always on the endgrain (front and back surfaces of a plough). If a stamped-in mark occurred on the side grain I would assume it to be an owner’s mark without compelling evidence to the contrary.

If the plough were American I would rather expect the signature to include a city name: binding tool makers were rather localized in London, but were spread out over many cities in the U.S. If you live fairly close to a good research library and want to try a check of the London Post Office Directories for likely years. I can’t find them on line yet, but they may be available in the pay-for-it genealogical sites. The LPO Directories were published every year, but most American libraries have no more than half-a-dozen strung out along the century 1850-1950.

I did a bit of digging online and found what looks like a fullish set of Post Office directories put up by the University of Sheffield. The navigation of the site is a horror, but I managed the push my way to the volume of Classified Business Directory for 1884, and further to the page listing “BOOKBINDERS’ PRESS (AND PLOUGH KNIFE MAKERS” despite a mysterious disguise under a Sheffield directory:


Merriam wasn’t listed in the classified London list for 1884, but it is still possible that he was listed in the general alphabetical directory.

What needs to be done is to check the general alphabetic volumes year-by-year for Merriam, from about 1860 to World War I.  If I were doing it I would start with a check every five years, and if I found him I would work backward and forward from that date. The whole process would be quick and straightforward with a run of hardcopy, but I’ll confess that I’m not up to it with the bad indexing. Still, I may have saved you a step or two.




Embossed mark on the end grain of the handle cheek.

Fast response to first new batch of photos: The “PD” mark in the end grain looks like an owner’s mark to me. This form of mark with the letters rising from a depressed background and a border of small vees to the background (a “serrated embossed mark”) is the classic form for woodworkers’ planes. There is a chapter on marks in Goodman’s British Planemakers from 1700; I have the posthumous 3rd edition which has become very rare and pricey, but I believe there is a 4th edition now. On planes, the embossed mark with just initials was used for both makers’ and owners’ marks and is very common. Since you could buy one cheaply from pretty much any blacksmith, I would bet it is an owner’s mark on a binding tool. All the marks I can remember previously seeing on binding tools were “incuse” marks (letters sunk into the tool) and were rarely just initials. A maker’s mark is advertising, so it needs the full name and, often, place, which demands an engraver’s skills. An embossed mark can be made by anyone by taking a standard set of letter stamps and punching the end of an iron rod, then filing the border close to the initials and filing the little triangles into the edge with a triangular file. Since an owner’s mark won’t be used all that often you don’t even have to harden it if you want to save money.

Top view with blade disassembled. Note the square attachment on the blade holder bolt which also fits into the keyway on the handle. Also note the common compression in the wood from the washer on this attachment.

The blade and mechanism is a classic “bolt knife,” the earlier and universal form in the 18th century. The “sliding knife” or “scotch knife” appeared early in the 19th century, but took many decades to completely replace the bolt knife, since the bolt knife was significantly cheaper. Crane’s Bookbinding for Amateurs has an 1870s or 1880s discussion of the two forms. On balance the bolt knife points toward an English origin and an earlier date; though, as I think I mentioned, I have a late Hickok “amateur” (small size) plough that is probably middle 20th century (small screw size) and know someone with a Hampson Bettridge bolt knife plough that is certainly post-WWII.

Bottom view of knife attachment. Larger bolt heads, like the above square, are generally earlier.

Back to Jenny’s photos, I notice that the butt end of the knife is not nearly as wide as the cut-out for it in the cheek; this suggests to me that it is the second knife for this plough, the first one having been sharpened down to nothing. I have seen bolt knives with five inches and more of blade, and I believe I have seen then with two inches or less remaining.

Not much to say here. The use of the bolt knife bolt (or of the analogous bolt for a sliding knife) to do double duty to make the cheek “follow” the screw in and out is usual for English presses, and frequent if not quite as common for American ploughs; it is found, with some variants that seem to come from lack of understanding the mechanism, on some French ploughs. The large diameter of the bolt is typical blacksmith-made English; machinist-made Hickok ploughs are usually thinner and lighter-weight.

$ $ $

I don’t know what ploughs would be worth now, since they are so rare. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was following binding equipment on eBay, and at that time you could get a new, real, plough from Frank Wiesner for around $500, suggesting a used price around $250; but the few that appeared on eBay didn’t sell for anything like that, and the market didn’t seem to distinguish between crap amateur-made ploughs and good professional ploughs. So few people know how to use them, or want them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one with an asking price of $80 or $500 or more, I wouldn’t be surprised if one lingered unsold at either price, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one sold very rapidly at either price. I just don’t know. I have a small collection of ploughs, including good English, Hickok, and French ploughs, and two or three good ones I made; but I never paid more than $25 for one.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one from 2013 where Tom discusses another plough.

4 Replies to “Interpreting a Plough: Observations From the Bookbinding Tool Expert Tom Conroy”

  1. I have seen Dryad ploughs on eBay and they look reasonably well made in the photos. What is it about them that makes them inferior? Thanks.

  2. Not to put words in Tom’s mouth, but the couple I’ve tried didn’t really work, in my experience because of the very obtuse angle on the blade. Also the blade had a very poor attachment to the cheek, which seemed to introduce movement resulting in a poor cut.

  3. Jeff, just a few years ago I bought a beautiful plough/ laying press with a stand and tub to catch the cut segments from Illtyd Perkins, who is a furniture maker and creator of very nice bookbinding equipment. His studio is on on an island off the western coast of Canada. Certainly not as efficient as board shears but it is nice to have the tactile feedback and results from using a plough on certain projects. His traditional plough works very well. I bet many would appreciate his understanding and choices of special wood in his products. Here’s a link for those who would like to look at some of the items he’s made.

  4. Rob, I wrote and sent a long reply to your question in more timely manner, but it seems to have disappeared into the ether; Jeff never received it. At this point I can’t face going through the whole malarky again, so I will give a very abbreviated version, with apologies in the unlikely event that you would like more.

    The most important points, briefly: When Dryad designed their bookbinding equipment around the 1920s, they chose to shrink the lying press and plough; my guess is that the shrinkage was about 40%. However, they retained the proportions of press and plough, so in a photo or drawing with nothing else to give scale, the Dryad design looks full-size. The shrinkage causes a number of problems, for instance there is not enough room under the handle for the right hand to advance the handle with comfort. Dryad’ customer base was the equivalent of middle school art classes, so they may have rationalized the change as appropriate to smaller-sized users; but nothing is said of the size in their catalogs (that I have seen), and the main result was that tools that looked like full-sized grown-up tools in photos and drawings could be made substantially less expensively.

    Also, a number of components and details in the best Dryad ploughs were changed from traditional wood to off-the-rack metal. Most Dryad ploughs have metal main screws; and this cannot be used as a subsidiary handle with the left hand while cutting, in the way a professional plough should be used. Also, the loose wooden guide bars of a traditional press, which serve to keep the cheeks from going askew and jamming, were replaced (in my example) by solid steel cylindrical bars working in copper tubing bearings. Sounds like an improvement—but the tiniest brush of rust on mine jammed the whole mechanism, and carefully removing the rust didn’t restore full operation (it now closes OK, but can be opened only with difficulty).

    Dryad made their undersized ploughs for at least half a century, with a number of small changes over the years— for instance, the original blade-holding mechanism, which was similar to the traditional one, was replaced by just screwing the blade directly into the bottom of the cheek. Most of the changes made the design even worrse. However, the woodworking skill and level of finish that went into Dryad equipment were always quite good, with nothing to fault that you could see—unless you tried to use the plough, or at least knew how to use a real plough. Yes, they look good in catalog photos. They were meant to look good. Yes, I have even see skilled binders successfully cutting books with good examples of Dryad ploughs. I’ve done it myself, as a test. But it’s still a toy, a shoddy toy. You can play Beethoven on Schroeder’s piano, but its still just a toy piano.

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