Tom Conroy’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Tom Conroy asked me an intriguing question.  What are the five most essential bookbinding tools? And why?

I asked a number of bookbinders and conservators to weigh in, and will roll out their answers, one a day, for the next week or so. It is a deceptively intriguing question, as well as being an engrossing distraction. And possibly contentious!

Spoiler alert, if you want to think about this a bit without prejudice, scroll down no further!

Tom Conroy with his pride and joy: a Bertrand Frères Percussion Press. Note the aluminum foil to protect forearms from getting greased.

Tom Conroy

Bookbinder and Book Historian, Berkely, CA.

Bone folder, of course, first; and then I would say knife and straightedge. Spring dividers. Needle. Its a bit more complex than that, of course. My favorite folder is about six inches long, tapers gradually almost from the butt end, and is strongly curved (when “flat” on the bench the tip is raised by almost 5/8″), and is broadly useful for folding, rubbing down, casemaking, and covering; but it is a bit big for working headcaps, definitely too big or a lot of paper treatment and probing where I like a thin folder, and I avoid creasing with it since creasing wears tips so quickly; so actually, several folders are necessary. Well, the more the better, really. A knife and straightedge normally require a cutting board as well, and a knife requires sharpening equipment (disposable blades are never sharp enough) My preferred bench knife is a “small McKay” used by shoemakers and is perfect for use with a straightedge and for disbinding, generally useful, even for light paring, but it it is too short for slitting paper and too small for serious leather paring. Dividers: almost any will suffice, really bad ones are very rare (though I have seen them), and I can, with a strong grimace, imagine making do with just one pair. My preference, though, is 6″ Starrett “Fay” style, with the screw piercing almost-rectangular legs. Needles: now there’s a essay, good ones haven’t been made for at least half a century now, but some needle is indispensable. It’s hard to stop at five. My first thought, before I remembered needles, I had a paste brush on the list (at least 1-1/8″ diameter, usable for hot glue in desperation, but never for PVA); but then I recalled Bernard Middleton pasting up leather for rebacking by grabbing a handful out of the pot and scrubbing it in with the flat of his hand….I think he did it to shock the young folks, that workshop was full of French-style design binders and newly-minted program conservators, and while Bernard was as gentle and quiet as any man I have ever seen, once in a very great while he would show a touch of teasing, immediately hidden away again. I’d find it hard to do without awls (four main kinds in constant use for binding, and others for leatherworking and woodworking). Long tweezers and needle-nosed pliers would be hard to do without. But, on balance: bone folder, straightedge, knife, dividers, needle.

 

 

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