In the 21st century, bookbinders are understandably nervous concerning the continued availability of essential machinery and replacement parts. Many of the board shears and guillotines we use on a daily basis are more than a hundred years old. This equipment not only needs to be maintained, but periodically their blades need to be resharpened or replaced. The last New York City grinding service, Ace, moved to New Jersey a number of years ago, priced out of Soho.
I support Ace by using their services. I also collect and preserve bits of history associated with these types of industries, such as this desk blotter ephemera I scored over the past weekend. This is the second bookbinding related desk blotter I’ve found in the past month, a little unusual, though synchronous finds are not uncommon in dedicated flea market and antique mall exploration.
The Wapakoneta Co. was sold in 2009, but is still making knives and industrial cutting products. But as the numbers of newspapers, books, and other paper based products continues to shrink, what will happen to these vital ancillary trades — like board shear blade making and resharpening — that hand binders and conservation labs rely on?
This is the most ornate finishing (?) press I’ve ever seen, as well as being one of the earliest dated ones. It is inaccurately described by the V&A as a book stretcher in the catalog, because in the early images (above and below) the tightening nuts were on the wrong side of the cheek. Usually tightening nuts like these are found on German or Netherlandish presses.
It would be nice to have a book stretcher on occasion, though. Need to turn an octavo into a quarto? No problem! But was this really a book press, or a press intended for some other purpose? The 29 inch long cheeks are very, very thin in profile, and I imagine would deflect quite a bit even with just hand tightening.
A later image shows the press assembled correctly, but it is still described as a book stretcher. Almost every non-functional inch of this remarkable press is covered with relief carvings. The tightening nuts are especially elegant. It is made from walnut, a wood traditionally used for press boards in 18th century France.
Many 17th century and earlier European woodworking tools, like planes, are encrusted with carving. Hand tools have became minimally decorated since the 20th century, all form deriving from efficient manufacture and use. The decorative deep carving must have taken a lot of extra time. Did the maker or consumer provide the agency? Was this a presentation piece, not intended to be used? It seems to show very little wear, atypical of most presses. Or did the maker just want to make a beautiful tool? Do beautiful tools inspire binders to make beautiful books?
Hats off to the V&A has a very progressive large image use policy. You can download them instantly, share them widely, and even use them for publication. There are almost 750,000 searchable images on the V&A site. Let’s hope all institutions free their images.
Mark Anderson, Furniture Conservator at the WInterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, is fixing up a copy press for their Book Conservation Lab. At first glance, it is a large but typical press, though with a nice hand-wheel with spokes extending beyond the rim, useful for extra leverage or pretending to be a captain steering a ship.
Copy press usually have a steep thread pitch, which is great to move up and down rapidly, but they generate a lot of friction when tightening, therefore can’t generate as much pressure as a real book press. This is compounded by a common tendency of not attaching them to the bench. There is a reason almost all presses — like the one below — have four holes cast into the base, in order to screw into the bench! I guess that by having to hold a press with one hand, and tighten it with the other, the total compressional force is reduced by 25% or more.
Once Mark took apart the press to clean it, he noticed an unusual aspect: the central screw had two different screw pitches and diameters on it. Apparently the finer thread is internally threaded into the larger one, though it is currently frozen.
A similar style of screw is mentioned in the 1843 Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine. There may be earlier examples. Even today, external threads are sometimes referred to as male, and internal threads as female. In a surprisingly contemporary note, the writer in 1843 recommends that this coarse language should be abolished.
Although Mark’s example is inoperable at the moment, presumably the larger external coarse thread raises and lowers the platen quickly, and at the same time the internal thread moves more slowly, due to the finer pitch. But when the press firmly tightened, the smaller internal thread kicks in to apply more pressure. Fast operation and lots of pressure would be ideal for a copy or book press.
For this to work, the finer thread needs to be affixed to the platen, as in the image from The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine. In the press Mark is working on, it looks like it spins in the top of the platen, like most copy presses. An alternative explanation might be that the finer threads were left over from a different project, or cut wrong? But if this mechanism works as advertised, why wasn’t this a more popular mechanism for copy and book presses? Hopefully he can get the screw unfrozen and we can find out.