Accidental Book Art


A Millennium of the Book, Edited by Robin Myers & Michael Harris, contains seven important essays on book history.  Likely the best known to book conservators is Nicholas Pickwoad’s  “Onward and downward: how binders coped with the printing press before 1800”.

Standing upright in the middle of a section of my copy of this book is a manufacturing error— a broken sewing needle.  I can feel it’s impression on about 30 leaves before and after it.

A material manifestation of Pickwoard’s argument in the 20th century? Accidental book art?

Jacques Board Shears

Bill Minter has recently written an excellent summary of how to adjust a Jacques Board shear, on the Guild of Book Workers Blog. There is also a fantastic diagram of the yoke and what the nuts, bolts and lock washers actually do.  I had opportunity to take Bill’s workshop a few years ago on adjusting these troublesome beasts. For a large, seemingly indestructible cast iron machines, they are finicky to adjust, and even just moving them can cause alignment problems. It can take a long time to get them adjusted. But when they are working well, they are a real pleasure to use; much nicer than any currently manufactured board shear I’ve used. I’ve written a bit in the past about the importance of the board shear in the nineteenth century.

Bill mentioned two basic types of Jacques shears, though I would consider at least three early twentieth century ones and would guess there are more. Bill provides images of these three machines in a Jacques catalog from 1923, and below are earlier images starting around 1898. Although we generally call all of these machines board shears, some were originally made to cut specific types of board.


The Paper Box Maker, Vol. 27, No. 1, November 1918, p. 29.

Above is my favorite Jacques Board Shear.  Bill mentions the reinforced “L” shaped arm that makes these extremely rigid machines, but the outer gauge is also heavy duty, with a stop on the two rack and pinion. This is the only model I’ve used where the outer gauge can be adjusted and stays in place. Once you use one of these machines it is difficult to use another one. The only downside is that they take up the most floorspace, are the heaviest and are the most cumbersome to move.


jacques with automatic clamp

The Paper Box Maker and American Bookbinder, Vol. 7, No. 10, August 31 1899, p. 15.

The Fine Paper Box Makers’ Shears, were not only made in wood and metal tops, but with automatic or foot operated clamps.  I have a small 30 inch machine with an automatic clamp.  It is very cool: bring down the blade and the clamp automatically lowers onto the material to be cut. This is one sweet machine, though I wish the arm were a little beefier. This is not a hugh problem on my small 30″ machine, but might be on larger ones.  Another nice feature of  a Fine Paper and Box Makers Shear is that the clamp is very narrow, about 3/8″. This makes sighting the cut easy, but virtually eliminates the most common accident that happens on board shears, pinching your finger under the fence. Pinching is perhaps an understatement: I know binders who have lost a fingernail and had to go the the emergency room.

paper box machinery

Name plate on my Jacques “Fine Paper Box Makers’ Shears” circa. 1899 with automatic clamp.


paste board shears

The Paper Box Maker and American Bookbinder, Vol. 7, No. 1,November 1898, p. 15

The pasteboard shears are the lightest, and least expensive of the three. Bill mentions that some board shear blades have a chisel edge, rather than a fairly obtuse grind that is best suited for mill or binders board. I have seen a number of these machines—all with wood tops—sold from leather working factories, were they also made specifically for cutting leather? They also tend to be very large, 50″ and up. The arms are not reinforced, so they are fine, but less than ideal for cutting thicker binders board, especially at full length. The wood top makes them lighter, though. In my experience, these are the most common machines encountered.


Bill makes a number of important points in the article Instead of routinely regrinding the blades it is possible to touch them up fairly easily in situ. This not only extends blades life, but is cheaper and might be necessary in the future. Many blade grinders use expensive, large machinery and were dependent on printing and newspaper industries which are now in decline. I used to make a jig to sharpen blades, but now feel it is easier to hold a small diamond stone (like the fine/ extra fine folding handle stone, 4 11/32 x 7/8″) and touch up the blades by hand, concentrating on the portion closest to the handle where the blade is used the most.

Of course all of this is fairly preliminary research— the basic types of machines are barely identified, let alone the variations through time. The mechanization during the nineteenth century in bookbinding seems strongly related, if not tied to similar trades, like paper box makers. The first commercial paper box was reportedly sold in England in 1817. Much exciting research need to be done.


It is regrettable that the vendors of used machinery seem uninterested in researching, documenting, and preserving these machines. Of course, these machines need to be functional. But many of the alterations I have seen are done for aesthetic reasons, not functional. Many, even today, are routinely sandblasted and repainted, original wood tops replaced, historical value lost. There is a lot of finger pointing going on: Conservators blame the vendors for over-restoring machines, vendors claim that the purchasers want newly painted machines to match their bindery or conservation lab. How a book conservator can condone this wanton destruction of our mechanical heritage by participating in the marketplace is incomprehensible to me. If book conservators don’t know better, or hold themselves to a slightly higher standard than a non-specialist member of the general public, I’m not sure what to think of the field.

Manual Peachey Board Slotting Machine

Board slotting is likely the strongest and least invasive method of treating detached boards. Detached boards are the most common point where bookbindings fail.  Christopher Clarkson developed the technique in the late 1970’s. The board slotting tab at the top of this page and the board slotting blog offers more information concerning its history, technique and recent advances.

The original Peachey Board Slotting Machine, developed in 2005, is used in conservation labs around the world. It is, however, a somewhat large and expensive machine, and best suited for large institutions. The Manual Peachey Board Slotting Machine is a new affordable alternative for individuals, regional centers, smaller institutional labs and even larger labs with space limitations. This smaller machine can be moved out of the way when not in use, freeing up valuable bench space. It is also simpler to operate.

The Manual Peachey Board Slotting Machine features stops that automatically guide the positioning of the blade when starting and stopping a cut. In order to make this machine more affordable, three aspects are limited as compared with the original machine: the maximum length that can be slotted is 15″ (rather than 17.75″), the board needs to be manually pulled or cranked using a hand wheel, and the angles for slotting are not infinitely adjustable, but can be set at 11, 13, and 15 degrees. These are the most common angles used. In fact, I use 13 degrees about 90% of the time, 11 for very thin boards, and 15 for thick ones.

This machine is less intimidating when compared to the original. The orientation makes it easier to sight the height of the blade. The carriage can be quickly pulled back into starting position after the end of a previous cut. This also makes partial (or biscut) slotting of a board very fast and easy. Overall, the slotting operation seems to be quicker. Many bookbinding and conservation students, such as those from North Bennett Street School, have been trained in the fundamentals of board slotting.  A one to three day workshop on machine operation, basic slotting technique and structures is recommended, though.



-Width of the machine -12″, Height- 19″, Length- 22″

-Weight 30 lbs. Easy to move and store when not needed.

-Fast and intuitive operation.

-The sliding board carriage can be quickly moved to the starting position at the end of a slot, or between biscuit slots.

-Maximum height of board that can be slotted: 15″

-Dust collector hooks up to a standard vacuum cleaner.

-Thick and thin solid carbide blades included for long cutting life.

-Automatic blade positioning for starting and stopping a cut.

-Boards can be slotted by pulling or cranking.

-Safety guards (not pictured) keep hands away from the blade in use.

-The motor, and other operations are similar to the original machine.

-No electrical transformer needed for international operation, just plug adaptors.

-This machine can be shipped pre-aligned, but still needs some assembly.


I have a machine in operation at my NYC studio if you would like to examine and give it a test drive. Please contact me if you have questions or need a formal price quote including shipping, assembly and training.

Introductory Price:  $4,950.00  (Regular price $5,500.00)

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