Category Archives: bookbinding tools

Keep it Clean: Preserving the Life of 3M Finishing Film

One of the most common mistakes in sharpening is to allow your stone or film to glaze over. This significantly increases sharpening time, since the knife is not abraded by the grit, but is burnished against embedded steel. Not using enough lubricant is a common reason for this, as is not regularly cleaning your substrate. Depending on the size of the grit, either a microfiber rag or a white vinyl eraser works best.

My sharpening setup, above, consists of a bright swing arm lamp mounted directly above a cork faced workbench (PSA cork shelf liner), a microfiber rag, a large squeeze bottle of water, and the Peachey Sharpening System. I find it more comfortable to sharpen at a lower height, around 34 inches, than my regular bookbinding workbench. Many hundreds of knives have been sharpened here!

The microfiber rag is perfect for cleaning larger grit 3M micro-finishing film, from 80 to around 15 microns. This rag was white when I purchased it, a testament to how well it picks up and retains small metal particles. I also use it to clean off the knife between grits in order to examine the scratch patterns.

For 5 micron and smaller grits, a white vinyl eraser works wonders.  Pictured above is the neon lime green  1 micron film, which glazes quite easily. Using the eraser on coarser grits eats it up too quickly.

Of course, over time, the abrasive will wear to the point nothing much happens, and you will need to replace it. I can usually sharpen ten knives or so on one piece of 2 x 11 inch film.

By using plenty of water as a lubricant, and cleaning the film after each use, the effective working life of finishing film will be prolonged.

August Eickhoff French Style Paring Knives

A pair of August Eickhoff french style paring knives, made in New York, 19th century.

A side benefit of my regrinding and knife sharpening service is that I get to see some interesting antique knives. These August Eickhoff knives are beautifully made, have a wonderful balance, a lovely patina, and given the amount of distal taper (both on the blade and the tang) must have been forged. Eickhoff also made round knives (aka. head knives) for leatherworkers which occasionally show up for sale today. In the late 19th century, Eickhoff was located at 381 Broome St, NYC, making scissors, woodworking tools, and resharpening knives. He served on the NY Board of Education, and advertised his wares in a Teachers College Educational Monograph. It may be time to make a few reproduction Eickhoff knives.

Long Live the Superstrop

I introduced the Superstrop about eight months ago, and have been using this one for over a year without having to recharge the substrate, which is a .1 micron Poly Crystalline Diamond spray.  And last month, seven students used it to make a total of 24 leather bindings. So I’m guessing one application of the diamond compound, which comes with a new strop, will last at least a number of years under normal use. The substrate itself is more durable than leather. It holds the small diamond particles in place, allows them to move around a little to expose sharp edges, and doesn’t glaze over.The small knife at the top right is a prototype paper conservation scraping knife. Get the Superstrop here

Jonathan Ashley-Smith on Hand Skill Pedagogy

The most recent Journal of the Institute of Conservation (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2018) is a Festschrift for Dr. Jonathan Ashley-Smith. Ralph Steadman drew the cover, especially for this issue. Ashley-Smith is officially a conservation rock star!

The coolest conservation journal cover EVER. Journal of the Institute of Conservation (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2018)

You need to be a member of ICON to read the whole journal on-line. So join.

Selected articles from other issues are open access, including Ashley-Smith’s important 2016 article,  “Losing the Edge: The Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills.”  Although the title implies a depressing state of affairs (losing, declining) it is actually filled with empowering techniques to reverse some of the trends he anecdotally observes. There is much worth reading and discussing in this article: he considers a broad swath of issues surrounding conservation, handwork, craft, how we learn hand skills, and even how we loose them. Some of my own thoughts about losing hand skills are here.

At the risk of overusing the comparison between conservators and surgeons, I’ll offer an example of my own then one from Ashley-Smith. When teaching a sharpening workshop, we look at the first two plates from Joseph Pancoast’s Operative Surgery. They are great reminder for the students that hand skills need to be learned, and for me to make the subtleties explicit. Many students pick up a tool, turn it over a few times in their hand, hesitantly try it out, find it doesn’t seem to work, and set it down, convinced that they don’t have good hand skills. But hand skills need to be learned, and there are easier and more difficult ways of manipulating tools.

Learning traditional techniques of tools use are often easier than trying to figure it out on your own, which is why they became traditional in the first place. Just consider the variety of hand positions Pancoast instructs the surgeon to learn in order to control the bistoury, pictured below. There is a following plate of even more advanced moves. I doubt many of us could come up with these on our own. Even though I have not used a bistoury, the hand positions make sense for the tasks I can figure out, like depth control (Fig. 2) and extra power to make an incision (Fig. 3). Perhaps it is better not to interpret all of them.

Pancoast, A Treatise on Operative Surgery, 1844.

In “Losing the Edge”, Ashley-Smith describes an even more relevant surgical analogy to conservation, found in  J.W. Peyton’s 1998 “Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice”. Peyton offers a pedagogical model for learning hand skills. I will try it out on the graduate students enrolled in the Historical Book Structures Practicum this summer. Traditionally, hand skills are taught by the monkey see, monkey do  approach: the instructor demonstrates (sometimes with verbal descriptions of what their hands are doing), then the students copy what was done, often with little understanding why.

Ashley-Smith observed that surgeons are not ashamed to use the word “craft” in the context of their work, instead they are proud of it. Peyton presents a refined method of teaching craft skills: not only does the instructor demonstrate three times, but before the students perform the action, they are required to describe each step in advance. Another advantage of this method is that the student is exposed to seeing the action performed at real speed. Old timer conservators sometimes complain about how slowly younger conservators work: could part of it be they were never exposed to work done at real speed, only the slower, linguistic heavy, demonstration speed?

These are Peyton’s four steps:

1. Demonstration of the skill at full speed with little or no explanation.
2.  Repetition of that skill with full explanation, encouraging the learner to ask questions.
3.  The demonstrator performs the skill for a third time, with the learner providing the explanation at each step and being questioned on key issues … the demonstrator provides necessary corrections. This step may need to be repeated several times until the demonstrator is satisfied that the learner fully understands the skill.
4.  The learner carries out the skill under close supervision describing each step before it is taken.

— J. W. Rodney Peyton, Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice (Rickmans- Worth: Manticore Europe, 1998), 174–7.

Excessive? Maybe for most bookbinding operations, but certainly not for medical operations. His model really forces the student to observe what they are doing and why they are doing it, and to think ahead to the next step. Ironically, it is all to easy for students to gloss over important aspects of hand movements during a demonstration. This is understandable, since most of the motions are not all that interesting, or even important. Invariably, they miss the most important part.

Sometimes in step 3, it is more relevant for the student to draw or diagram the process, if it is cumbersome to verbally describe. I doubt Peyton’s pedagogy can be adapted for every stage in bookbinding, but some steps — like sewing, forming headcaps, cutting corners — lend themselves easily to his procedure. Since many specific operations in bookbinding are similar, this method could be spread across a longer format workshop.

Using a Cigar Press for Bookbinding

Cigar presses are usually smaller than book presses, and often just half-arch, rather than full-arch.  As such, they cannot generate as much pressure as a real book press. The one I purchased seems to have the compressional force of a typical copy press, which is adequate for the most common bookbinding tasks: firm adhesion of pastedowns, casing-in, and tray attachment when boxmaking. It wouldn’t be too difficult to modify a large C – clamp to make something similar.

Since they are lightweight, this one is about 30 lbs, they are great for teaching and travel.  They usually have much more daylight than copy presses, again, useful when teaching, or for a secondary press. The main disadvantage is they only can be used for small format books.

Since cigar presses were originally used for pressing hand rolled cigars in long wooden molds, they often don’t have a top platen.  I made a 7 x 9.5 inch aluminum one for this machine.  Will I end up in conservation purgatory for drilling two holes in a historic machine?

Unmarked half-arch cigar press. I mounted a 7 x 9.5 inch aluminum platen on it.

Peachey Tools in May 2018 National Geographic

National Geographic, May 2018. “Explore” section.

The May 2018 National Geographic Magazine “Explore” section has a gorgeous two page spread of Yasmeen Kahn’s book conservation tools. Kahn is a rare book conservator at the Library of Congress. Both my  A2 leather handle paring knife  (#10) and  two inch brass triangle (#5) are included!

Many of her tools are quite interesting. She mentions the unusually shaped bamboo tool (#7) is useful for cleaning spines. Was it originally intended to be some kind of pen? I can easily imagine how the chunk of Lapis Lazuli (#2) would fit into my hand for burnishing. This also explains why the majority of Islamic manuscripts at LC have blue streaks on the repair paper (just kidding!!!). She made a very nice looking paring knife out of a hacksaw blade (#10). I’m really into this hybrid blade shape.

Depicting tools out of their working context by carefully arranging them emphasizes their aesthetic qualities. This begins ca. 1690 in bookbinding with the engravings that ended up in Dudin’s Art du Relieur. Some of my own tool collection hangs on a wall in my studio, again, for the aesthetics. But they are easily removable in case duty calls, mounted with magnets or between finishing nails.

Can you identify these tools? Hint: most are not bookbinding tools, and I won’t argue if someone opines #1 is not technically a tool.

A Japanese Burnisher

This week I am guest blogging on the The Book and Paper Gathering, a site which delivers conservation information in a light-hearted, easy-to-digest manor.  A conservation magazine, rather than a peer reviewed journal. It is well worth spending some time reviewing their previous posts.

The Most Beautiful Tool in the World: A Japanese Burnisher

Exactly twice in my life I’ve seen a tool and immediately felt such a keen a desire to possess it that my secular observance of the eighth commandment was severely tested.

Drooling over Robert Minte’s collection of Japanese hera at the Bodelian Library in 2010 was the first time. They were so elegant, simple, beautiful — perfect tools, I thought. It was the longest flight of my life back to New York City, my fingers itching to make some for myself. Over time, I learned more about bamboo, shaping bamboo, and continue to keep making them today

The object of desire the second time was also a Japanese tool, though in this case a burnisher, and…  READ THE REST AT THE GATHERING