Category Archives: bookbinding tools

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


New Tool For Sale! The M2 Hybrid Paring Knife

Traditionally, leather paring knives either have round or straight cutting edges.  I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each in this post. I usually use an English style straight blade, but became tired of the fact it could only be used for edge paring. Partially inspired by the rounded corners of a spokeshave blade, I made a couple of other modifications to a standard M2 English style knife so that it can be used for more than edge paring.

A slightly curved cutting edge on essentially an English style knife allows it to scoop out leather, necessary for the spine area, headcaps, and decorative work. The blade is oriented at a 45 degree angle, like an English knife, so right and left handers need to purchase different knives. The corners of the knife are rounded so that the tip or heal will not cut through the skin while performing this scooping action. The tiny secondary bevel allows quick resharpening.

This knife can be used for all types of paring necessary in bookbinding: edge paring, reducing spine and caps, paring deep into a skin (similar to a spokeshave’s action) and even for overall scraping, if you are into that.

M2 Hybrid Knife. Around 8 – 9 inches long, and 1 inch wide. Since the grind marks on the primary bevel go along the length of the blade, the primary bevel is not apparent when looking at the top of the knife. The exact curve of the cutting edge varies a bit from knife to knife.

A lower angle primary bevel cuts down on the amount of time it takes to resharpen the blade, since there is less metal to remove. The 13 degree cutting edge is only a millimeter or two. The disadvantage is that there is not a large enough bevel that you can feel when you put your knife on the sharpening substrate; you have to trust your hands and the angle you are holding it at. This is quite similar to sharpening a kitchen knife by hand. Another advantage of the small secondary bevel is that it can be stropped back into shape very quickly, again because not much metal has to be removed. This is a perfect blade for sub-micron stropping. M2 steel seems easier to strop than A2, for some reason.

Cross section of primary and secondary bevels.

The slightly curved blade creates more opportunity to find a sharp area as the knife dulls, so it can be used longer. Straight blades, as they become dull, don’t seem to bite the leather enough to get started with a cut. The disadvantage is you can’t just rub it back and forth like a standard straight edged knife when resharpening. Stropping takes a slight twist of the wrist, to keep parts of the cutting edge in contact with the strop throughout the stroke.

The rounded areas allow you to work into a skin, for headcaps and the spine. But the shape also allows you to use it like a standard English style knife for edge paring.

The third change is that the tip and heel of the cutting edge are rounded.  This prevents the knife from cutting through the skin when you are working away from the edge, similar to how a spokeshave blade works. In practice, I don’t miss having a pointed, sharp tip. A rounded tip also makes it less likely to dig into your paring surface.

The M2 Hybrid used like a standard English knife for edge paring.

All of these aspects combine to make a sensitive and versatile knife intended for professionals. An analogy for cyclists might be this is more like a track bike than a road bike. This knife, in addition to edge paring, can do most of what a spokeshave can do, albeit with more “workmanship of risk”. If you want the most versatile knife on the market, look no further.

Close up of a piece of goatskin feather pared,, so that the valleys of the grain are cut through. The middle of the blade was used for this, almost parallel to the edge of the leather..

Progressively paring towards the center. The rounded edges keep the blade from cutting through the leather as it stretches.

M2 Hybrid Paring knife. M2 Steel. The handle is hand carved wood, covered with vegetable tanned goatskin, and ergonomically shaped. The metal is .040″ thick, the handle around 5/8″ at the thickest point. It is about 1 inch wide and around 8-9″ in overall length. The secondary bevel is 13 degrees.  Hand sharpened to .1 micron.

The M2 Hybrid Paring Knife.  $250.00.  Order here.

Small M2 Hybrid knife. The best knife for onlays and intricate leather decorations. Also great for paring paper. M2 Steel. The metal is .025″ thick, about 5/8″ wide and 6-7″ long. Leather covered wood handle. The  secondary bevel is 13 degrees. Hand sharpened to .1 micron.

The Small M2 Hybrid Paring Knife.  $150.00.  Order here.

Small M2 Hybrid knife bottom left, regular size next to it.

Samson Paper Press

The Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking in Atlanta has one of the largest — and oldest — papermaking presses I’ve ever seen. Look at the size of the top beam, which is about two feet square!

The entire museum is fantastic. It started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, consisting primarily of Dard Hunter’s papermaking books and artifacts. Then it moved to the Institute of Paper Chemistry in 1954, was added to over the years, and finally landed at Georgia Tech in 2003.

The “Samson Paper Press”, constructed in 1790, was used by Hodgkinson and Co. in Wookey Hole England until the early twentieth century, according to the label. I’m not sure if the name refers to this press in particular, or is a generic term for any massive press.

It has an iron thread which generates much more power than a wooden one, due to the reduction of friction. I’m starting to think that all images of early nineteenth century presses with a ball above the platen also have iron thread.  Samson has a ratchet wheel and pawl mechanism to prevent the platen from backing off when fully tightened.

The tommy bar, or press pin, is lying on the black plinth in front of the press and is about six feet long! Not visible is the iron renforcement on the end of the bar which fits into the four holed iron ball. I imagine Samson securely attached to the ceiling or wall, and three or four men working together to fully tighten it. The daylight is roughly 3.5 feet, which would be about the height of a typical post (a stack of the newly formed sheets and felts). Possibly a century of use might account for the deterioration on the lower wooden platen, or it may have been sunk into the earth under the floor. The uprights are iron faced on the two short sides. A few decades later, by the 1830’s, most presses were made completely or iron or steel, making Samson an interesting transitional press, incorporating both wood and iron.

Around the same time, the French papermaking press depicted in Diderot’s Encyclopédie appears to have wooden threads, but a similar iron ratchet mechanism to prevent it from backing off. I have a hard time believing a small wood pawl could withstand the compression.

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds),