Category Archives: bookbinding

A Method of Brushing Glue onto Paper

I’ll be teaching a hardcover pamphlet binding workshop to a group of undergraduates later this week, and wanted to include a diagram illustrating the technique of gluing paper.  I couldn’t find anything useful on the web, so had to draw my own. Is it considered too basic to bother describing? Clean and efficient glue handling is one of the most fundamental skills in bookbinding, and a common place to make mistakes.

The sequence of applying adhesive to paper for a right hander. Click on the image to enlarge.

If your adhesive is the right consistency, your brush the right size, and it is charged appropriately, you should be able to cover the entire sheet without adding more. This is how I was taught by Thea Hamman, a German trained bindery supervisor who worked for many years at Columbia University.

A.  Apply the adhesive to a large area in the center of the sheet of paper, which is placed on a larger waste sheet. Press down firmly with your index finger and thumb to keep the sheet from shifting. If the paper is large or highly reactive to moisture, you might want to relax it by misting with water. I usually jigger the brush back in forth in Area 1 during application. Make sure to put enough on to later drag it over the edges.  Most commonly, I use a 1 inch Princeton 5450 Natural Bristle Brush. Since the adhesive is not on the waste sheet yet, if the paper happens to shift or expand a bit, the good side of the sheet remains clean. Next, brush the adhesive in Area 2, off the top and right side. If the paper expands or warps, hold it down so that it moves towards the left, so adhesive doesn’t get on the good side. 

B. Move your hand and place your ring, middle and index finger on the bottom of the sheet, in the area where there is not adhesive, then brush the top left side. This can also help keep the sheet from curling into into itself. On small sheets, 1, 2, and 3 can be done at the same time. All of this depends on a balancing how fast you are working, how reactive your paper is, and how much moisture is in your adhesive.

C. Now place your fingernails fairly flat on the top edge, making sure not not to dent the paper. By using the flat parts of your nails, the adhesive doesn’t get on your fingertips. If you do happen to get a little glue on your fingers, it is useful to keep a damp rag nearby to wipe them clean. Finish spreading the adhesive and lift the paper near two opposite corners, and stick it in place. Smooth it down, starting in the center, working outward, with the part of your hands that is opposite your thumbs to eliminate any bubbles.  This avoids your fingertips which now have adhesive on them. Then achieve firm adhesion by burnishing using a Delrin folder, or your weapon of choice.

Please comment if you have another preferred method!

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.


My blog post “An Overview of Leather Paring Knives, Tools and Machines” was translated into Dutch and appears in the current issue of Handboekbinden (Jaargang 10, Nummer 3, 2017): 92-95.  According to Google translate, Leerdunmessen means “Learning Lessons”. Kind of cool!

Added 31 Oct 2017: A dutch friend let me know that Google translation is wrong, and Leerdunmessen actually means “Leather Paring”. Thanks Edith!

Just Looking

Once a year I teach a knife sharpening and tool making workshop in the bookbinding department at North Bennett Street School (NBSS) in Boston.  NBSS has the finest bench oriented two year bookbinding program in the world. If you have the passion, drive, commitment, dedication — and are crazy enough to pursue this antiquated profession in the 21st century — this is the place to do it. You will find many kindred spirits in your cohort.

I cover all aspects of sharpening related to bookbinding: blade angles, bevel angles, types of steel, types knives, types of grits, grit progression, hand grinding using power tools, free hand sharpening, and stropping. These techniques can be adapted to virtually any type of sharpening system: oil stones, diamond stones, waterstones, lapping powders and finishing films. Free hand sharpening throws many students into the deep end, for a while, but ultimately equips them to sharpen most types of edge tools. Most bookbinding knives have complex shapes and handles  which preclude the use of jigs or honing guides.

The foundation of this class is critical looking. Critical looking is not only closely watching the instructor demonstrate a technique, but it is looking at what you have done. Often when sighting or aligning, one eye is better than two.

Once you can visually analyze what your hands have done, then you can correct, alter, adjust, repeat your hand technique. Critical thinking is taught via writing in undergraduate curriculums. Could critical looking be linked to drawing?  Taking a photo or shooting a video can be a useful shortcut for note taking that may gloss over important aspects, such as processing and replicating. Drawing really forces you to look closer, again and again and again.

Critical looking is different from just looking. In a narrow sense it means learning to interpret what you are looking at, what the scratch patterns, reflections, divots, rounded bevels mean in relation to how you were holding the knife. In a broader sense it means understanding  what the effect of your actions are. Critical looking is the basis of all sharpening, maybe all craft skills?


Below are some images of the 2017 workshop shot by Brian Burnett.


All Photos Copyright 2017 Brian Burnett. And he was critically looking.


Using a Modified 151 Spokeshave to Bevel Binder’s Board

Designer binders, conservators who replicate wooden boards with laminated museum board, and others sometimes have to create a bevel or chamfer in book board. Often this is accomplished by sanding, which is at best a very slow process, and at worst an easy way to create a disgusting amount of dust.  A downdraft table and PPE is recommended.

Beveled book boards were very common in the nineteenth century. Various contraptions were invented to do this, including a specialized board shear that cut at 45, rather than a 90 degrees, a jigged foot clamp and large chefs knife, and a machine that used a woodworkers jack plane running in a track. Large production shops sometimes had a board beveling machine with a rotary blade, but most of us are not so lucky.

As the video below illustrates, it is also possible to bevel binder’s board quite efficiently with a modified 151 spokeshave, a tool which is usually used to thin leather over large areas. Note how much I skew the spokeshave, and how it is in motion when I start the cut. Also listen to the sound: this is what a properly adjusted sharp blade sounds like. Even after spokeshaving, it may still may be necessary to refine the board edge a bit with some coarse sandpaper.

If you are laminating your own boards (de rigueur for high end work), it is a good idea to paste a few layers of colored paper to the level you intend to bevel, in order to judge how deep you are spokeshaving. Since binder’s board is quite abrasive, an A2 or PM-V11 blade is a necessity. And the blades do wear more quickly than when shaving leather. It would be smart to dedicate one blade just for board.


Whatsit #3

It has been almost a decade since my first two whatsit posts,  Whatsit #1 and #Whatsit #2. Number 2 was identified by Tom Conroy, #1 is still a bit of a mystery. For those unfamiliar with this colloquial American term, a “whatsit” is an unidentified object, short for “what is it”? The Mid-West Tool Collectors association often features a number of them in their quarterly publication, The Gristmill. You get a lot for your annual membership from them, including a reprint of a classic tool oriented book. The Early American Industries Association usually features a panel discussing a number of them in front of a live audience. Full bore geeky fun!

Recently a colleague has sent me images of a seriously odd, unidentified tool she found in her conservation lab.  She first thought it was some kind of cloth cutting tool, but it didn’t really work. This makes sense given the conically shaped brass end of it: a cloth cutter would have to have two steel blades. The shape of the handle indicates it is used by pushing forward, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

Here is a more detailed description of the business end. “The cone is not solid.  The brass sheet overlaps the wooden handle for about 1.25 in.  The cone is secured on the handle with two brass “pins” (visible in the photos, 1 pin on each side) onto the handle.  The blade-like part opens wider than is shown in the photo.  I can move it to a  90° angle with the cone.  When I open the blade fully and squint at the base of the blade, it looks as though the same pin(s) attaching the cone to the handle may also attach the blade to the handle.  Maybe it’s a single pin that runs all the way through.” She later mentioned the blade opens to almost 90 degrees.

The size of the brass end seems too large for bookbinding applications, my first guess is it is a type of gardening tool called a dibber or dibble.  Possibly the blade would aerate the soil or cut small roots??  It is odd how new the handle and brass cone looks when compared to the wear and discoloration on the blade.

But I’m not sure of any of this And why did it end up in an institutional book conservation lab? I’m stumped.

ADDED: Sept. 27, 2017. MYSTERY SOLVED!  John Nove, coment below, and in a personal email sent me the identification.  It is a  Humboldt Sharpener for Cork Borers.  Well done John!



The stamping reads ” MADE IN WEST GERMANY”

This is the other side. Even the blade pivot pin is made of brass, which suggests light duty use.