Timothy Ely’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Timothy C. Ely

Artist in private practice – makes books, prints, drawings and the occasional guitar. Instagram

I had enough warning that I could watch over the course of a few days exactly what was used often. These are tools I grab when I am traveling to teach and they find cross over into other areas. Jeff knows this was a challenge as I have many tools inherited, made and gathered over the years. Next challenge should be the most important twenty five.

First off, a custom weight made by Randall Hankins of Salt Lake City. I have many weights of Randy’s as well as heavy things found over the years like massive things to hold x-ray machines in place. After making do with essentially the wrong things for decades, Randy and I designed these sixteen inch long weights so that some of the endpapers varieties I make could be selectively weighted or just kept from moving. I have a pair and I could not now work without them. Being steel, magnets can be applied — here is one catching a needle.

I can put you in touch, [contact Tim here] All are custom made.

Cobblers knife from Buck and Ryan [sadly gone] London. Purchased in 1982. Cutting paper and used as a marking knife.

 

Margaret Smith [d.1982] her dividers, about 6 inches long. She was born while Victoria was still alive and bound books with a Victorian sensibility. Very gracious and knew everyone. Studies a bit with S. Cockerel and was full of stories. She made her stone burnisher from flint found at Brighton. I use this tool more than any. No idea how many dividers of all configurations and lengths that I have found.

 

Triangle for various squaring and metering jobs. This one allows the worker to dial up the amount of focus required for certain jobs.

 

My first bone folder. It is sharpened on the lower edge, about 3 inches so that I can fold and then cut folds without needing two tools. I have many bone folders, they are sort of talismans to the discipline and are nice. I have a giant folder made from free range mastodon by Jim Croft. This one is balanced for throwing.

Karen Hanmer’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Karen Hanmer

Bookbinder in solo practice, http://www.karenhanmer.com/

Only FIVE?!

Maybe that’s not so limiting after all. Two experiences have taught me that with tools it is true that less is more. First: observing time lost when someone is forever rummaging through their steamer trunk-sized toolbox. Second: over my career learning to work more efficiently. An important component of this has been finding several uses for whatever tool is in my hand rather than suspending work to reach for another.

These are the essential tasks I perform:

fold

sew

measure

mark

cut

apply

press

All of these tasks can be accomplished with a very modest toolkit made up of the following five items.

1. Folder. Bone for a sharp crease on paper, Teflon for surfaces that might become burnished. A Delrin Folder combines the best properties of both.

2. Needle. A #18 John James is strong enough to go through any paper text block and the eye is large enough to thread effortlessly with sizes up to 18/3, and with some persistence 12/3. I use the same size for sewing endbands.

A needle in a pin vise becomes an awl, which can also be used to score, scribe lines, mark measurements, clean tooling, and apply adhesive or color to precise areas. A pin vise is more versatile than an awl because it can be outfitted with any size needle, sharp or blunt. I favor this one over Jim’s because it is narrow, rolls up with other tools for travel.

3. Knife. If limited to one, I’ll take an ergonomic scalpel handle and outfit it with a #23 Havel’s blade.

4. Straight edge. Not cork-backed. To make them non-skid I’ve been saving the ½-inch that remains after cutting the finest grit micro finishing films to fit sharpening plates and adhering that to the back of all my straightedges. Too fine to scratch whatever I place the straightedge on, and adds almost no thickness to skew my cuts.

5. Brushes. A selection appropriate in size to the area of adhesive being applied.

I’m going to consider the final two items freebies since they can be scrounged up in any home or office:

Paper “rulers.” Narrow strips of unprinted waste paper used with a pencil tick or fold mark to transfer measurements from one material to another, functioning as no-cost dividers, and sometimes better because they can measure spine width and other non-flat surfaces. These can also be used to mask areas when applying adhesive and to mark the center of sections when sewing endbands. [Note: this is called comparative measuring]

Weights.

I’d supplement a larger kit with the following:

A microspatula.

Dividers.

A small rectangle of non skid shelf lining anchors a finishing press in place, keeps beginners’ work from sliding all over the bench when they are learning to case in, and an even smaller piece will help grip a needle for binders who are losing their dexterity.

A small brass triangle with a handle is easy to grip and position, can mark corners prior to covering, is a stable mini straight edge, and doubles as a light weight to aid in placement.

The variety of machinist square called a “footed square” ensures book blocks and boards are square, aids transfer of marks at the board edge to the point of lacing, and is another light-duty weight.

A thin, narrow folder is essential for forming headcaps and doubles as a short-handled microspatula.

An inexpensive English paring knife separate from the one I use to pare leather for utility cutting: back corners, pre shaping boards prior to sanding, and cutting off excess cords and leather “pegs” on historical bindings.

Vernacular Rug Hooks. Exemplars of Practical, Comfortable, and Efficient Tools

A collection of handmade rug hooks bought in Prince Edward Island, CA.

I purchased this small collection of rug hooks while on vacation in Prince Edward Island, Canada, this past summer. Most of them have handmade hooks, and the handles are repurposed, altered, or custom carved. There is a compelling beauty to these humble and utilitarian objects.

Not only are they simply constructed, but they are extremely well used, which implies a degree of excellence. A poorly designed or made tool usually does not see much use! They are purely functional, with no decoration or even extra polishing on the hook end. Things that are well used and worn are an increasing rarity in our current culture. I sometimes refer to this as  “use value”, but there must be a better term.

A precisely shaped hook at the tip.

They all have a square shaft end where the handle is mounted, and look hand forged. The overall length is almost exactly the same, so that they fit into the palm of a hand and the tip reaches near the end of a slightly bent index finger. Gravers have a similar length, and one of them has what looks to be a graver handle that is missing the ferrule (the second one on in from the left on the bottom).

Several of them have file marks near the hook, indicating they were sharpened, fixed, or altered. The thickness of the shaft in relation to the size of the hook makes perfect sense: I imagine the thick area pushing apart the backing, and the hook small and sharp enough to pull the material efficiently through.

The first one (top row, far left)  reminds me of a Jim Croft awl handle, with its comfortable looking hand carved handle, worked just enough to knock any sharp edges, but not going overboard with sandpaper to make it smooth as if it were lathe turned.

Simple and ergonomic handle.

I imagine them gradually being shaped to the hands that used them over a long period of time. None of them seem to have any extra finish applied, so they feel like natural wood and oil from the hands. The shapes of the handles are all different, and likely the most individual choice.

They all demonstrate the two key aspects of successful tool design; the tool fits comfortably in the hand and fits efficiently with the material worked. They all look like they could comfortably jump into your hand and go to work.

 

Detail of what a hooked rug looks like. They were often made of strips from worn out clothes.