Category Archives: ergonomic design

Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?


dudin scraper

Fig. 1: Two grattoirs from Dudin, Plate 10.

In 18th century French bookbinding, according to both Diderot and Dudin, these grattoirs (usually translated as scrapers) were used to aid in backing and smooth the spine linings. There were also frottoirs (versions with dents– pointed teeth) [*check comments for some discussion of these terms*] to scratch up the spine to get better adhesion, since book structures of this time period often had transverse vellum spine linings.  I made a wood copy of the tool above on the left, but the light weight and friction from the wood made it awkward and ineffective; the friction would tend to tear the spinefolds and dislodge spine linings. There is a contemporary version, available commercially, which is even more useless due to the extreme round on the ends.  I’m a little uncertain about these terms– so far the only reference I’ve found in English is in Diehl, where she refers to a wood frottoir ( burnisher?), that looks a lot like the one still available.


Fig. 2: Two 19th century  frottoir/grattoirs, courtesy Ernst Rietzschel.

This summer,  I had a chance to test drive the combination frottoir/ grattoir tools pictured above. Ernst Rietzschel, from Holland, borrowed them from his bookbinding teacher in Belgium,  so it is likely they come from the French binding tradition.  Their weight, as well as the very slight curve,  made it easy to concentrate pressure on just a signature of two for accurate manipulation of the spine. As an unexpected benefit, it was wildly cathartic to punch and  scratch the spinefolds with the teeth, of course, only in the interests of historical research!

I used the smooth, slightly rounded ends of the original tool to back the book and to align the cords as well as to burnish the spine linings. Even with the damaged edges and paint, I was surprised how easy it was to gently control the backing process and tweak the cords into alignment.   I had much more control compared to using a hammer, and it was quicker (and potentially less damaging) than loading the spine with so much moisture that I could manipulate it with my fingers or a folder.

Originally, I was planning to reproduce the original, but I didn’t want to make it out of iron because it is prone to rust.  I wanted two smooth ends since I only scrape spines on specific historical models.  I considered stainless steel, but didn’t have any on hand, and it is very gummy and difficult to work by stock reduction.  Bronze was a good candidate, but brass is slightly harder.

So I made a modern interpretation out of  free machining, type 360 brass with a lignum vitae handles.  The quarter inch thick brass and heavy wood handles give it a weight similar to the original, although the aesthetics are quite different. My version is 1.5 inches wide, 8 inches long and weighs 9.4 oz. ( 4 cm wide, 20 long, and 266 grams) In practice it works just as well, in not better, than the original.  It can be grasped with a fist for extra pressure, or delicately held like a pencil for detailed manipulation.

I wonder why a tool this useful would become virtually extinct?


Fig. 3: A contemporary grattoir I designed and made.

Paper Knives

The celluloid paper knife below  is a late 19th or early 20th century and  issued as advertising from the A.N. Kellogg Newspaper Company.  I’m confused about distinctions between paper knives, letter openers, page turners and even bone folders.  Neither Etherington or Glaister define their differences, and a few quick internet searches seem to lead to antique dealers selling Victorian versions.  So here is my first attempt at a definition: a paper knife is a large, special purpose type of bone folder, usually with a distinct handle and sharp blade.  It is often made from wood, bone, ivory or celluloid.  It is shaped to allow the user to rapidly slit paper folds.

The marking on the blade  reads “Proprietors of Kellogg’s lists established 1865″.  Kellogg’s list was a compilation of  ” Family weekly newpapers of a better class”  with price lists for advertising.  The proprietors seem quite savvy with marketing- note the book Google  scanned was donated by the publishers to Harvard College Library in 1897.  The surface of the celluloid contains a grain like structure, presumably in order to resemble bone or horn.  When a new material is introduced, it often contains superficial decoration to make it appear more like the original material, this is called a skeuomorph.  Book structures contain many examples of these as well– artificially grained leather, stuck on endbands, fake raised bands, etc….





I didn’t want to damage the original, so I made a reasonably accurate reproduction out of Swiss pearwood.  When testing the knife, one feature immediately became apparent due to the gentle curve.  It is possible to use the knife to slit a fold moving towards the left, as illustrated below, or moving it forward with the top edge of the knife. It is not so comfortable for folding, if you are holding the handle, since it is so long and the edges are quite sharp, which also supports my hypothesis that this is a single purpose professional knife, and not a general purpose folder. Whoever used it must have had pre-folded sheets. Given the overall length of 12″, I wondered if it was intended as an in house distribution for the various press rooms that were part of the Kellogg empire.  I am unclear why the end of the handle is so pointed– it seems potentially dangerous– did it have some special purpose, or was it supposed to resemble the end of an horn?  In the original, the handle is chipped at the very tip, possibly it was used to open packages?

Paper knives must have been fairly popular, an introductory text for woodworking has making one as a project, although it looks rather crude and slightly dangerous, with the sharp angles.


              Schwartz, Everett. Sloyd Educational Trainning Manual . N.P.:Educational Publishing Company, 1893.

The rounded handle on this model seemed more comfortable than the one I made, but there are similarities in the shape of the curve and overall length and width.  If I am recalling my mechanical drawing class from High School correctly, it seems the sharp edge of the knife is only on the top of the drawing, which suggests it would be used by pushing forward. The text, in six succinct sentences, describes the fabrication of this knife.  I’m always impressed by the level of common sense that is presumed in 19th C. and earlier manuals, and by the familiarity with the full range of woodworking tools, from  axe to scraper. Contrast this with a current Utube video tutorial which demonstrates how to apply beeswax to linen thread!

“Have the pupil cut from a 1-2” board a piece 2″ x 11″. With the use of axe, plane, tenon-saw and knife prepare an oblong 9-32″ x 1 9-16″ x 9 1-8″. Place drawing upon one of the sides and with the use of tenon and turning-saws cut to within 1-16″ of the line. Cut with the knife and file up to lines. Round and sharpen edges according to drawing. Finish with file, scraper and sand-paper.” (Schwartz, Project 10)

The coolest paper knife I have found is this patented combo paper knife (C), shears, eraser (D), paper folder (E) and seal (F).  This is supposed to combine all the tools a librarian or clerk normally uses into one, convenient package.  Today, we would likely call the “eraser” a scraper.  I can’t see how the paper folder could be used without grasping the sharp edge of “C”, though the patent says all the functions can be used without interfering with the each other.



A close second is the combined paper knife (c), ink-eraser (a), rubber or pencil eraser (b), twine cutter (D), ruler (C), envelope opener (G), pen-knife (B), newspaper-wrapper opener (H) and hang hole (I). The patent notes the handle (C) can be made of ivory, bone, metal, wood or any other suitable material.



Any images of other paper knives, or information on how they were used, or images of them in use would be greatly appreciated.

Shoulder Plane



I made this shoulder plane a couple of years ago because I was too cheap to purchase a lee valley shoulder plane as an experiment.  I ended up making a set of different sizes, partly due to the thrill of rapid learning when you step out of your area of expertise.  Although it looks complex, it is only marginally more difficult than making a knife, since a plane is basically a jigged knife.  According to Salamon’s Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, shoulder planes appeared in the 19th century, and were only made of metal.  “Their purpose is to clean rebates, shoulders of tenons, etc. across the grain.”

This one is made up of a rosewood core, brass sides and a dovetailed steel sole and has a three quarter inch cutting width. The blade is advanced by tapping on it’s end, which is hidden under the handle in this image, and released by tapping on the back of the plane.  I made this only using hand tools- hacksaw, files, jeweler’s saw, tap and a drill.  The sides were tapped then threaded with 8/32 stainless steel rod.  I find metal dovetails almost easier to make than wood ones- the angle of the dovetail is 60 degrees, which is the same as a three sided file.  If you leave the pins and tails slightly proud, they can be hammered slightly to fill small gaps.  Since the bed of the plane can be easily filed, the fine tuning can take place after the sides are assembled.  I was trying to give it a streamlined Deco look, and it works great.