Category Archives: hand tools

A Craftsman Reads “Craeft”

The idiosyncratic spelling of “Craft” is intended to reference the earlier Anglo-Saxon conception of craft. The 2018 American edition is titled “Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts” The 2017 English edition is titled “Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making” Does the publisher think Americans like the “true meaning” of crafts? And the English assume craft is just about making stuff?

Book Review. Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.

People working in craft often have philosophic inclinations. We work outside of mainstream society. We make objects that are not strictly necessary anymore. Combine this with long hours working alone, extremely repetitive hand work which affects the rhythm of our thoughts, getting lost in archaic techniques, and it only seems natural existential questions arise. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this? (and the annoying corollary, why am I doing this for so little money) Does it matter? Is craft in the 21st century anything more than a marketing term for a new cider? As partial compensation, I habitually buy most new books on the philosophy of craft, which means I must be looking for some new insight or different perspective.

With a few significant exceptions, the history of craft is recorded by writers and artists who described the actions of a craftsmen, but were not experts in the fields they described. Alexander Langland continues in this tradition. “I’m no craftsman” he announces near the end of his book. (297)  He does consider himself a “jack-of-all trades, master of none”, though. There is an almost universal prohibition against attempting to learn too many trades in most languages and cultures on earth. But why? Most people I know who are good with their hands are adept at a number of crafts. Is mastering a craft a different category altogether?

Langlands writes with a poetic sensitivity detailing the activity of handwork which renders the fact he is not a professional craftsman irrelevant. I became completely absorbed in his descriptions of hand work. David Esterly’s Lost Carvings (my review here) may have been the model for this style of craft writing: you feel you are inside a craftsman’s head, thinking what he is thinking while he moves his hands and tools. Esterly is a master craftsman writing about his own long years of carving. Langlands admits he is good at talking about it. (297)

Over a dozen crafts are described in Langlands book. Descriptions of performing a craft can sometimes go on for pages, and could have easily become inconsequential and dull. With Langlands firm narrative, however, they are engaging and even exciting. For example, the chapter on making a thatch roof is almost pornographic in detail; from sharpening the scythe, selecting the stubble thatch, twisting the thatch, augering the rafter peg holes, pegging it with a square greenwood trenail, driving the spars, and more. After reading, I felt exhausted and relieved to get off the roof and have the day’s work finished.

Each chapter has a similar recipe. He starts by placing a particular craft in a historical context, mixes in a bit of etymology, describes the importance of the materials, then narrates his own experimental recreation. His background as an archaeologist and British television personality (The Victorian Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm) serve him well in presenting the information in an engaging and readable manor. The chapter on weaving and hurtle fence making, for example, is exemplary: he unites these two disparate appearing crafts through a fundamental commonality of warp and weft. All the while he emphasizes the respect he has for the abilities of earlier craftsmen.

Though the book is filled with interesting factoids — who knew that the tines of traditional wooden French pitchforks are made out of trained branches! — the real value is in Langlands’ underlying conception of craft, “… a vehicle through which we can think, through when we can contemplate, and through which we can be.” (343)  He continues a philosophy of craft born in the arts and crafts movement, then overlaid with a bit of Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, my review here), David Pye (Nature and Art of Workmanship), and Howard Risatti (Theory of Craft). Another great strength of this book is the explication what he feels is the “craeft” way of knowing: evaluating and sourcing raw materials, working within constraints of cost and time, using your hands, and working towards a specific means. Craft, to Langlands, is not just a final product, but the sum total of the involvement in the process by the craftsman with the environment. Is this just a slight variation of farm-to-table cooking applied to objects?

For all of practical and engaging description, and his extensive experimentation, he has a romanticized view of craft, likely because he is an amateur.  “Perhaps harshly, I would not consider a topiarist who uses electric hedge trimmers a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes their level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.” (36) Attitudes toward work — even for a real craftsman —  change quite a bit when doing something day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. Pecuniary pressures can also negatively impact a craftsman’s enjoyment of work. David Pye would also take issue with this statement, though on the grounds that an electric hedge trimmer takes a great deal of hand skill to operate, and the source of the power is irrelevant.

Langlands pays little attention paid to how craft skills are passed on or inherited. For all of his emphasis on craft as a integrated system and way of thinking, this is a significant omission. When discussing a Viking longship, he theorizes “It’s a craft that relies on building something relative to the materials employed… allowing the materials to speak for themselves, to answer back, to tell you what the natural shape must be…” (333) This sounds more something you would hear from an exercise guru or in a Monty Python skit, not the way a craftsman would think about constructing a ship in the ninth century. “Thor, let the keel timber be what it wants to be!”

There are several chapters where he describes the actions of a skilled craftsman, but he does not investigate the transmission of knowledge. Re-enactment, etymological history, and the study of extant artifacts are his primary methods of inquiry. But this was is not how craft was taught and transmitted for most of human history.

At the risk of coming across as a mystic, but I do believe Craft (with a capital “C”) resides outside of objects. Craft objects are the result of Craft. Learning or experiencing this way of thinking is traditionally taught through close contact with skilled practitioners. But I also think you can get there on your own, it just takes a lot more time. Before the nineteenth century this took place in apprenticeships; now it is more commonly acquired during internships. The transmission of craft knowledge is an important part of the entire craft ecosystem.

Small. Really Small. Submicron Sharpening. Polyester Leather. SuperStrop.

Some of the stropping sprays, pastes, and substrates I’ve been experimenting with.

A meter was originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the South Pole where it passed through Paris. The Measure of All Things is a facinating book by Ken Adler which documents this feat of triangulation — in the middle of the French revolution, no less — and also explores how the defined length of a meter has since changed. A millionth of a meter is a micron. As a point of reference, a hair on your head is about 40 microns wide. A thousandth of a micron is a nanometer. Yes, I’ve been thinking small!

Typically, I hand sharpen following a grit progression of 80, 40, 15, 5, micron on 3M microfinishng films with water as a lubricant, strop with a .5 micron Chromium Oxide (CrO2), honing compound on the flesh side of a horse butt strop, then finish stropping on naked flesh side kangaroo. Don’t get me wrong, this works quite well. And there are many other ways to sharpen a knife.

Inspired by some other sharpening approaches, two aspects of my routine seemed to need a little tweaking. First, I eliminated the large jump between 5 and .5 micron, and found some finer grits for a final stropping.  Adding a 1 and .3 micron 3M PSA finishing film filled in the gap nicely during sharpening. And a final stropping with a .1 micron Poly Crystalline Diamond (PCD) diamond on polyester leather has dialed up the sharpness to eleven.

3M finishing film. The lime green is one micron, and the very bluish looking (in this image) white is .3 micron. The delrin plate is in the back.

PCD or Cubic Boron Nitride (CBN) compounds smaller than .25 micron don’t work well on real leather for two reasons: the expensive spray soaks into the leather and disappears alarmingly fast, and the natural abrasiveness of the leather itself is sometimes coarser than the spray.

One solution is to use a polyester leather, which is similar to “nanocloth”, a term Ken Swartz has coined and a great product he sells. Polyester leather is made from an ultra micro fiber that holds sub-micron sprays incredibly well, is very thin so the cutting edge does not become rounded, and is extraordinarily durable. Human hair is roughly 20 denier, but this ultra micro fiber is .04 denier. Denier is the mass in grams of 9000 meters of a given fiber. It is difficult to imagine how small and light this fiber is: 9 kilometers (over 5.5 miles) of it only weights .04 grams! All of these tiny little fibers hold the diamond particles loosely while allowing them to move around a bit, exposing new sharp edges.  I think this is why they last so long.

In other words, this polyester leather is a perfect substrate for .25  micron and smaller sized sprays. I’ve experimented with the  .25 micron (~64,000 grit, 250 nanometer),  .1 micron ( ~160,000 grit, 100 nanometer), and .025 micron ( ~640,000 grit, 25 nanometer). These are available in PCD and CBN. The diamond seems to stay sharp longer (because of the shape and hardness?), cuts a bit faster, though is more expensive. The .25 micron is pretty close to the .5 micron CrO2 I usually use, and though it does cut quicker and lasts longer, it seems an unnecessary expense. Waxy pastes don’t apply or stick well to polyester leather.

In terms of initial cutting performance and cutting edge longevity, I can’t really tell much, if any, difference between blades stropped with the  .1 micron or  .025 micron. Even so, the idea of a one fortieth of a micron edge does have an almost irrational appeal, but is it just a placebo effect? Also theoretically, the smaller the grit progression in your sharpening sequence, the finer the cutting edge, and the faster you get there. But everyone has to decide for themselves if the trade off in time spent sharpening is worth the final result.

Diamond compounds are expensive, but once they are loaded onto the polyester leather they last for a long time. In my experiments, I’ve used a single polyester leather strop loaded with .1 micron for over 100 knives without recharging, and it isn’t dead yet.

I’m a convert to this new sequence.  It really doesn’t take much additional time, and the resulting edge is better. All the knives I make now follow a 80, 40, 15, 5, 1, .3 micron sharpening sequence, and a .1 micron stropping. When I am paring leather for my own projects, I do a two stage stropping sequence to keep the knife sharp. First, a  .5 micron CrO2 on horse butt followed by .1 micron PCD  on polyester leather. Once the edge becomes too obtuse, then it is time to resharpen.

Choose your poison and treat yourself to a sharpest knife you’ve ever experienced for this Christmas!

SuperStrop. Note how thin the polyester leather is on the far side, as compared to the horse butt.

SUPERSTROP

The Superstrop has a half inch thick cast acrylic core, which is the flattest plastic available, as well as being very dimensionally stable.  Flesh side horse butt is mounted on one side and flesh side polyester ultra-microfiber leather on the other. The strop has a nice heft, about 14 ounces, so it doesn’t move around on the bench while stropping. The polyester leather comes loaded with .1 micron Poly Crystalline Diamond (PCD) compound, which should last a very long time. Sub-micron diamond replacement sprays are readily available. Replacement PSA horse butt and PSA Polyester leather is also available. When working, I like to use the .5 micron Chromium Oxide (CrO2) honing compound on the horse butt, wipe off the knife to prevent grit contamination, then finish with the .1 micron PCD. Also available with polyester leather on both sides, loaded with .1 and .025 micron PCD.

SuperStrop.  14″ x 2.5″ x ~.625″.   $85.00

Replacement ~15″ x 3″ PSA flesh side horsebutt: $35.00

Replacement ~15″ x 3″ PSA flesh side polyester leather: $35.00

 

3M PSA FILM, ONE AND .3 MICRON.

3M finishing films.1 micron is lime green and .3 micron is white.

Delrin plate, machined and lapped flat. Fits into my sharpening system. 12 x 2 x .5″: $50.00

1 micron and .3 micron 3M PSA finishing film, 4 sheets each. 12 x 2″: $10.00

 

 

Leerdunmessen

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!

The Superrench

The Superrench. 4.75″ length. My collection.

In addition to an awesome name, the handle of this beautifully made drop forged open-end wrench tapers elegantly to match the size of the openings, from 7/16″ at one end to 3/8″ at the other. The overall length fits the width of a hand, without too much leverage. The raised lettering on the handle stands out against an easy to grip, unmodified surface. This contrasts nicely with the precision ground ends and deep die stamping containing the size and manufacturer’s name. This wrench is from the mid-1930’s, according to the history of the “Superrench”.  But why the quotes around the name?

The Czeck Edge Ruler Stop

I purchased the Czeck Edge ruler stop about two months ago and keep finding more and more uses for it. It costs around $35 and clamps onto almost any ruler easily and securely.

In addition to a ruler stop, it is accurate enough to convert a ruler into a double square. Although marketed to woodworkers, bookbinders will also find it quite useful. The non-rusting anodized aluminum is slightly more compatible with binders boards, leather, paper and cloth than a hardened steel Starrett double square.

This tool is useful in circumstances where your dividers are not large enough, for example when centering a label in the middle of a bookboard.  It can be used for measuring a book without relying on quantification for boxmaking: simply set the stop for the measurement of the book, then transfer the distance with a knife to your board. It could be used for laying out tooling. I’m sure there are many more uses.

The small (3.75 x 1 x .5 inch with the knob) size is appropriate for books. This is a handy little tool at a reasonable price. Czeck it out! Sorry!

Here I am using it to position the catch plates when mounting clasps.

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?

Wooden Spoons and the Price of Craft

I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.

Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.

I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.

Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?

spoons

It only takes a few simple tools to start making wooden spoons. On the top, a small vintage (ca. 1970’s) Norlund hatchet with my handle, which split when mounting the head. Grrrr. Still, it works fine. Under it, on the left, a Mora knife, next to it a sweep knife made by Robin Wood, and a hook knife made by Pinewood Forge.

Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.

This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool.  I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?

spoons1

A wooden spoon I made out of Swiss pear wood.

I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.

*****

I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal.  The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.

There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business.  I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.

But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used?  many books get read?  When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.

Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”