Category Archives: hand tools

Whatsit #4

I’m hoping a reader can identify this unusual tool or jig.

The legs are about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. The inner edge has a 45 degree bevel.  The medallion has a large “Burroughs” in the center,  “Adding, Bookkeeping, Calculating” on the top, and “Machines” on the bottom. The entire medallion is suspended on a bent piece of steel about .75 of an inch above the legs. Burroughs adding machines were quite popular in the early twentieth century, and the company was founded by beat writer William S. Burroughs’s grandfather.

Any guesses what is this device was for?

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. archive.org/stream/66850890R.nlm.nih.gov/66850890R#page/n21/mode/2up

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.

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 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.

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