Category Archives: hand tools

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?

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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?

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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.

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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!?”

Review of the Delrin Folder by Benjamin Elbel

I’ve been following the career of Ben Elbel for a while.  Originally his onion skin binding structure caught my eye. It has a cleverly elegant design, and is one of the few genuinely new binding structures I have seen in the past 25 years. I met him in Amsterdam earlier this summer, and he was kind enough to write up a review of my large Delrin folder in his current newsletter, which is well worth subscribing to. 

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Benjamin Elbel

Benjamin (French nationality, 1983) fell in love with bookbinding while studying art in Strasbourg, France. From the beginning his interest has been towards the experimental side of the craft; however, determined to learn the ‘proper’ ways he embarked on a journey that took him to Switzerland (Ascona- Centro del bel libro), Germany (Göttingen- die Buchmanufaktur) and England (London- Shepherds Bookbinders, Book Works). After these years of working in the trade he started his own bindery, Elbel Libro Bookbinding in Amsterdam providing bespoke bookbinding services. Ben is known for his research in bookbinding and over the years has developed a number of innovative book and album structures such as the onion skin binding, which he shares via workshops and printed tutorials.

THE DELRIN FOLDER by Benjamin Elbel

In May, Jeff Peachey gave a workshop in the Netherlands (the workshop was organised by Herre de Vries, Natasha Herman, Wytze Fopma and Restauratoren Nederland, and took place at bindery FopmaWier). Jeff is an American bookbinder, conservator and tool maker, whose work I have long admired so when I heard he was going to be around I jumped on the occasion to invite him to the bindery.

Jeff made me a gift: a special folder that he’d made, called the ‘Delrin’ folder.

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Delrin is a plastic with a very low coefficient of friction, similar to Teflon, which means that it doesn’t leave shiny marks on materials. However, unlike teflon, it is hard.

I wasn’t sure at first, thinking ‘what do I need a new folder for?’ Also, I was suspicious about the low friction qualities. Only after a while did I start trusting it and seeing its qualities:

1. The friction really is very similar to Teflon. I now use it without fear on virtually anything, except perhaps very rough and very dark papers.

2. Its big size is really comfortable for rubbing down. If held like on the picture above, one can really cover large areas very quickly and apply a lot of pressure with less effort than with a small tool.

3. The thin tip is brilliant for rubbing material in grooves without leaving shiny marks and again, the large size means it can be held like a knife and used with maximum pressure.

As one can see on the pictures I have already used it a lot but it shouldn’t be a problem to re-grind it to refine the tip. Thanks a lot, Jeff, for introducing this new tool!

Republished from Elbel Libro Bookbinding, Newsletter, Summer 2016.  Sign up for it here.

 

 

NEW! For Sale: Sharpening System 3

There are three major improvements to this Sharpening System: Delrin plates for easy removal of used finishing film, an upgraded tightening knob, and larger feet for added stability. I’ve tested this new system for over a year for all the knives I make. Verdict? Excellent, IMHO.

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Sharpening System 3. End view with Delrin plates.

First, and most importantly, the support plates for the microfinishing film are now made of Delrin instead of aluminum.  This makes it possible to easily peel off the worn finishing film without using solvents or a fair amount of elbow grease. It stays flat, and doesn’t dish out. The microfinishing film stays in place when in use. The Delrin plates are first machined, then hand lapped. They are 12″ long, 2″ wide, and 3/4″ thick.

 

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Sharpening System 3. Detail of the precision knob.

The second upgrade is to the adjustment knob.  Previously, it was simply tapped through the end of the stand, with a coarse thread.  The new adjustment knob is made from stainless steel, has a very fine pitch, threaded through a phosphor bronze bushing. There is virtually no backlash, and nothing to rust. The end of the threaded rod contains a rounded ball, which prevents torquing of the plate while tightening. I’ll be the first to confess that this optical grade adjuster is not absolutely necessary, but, man, it is nice! Like a manual focus Leica lens.

Precise and accurate tools help perform precise and accurate work. At least, his is how I rationalize expensive tools… .

Lastly, in order to make the stand a bit more stable, the hard rubber feet are now one inch wide, with a flatter profile, giving more anti-slip contact with your bench. They can also adjust a bit to level.

This Sharpening System is a quick and convenient way to sharpen,  resharpen and keep all your knives and edge tools in peak condition, from scalpels to scimitars, plane blades to plough blades. This is a lightweight, easy to store and unbreakable system. Perfect for travel and classroom use, since there are no expensive stones to dish out, glaze over, or break.

The 3M finishing film cuts all modern high tech steels quickly and evenly. Replacement 80 micron film is available from Rio Grande; the 40, 15 and 5 micron from Tools for Working Wood.

 

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The system contains everything you need: a sharpening stand, two Delrin plates, four 11 x 2″ strips each of 80, 40, 15 and 5 micron 3M PSA micro finishing film, a 12 x 2″  Genuine Horsebutt Strop, and 1 oz. bar of green chromium oxide honing compound.

SHARPENING SYSTEM 3:  $285.00      Order here

This Is Not an Ambidextrous Scissors

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Boker V 88 Razor Steel Scissors

I purchased this scissors at a flea market last weekend, basically because it looked weird.

I thought it might be ambidextrous, but after playing with it a little, and doing a bit of research, I realized it is not a genuine ambidextrous scissors. But it is an interesting design.

 

Simply putting a thumb and finger ring on each side does not make an ambidextrous scissors. Otherwise any scissors with symmetrical ring holes would be ambidextrous. For a scissors to work properly, the top blade must be attached to the finger ring, so a scissors has to be right or left handed.  This arrangement accentuates the natural action of the hand as it closes, so the cutting edges are squeezed together. If a left hander tries to operate a right handed scissors, the natural action pulls the cutting edges apart, putting the action at a mechanical disadvantage. So a genuinely ambidextrous scissors is a mechanical impossibility, at least if it operates with thumb and finger rings.

Secondly, there is a discrepancy between the patent drawing and the actual product. The patent drawing shows the curved areas of the rings that could be used right or left handed. The actual product uses the same shape on each side, making it uncomfortable to use left handed. Would this difference invalidate the protection of the patent? Possibly this was done to save money when making the mold for casting.

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Detail, before immersion in vinegar

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Detail, after four hours in vinegar

Nevertheless, I decided to clean the scissors and sharpen them. These scissors are very comfortable and convenient to use by right handers since it doesn’t matter which way they are picked up.

After taking them apart, I immersed the scissors in white vinegar for four hours, occasionally removing surface rust with a Scotch Brite pad. I’m amazed at how well the vinegar works, and still surprised how satisfying it is to fix up a tool, returning it to useable condition. It just feels good.

If you are interested in the “proper” way to cut paper with scissors, check out this 1927 illustration from Palmer’s A Course in Bookbinding for Educational Trainning 

Miriam Schaer (see first comment) sent me this photo of a lefty scissors (note the top blade attaches to the finger rings), with even weirder placement. I can’t make sense of where you would put your fingers.

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Photo: Miriam Schaer, http://miriamschaer.com/

New! Redesigned 151 Spokeshave for Leatherwork with Shaving Collector

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Modified 151 Spokeshave with shaving collector. It also makes a convenient stand when flipped upside down.

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Note that the shaving collector does not interfere with thumb or forefinger placement.

English trained bookbinders often use a modified spokeshave for long shallow bevels on the turn-ins, reducing the thickness in the spine area of a full leather binding, preparing a new piece of leather for rebacking, and for beveling binder’s board.

I’ve improved the modified Stanley 151 spokeshave that I make and sell by adding a shaving collector. I first saw this on a spokeshave  James Brockman was using in 1990. I can’t quite explain why it has taken me so long to get around to making one for myself — I’ve been busy??? He kindly shared details of the design with me, and mentioned he first saw this while working at Roger Powell‘s shop in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.

The shaving collector really speeds up work with the spokeshave, since you don’t have to stop and clean off stray shavings every couple of minutes, and they don’t get trapped under your leather, which can cause tearing or holes. Additionaly, it is easy to dump the full collector into the trash.   More information about spokeshaves for leather.

Other modifications to the spokeshave include: reducing the effective cutting angle by grinding the base, truing the adjustment knobs, rounding and lessening the surface area of the sole, opening the mouth, flattening the blade bed by filing and filling with epoxy, flattening the blade cap, and replacing the thin chrome vanadium original blade with a Lee Valley PM-V11 one. This blade is reground to a lower angle, sharpened, and the corners slightly rounded to prevent ridges formed in the leather. All of these modifications make the spokeshave a much more precise instrument and reduce chatter

Even if you rough out the leather with Scharffix or Brockman leather paring machine, this spokeshave can quickly help reduce the ridges and unevenness the results from overlapping cuts and blade changes if you are working on large pieces. It is also essential for gradual bevels wider than the width of a double edge razor blade. And it is a lot of fun to use.

MODIFIED 151 SPOKESHAVE: $275.00     How to purchase

 

Losing It

At Hopes and Fears,  Jared Fischer asks a variety of educators, neuroscientists, and others the question: “How long does it take to lose a skill?”

Most of the answers are theoretical, and the main consensus is that it is dependent on the skill and how it was acquired.  Similar to the ‘you never forget how to ride a bicycle’ adage, crafts and activities that require extensive muscle memory to learn (and the least conscious attention to perform) tend to be the most durable. Many aspects of bookbinding and knife sharpening fall into this category, and these are some of the most difficult skills to initally learn.

It’s a great question, relating not only to the acquisition of craft skills, but the maintenance of them.  Some answers in the article may contain seeds of argument for institutional conservators who feel they are trapped in front of a screen and need to justify bench time. But no practitioners were ask to self-report on their own experience, so I will ask myself.

Q: Jeff, how long does it takes to lose a skill?

A: I usually don’t subscribe to the idea that various crafts and skills sets are so different that there are isolated muscle memories associated with them.  When I teach freehand knife sharpening, for example, I try to emphasize the relationship between sharpening and leather paring: the muscle memory that it takes to hold the knife freehand on the sharpening stone is closely related to the way you need to consistently hold the knife to pare. So in many regards, I think if you are active in some craft activity it can slow the erosion of neglected skills in another.

That said, when I was a kid I tried to learn how the juggle one summer.  It seemed like hundreds of hours were spent, essentially in failure.  But the next summer, I picked up the three balls and for some reason it just worked.  Juggling may be pure muscle memory, since it primarily depends on how accurate you throw the ball.  Now when I try it, I am not nearly as good, but can keep the balls in the air for a short time and suspect if I kept at it could return to a basic proficiency. So in this case, the skill is severely degraded, but not lost.

A dispiriting aspect of this question is that one’s intellectual knowledge of what constitutes skillful performance often increases during the time that the physical ability to accomplish this decreases.

Well worth reading other perspectives:  “How long does it take to lose a skill?”

Cady Automatic Hand Micrometer

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I would have to rank the Cady Automatic Hand Micrometer as one of the most beautiful and well made tools I own.  The E.J. Cady company is still in business, making this exact model which looks like it has not changed in design or construction since the 1950’s. It would not be out of place on the dashboard of a Bentley.

Like most people, I have a number of dial micrometers, or dial thickness gauges as they are sometimes called.  A deep throat Calati is perfect for measuring in the center of large sheets of paper. A super accurate Ames #2 (.0001″) with a 6oz. weight on top is great for obtaining standardized results with slightly compressible material, like leather. A portable, hand held Mitutoyo is small and lightweight, perfect for taking on the road.

Since I only use micrometers these a couple of times a year, the batteries in the digital ones always seemed to be dead. The digital versions are handy, though, if you use them a lot, or need to easily convert between English and Metric systems. The mechanically geared hand on the dial face has a definite nostalgic attraction for me, like the VU meters on a stereo amplifier.

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Meet the Family. Left: Calati, Middle: Ames, Right: Mitutoyo