Thoughts About Board Shears

Depictions of standing and lying presses tend to be very popular logos for bookbinders and conservators, but an image of a  board shear might more accurately symbolize current hand bookbinding practice.  More than any other tool or machine in a bindery, the board shear demarcates the difference between in-boards binding and case binding, it highlights the difference between the late 18th and early 19th centuries binding styles, it marks a major shift in the role of bookbinders from artisan to worker, and often today it reflects difference between an amateur and professional binder.

A board shear does one thing, it cuts a piece of cloth, board or paper at 90 degrees quickly and accurately. Physically, the board shear is often  the largest machine in a hand bindery. My relatively small 19th C. 30″ Jacques takes up about 20 square feet. It quite heavy and expensive as well.  For these reasons most amateur binders do not have one. It’s imposing presence, however, garners many comments from clients.  Although the large blades appear dangerous, most accidents I’ve witnessed involve pinching one’s finger under the fence, then jumping away from the machine, and in the process stepping down harder with the foot clamp, which squeezes one’s finger even more.  A torn off fingernail is often the result.  And I have seen the counterweight fall off the end, which could have been deadly.

The earliest publishers case bindings appear around 1810, and the board shear around 1840.  There are types of earlier case bindings, wrappers and related structures, but I am just considering publishers case bindings here. It is difficult to imagine a 19th C. publishers bindery without one, since it is made for dealing with the relatively new invention of book cloth and machine made binders board. Machine made binders board, with an even thickness, is perfect for cutting on the board shear.  Earlier water leaf or paste board usually vary considerably in thickness (possibly explaining the remarkable amount of beating prescribed in historic bookbinding manuels) and make it a poor canidate for use in a board shear- the fence must hold the material being cut evenly and firmly, otherwise it will tear rather than cut.  With a bound book, a plough is the most necessary piece of specialized equipment, not the board shear.  

19th C. case binding, consisting of two boards, a spine piece and covered before gluing to the text block, requires much more accurate, repeatable cutting that a bound book.  Late in the 19th C., after case bindings became prevalent, I hypothesize that their movement influenced bound books. In earlier binding structures, when the boards are opened, the spine also begins to move. When a cased book is opened, the front cover, for example, can be opened  more than 180 degrees without any motion being transfered to the text block.  Late 19th C. bound books move the same way.  At this time, if the board of a bound book was opened fully, it was considered shoddy workmanship if the flyleaf moved at all.  I I wonder if it was the public, bibliophiles or the binders who desired this new type of movement from a book.    

The late 18th C. marked the end of the leather bound book as vernacular culture, and the cased book radically changed the nature of bookbinders work.  Mechanization, repeatability, perfect 90 degree angles, reliance on adhesives rather than mechanical strength, interchangeability of a text and cover and the speed at which the binder had to work all came to the fore at this time. When making an in-boards binding, the craftsman has a sense of constructing or building the book, rather than simply gluing it together.  Since the text and boards are ploughed at the same time, slight deviations from 90 degrees are much more acceptable that in a case binding, where difference would be diasterous if the turnins aren’t even with the boards.  The bookbinder, previously an artisan was increasingly becoming a worker.   And he was forced to emulate machine made standards.

In a roundabout way, all of this points to the importance of studying the tools and machines that made books, in order to better understand small, specific historic details and larger picture- how books have informed the human experience.


On Sept 2, 2008 Thomas Conroy added:

I’ve been looking at early binding equipment, and some of the six or eight 1824-1836 patents for “paper cutters” listed in my write-up on the guillotine may have been for board shears rather than guillotines. It isn’t easy to find out, since the Patent Office and all its records burned in 1836. 

Click here

But the rotary board cutter was already in use by 1856, since an engraving of one appears in the edition of Pilkington’s “Artist’s Guide and Mechanic’s Own Book” that also has an early engraving of the roller backer:

Click here

The rotary board cutter would satisfy the edition binder’s need for squareness better than the board shear, so perhaps the board shear’s ability to cut square was less important than you suggest. In any case, do we know when board shears were first equipped with gauges? I don’t think early guillotines had them, and there were still guillotines being sold with only one side gauge into the 1890s.


March 20, 2009

I noticed that in Nicholson’s Art  of Bookbinding, both the 1874 and 1856 editions have a picture of a man at a “Table Shears” on page 175.  It doesn’t have gauges, as you mention, but it is in the section of the book that deals with cloth work, not in the section on bound books.

Olive Oil Presses

This olive oil press was in a Turkish store that sold olives and olive oil, in a small town on the Aegean sea.  It is interesting for it’s similarities, and differences, to our modern book presses.  Structurally, it is more similar to a book press than a copy press, which many bookbinders also use.

First of all, it is like a book press on steroids–look at the thickness of the platen, and the massive collar where the screw is threaded.   A nice touch are the thick washers at the top of the uprights, which were never on my Hickok 001/2.  With metal, a nut should always be used with a washer to prevent damage. There is no hand wheel, the barely visible press pin (is something this large considered a press pin?) on the right of the photo is about 5 feet long, and there is a brass ferrule that fits into the slot pictured below. Since the tightening occurs inside the frame of the press, rather than on top, it looks like the two platens could be closed without adding pressing boards.  The depth of the castings reinforcing the upper platen is also evident.  Sorry for the annoying reflection– I wasn’t about to try and move this baby.


The angle of the acme threads seems roughly equivalent to a book press.  It would be laborious to raise and lower the platen, because the press pin can only rotate about 160 degrees.  Then the key  (a square peg near the screw) would have to be raised, the pin rotated back to its original position, the key reinserted, and another half turn performed.  The multiple holes to receive the pin are barely visible, forming a circle around the screw.  Presumably, the olives were stacked in such a way that avoided having to raise and lower the press very far.  I didn’t find any manufacturers marks, but most objects I examined in Turkey was made there –from glasses to cars.



This wooden press, also labeled for pressing olives was in the Roy Koch museum in Istanbul, which specializes in industrial artifacts and the history of technology.  The threads had an odd, rounded shape that didn’t appear to be caused by wear.  The dumbbell shaped tightening knobs look like they could generate a fair amount of force until the friction from the wood would stop the tightening.  It also looks like two people would work together to tighten the press, which would be fun to synchronize.  And then to sample the fresh, first cold pressing….

Earlier, I found a somewhat similar press in Mexico in a small bookbinding museum.  Many of the artifacts in this museum, in my opinion, were from leather workers, not bookbinders, but there is a great deal of interchange. These presses are a bit like a large lying press, with German style tightening nuts, permanently mounted upright.  I’ve never seen anything like this in North America, although many binders use various types of fruit presses that have been adapted for book use, although these are usually the central screw variety.  The difference between the size of the upper and lower platen in this photo is somewhat surprising– it seems the upper one would immediately start to deflect when it was tightened.


18th C. French Folding Sticks

In 18th C. France, what we now call a “bone” or “bone folder”, was called a “folding stick”.  The main purpose was to fold the printed sheets before collating, beating, saw-cutting and sewing.  Folding sticks are also mentioned a few other times for various purposes, including forming the headcap during covering.  Dudin devotes seven plates  and nine text pages describing the folding of everything from a folio to a 128mo. I haven’t had the patience to attempt to follow his written directions for folding, which could well serve as an application to MENSA.  It seems folding and headbanding are the two most difficult binding operations to communicate through writing and drawing. Below is an excerpted sample concerning the folding of a twenty-fourmo:

“The numbers 22 and 23  are carefully aligned with 11 and 14. This section is cut and folded separately; first along the line cd with 19 falling on 18 and 22 on 23, then 20 on 21 , thereby making up the lesser signature of the sheet. The larger signatures are folded like octavo; that is to say, along the line ux with 6 falling on 7 and 3 on 2, then along line yz, with 5 on 4 and 12 on 13 and finally, by following the line ab and matching 8 with 9, the signature A is complete as represented in FIg. 12″ (Dudin 1977, 8)

Later he notes that women either fold the sheets while sitting, with a card board on their knees, or on a table. This is interesting–it is the women, who work while seated, and use their knees, similar to the process of holding a book between their knees for headbanding. Elsewhere he mentions holding the headbanding press in one’s lap as well. These are the only references to using your knees that I can recall in bookbinding literature. I can’t think of any bookbinding procedures or conservation treatments where I use my knees today, except for kneeling to retrieve a book from a bottom shelf.  

This illustration is a detail from Diderot, Plate I. The rule at the bottom is marked “Pieds”  (literally feet), so these folders are gargantuan, the smaller one roughly 16 inches long, and the larger one roughly 22 inches.  This seems a little difficult to believe, especially because they were used for general bookbinding operations as well as folding. The notes just describes them as “Grande & petit plioir.” (Big and little folding stick).    Elsewhere in this illustration a sewing table is pictured, so I think the scale refers to it, not the folding sticks.  If the illustration is to be believed, the big folding stick would be as tall as the uprights on the sewing table.  NB: The piece of wood under the folders is a spacer that fits into the slot on the sewing table to keep the cords from moving around in the large slot.

The folder Dudin pictures, in plate IX, is more like we are accustomed to, smaller in overall length (about 5 inches?), and I believe pointed on one end and rounded on the other.  In the text he describes it as 6-10 inches long, one and a half inches wide, tapered at both ends, one-sixth of an inch thick in the center and one-twelfth of an inch at the ends.  French folding sticks were made from “ordinary wood, ivory, yew, or tortoise-shell” (Dudin 1977, 4) 

I knew who to call to make a reproduction of this– Jim Croft.  He is perhaps the most experienced folder maker in the universe, loves yew, and is a fantastic craftsman.  He sells elk, bison and deer folders direct, and also through TALAS.  


Jim made me this beautiful yew wood folder, faithfully following the contemporary descriptions provided by Dudin and Diderot. Idaho has some slow growing trees, and this was no exception.  Each growth ring is less than a millimeter.  I counted between 45-50 in the center section.  Jim also air dries all his wood, so it is more dimensionally stable than kiln dried wood.  The oldest tree is Europe is the Fortingall Yew in Scotland, and the oldest known wooden implement is a yew spear, about 50,000 years old.  Traditionally bows were made from yew.

At first I was worried that the color of the wood might somehow transfer to what I was folding, but that didn’t happen.  I like the lightness and the softness of the wood as compared to bone for some applications– it seems less likely to damage soft paper, for example.  The symmetrical shape makes it easy to pick up and use without having to check which end is which.  It is slightly wider than most bone folders, which makes it more comfortable when folding for extended time periods. The cross-section is symmetrical and fairly flat, again, I found it useful for general smoothing as well as folding. 

When making historical models, I always find it interesting, if possible, to also use actual or reproduction tools from the time period.  It brings us one step closer to recreating not only the book, but the experience of making the book.  Tools have a direct impact in determining the final form that the book takes, and also influence us in the crafting of that book.



Dudin, M. 1977. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder. Trans. R. Atkinson.  Leeds, England:The Elmente Press.

Diderot, Denis and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. 1751. Encylopedie ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une societe de gens de letters.  Paris, David l’aine, le Breton, Durand

%d bloggers like this: