Reflections on Five Essential Bookbinding Tools. Broken Chocolate and Shards of Glass: A Brief History of the Olfa Knife.

Over the past eighteen posts, a number of bookbinders and conservators responded to the question, “What are the five most essential bookbinding tools, and why?

The responses were interesting for a number of reasons: how the authors interpreted the question, their actual choices, and their reasoning. Some took a desert island approach, some took the “what would I grab if my studio was on fire” approach, some based their decision on frequency of use, some discussed intricacies of their handmade tools, and some recorded provenance of heirloom tools they were gifted.

I discovered new tools myself (especially thanks for the splinter forceps Jim and your beautiful curved needles Allessandro!) and was pleased that my A2 paring knife and delrin folder were frequently mentioned.

Two ancient tools, a bone folder and a needle, topped the most cited list. John C. Whittaker, in the book “Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools” speculates that Homo hablis likely used bone tools around 2 million years ago to make arrowheads and other stone tools. The needle dates to around 50,000 years ago.

The third most commonly mentioned tool is a relative baby. Yoshino Okada invented the Olfa snap-off blade knife in 1956. He lived through the occupation of Japan by the United States in WW2, and later remembered American GIs giving him chocolate bars which could be broken into pieces.  Working for a printing company, he grew tired of not having a sharp knife always at hand. Inspiration struck when he was looking at the sharp shards of a broken glass, the memory of the chocolate resurfaced, and the concept for a snap-off blade was born. At least according to official company lore.

The Olfa name has become generic for any snap-off blade. Like other brands that have become generic — Google, Popsicle, Xerox, Kleenex, Bubble Wrap, Dumpster — it is a sign of outsized influence and dominance in a market. Once a brand name reaches such market penetration, even if it is trademarked, it is no longer enforceable. Most bookbinders and conservators, myself included, use an Olfa daily.

An early Olfa knife. https://www.olfa.co.jp/en/birth_of_ofla_cutter/index.html

The image above is one of the earliest extant Olfa knives. The genius of the snap-off blade design is that the breaking score line does not extend into the blade bevel, so that when it breaks it naturally forms a sharp cutting tip. The Olfa Silver is a direct decedent of this early handle design. The blade lock was not yet invented, nor the blade breaking end piece. Yet it is a clever piece of bent sheet metal engineering.

The original Olfa design was not patented, hence the plethora knockoffs that persist to today. I’d guess the reason it wasn’t is the same reason a number of new inventions are never patented today: patents now are comparatively expensive, around $13,000. It is a huge leap of faith for a novice inventor secure one, and then have additional expense to deal with infringements. At that time, Okada had no idea if his knife would be a success or not.

Once the Olfa company was established, it patented a number of later inventions. The most well known of these is a rotary cutter still extensively used by fabric crafters.

An early 20th c. wallpaper cutter in my collection. Although the blade can roll, it is used locked in stationary position. Rotating it allows new cutting edges to be exposed.

Of course, everything has antecedents. I have a rotary wallpaper knife in my collection from the early 20th century, though I think it is used with the blade locked and not rolling. It is unmarked and not patented, beautifully made and the entire knife balances precisely on one finger. Rolling cigar cutters, pizza cutters, pie crimpers all have a similar morphology and predate the rolling Olfa.

The company was originally named “Olha”which in Japanese “Ol” means to break, and “Ha” means blade. There was some confusion in French, so the name was changed to Olfa. The yellow color scheme was introduced in 1967, and intended to reference both safety and the familiarity, with the yellow evoking the warmth of an egg yolk color. Even some of the knock-offs use a similar color.

A number of the Olfa style knives I use. Using a variety of handle shapes is much less tiring on your hands if you have a lot of cutting.

I’m a bit of an Olfa collector, and the newest handle, and one of the nicest IMHO, it the the PA-2, which stores and automatically loads five complete blades in the handle, which is more than enough for onsite work or an extended workshop. The thickness is just a bit more than the Model 300. It has a amazingly smooth action, and so far has resisted blade pull out even in thick and dense materials. The blade support at the tip is beefier than other models.

Limited edition all black PA-2. Purchased from Japan. Kireina!

Some object, not unreasonably, that using an Olfa is wasteful since the blade is not resharpened, but discarded. It that bothers you, genuine Olfa blade steel is good quality, and can be stropped back into shape once it starts to dull.

Pay attention to what you eat and break!

 

New Tool for Sale: Micro Knife

Micro knife slightly extended in its mechanical pencil holder.
Micro knife fully extended.

This is the smallest knife available on the conservation market, with a .9mm width.  The M2 steel blade retracts into a standard supplied mechanical pencil handle, so it can be retracted when not in use. The blade can be extended to about 20mm to reach into recessed areas. It has a double bevel, and can be used for cutting complex fills, working under magnification, miniature bookbinding, anywhere you need to make precise small cuts. Can be resharpened and stropped. Or the blade could be dulled to use as a micro spatula. The M2 steel blade is hardened to Rc 65. Just don’t mistake it for a pencil!

Order a .9mm Micro Knife with retractable mechanical pencil handle here for $35.00.

Cutting tight curves in Japanese tissue.

 

Differences Between Craft as Hobby or Business. Does Monetization Decrease the Enjoyment of Making Things?

Some finished and in-progress wooden paddles and spoons.

It may seem odd for someone who conserves and makes things for a living to have a hobby. Mine is making wooden spoons and paddles.  After all, isn’t this pretty much the same activity as my job? Both involve similar craft skills: working precisely, measuring, knowing material properties, and hand tool use. Two years ago, I wrote a piece on the beginning (and temporary ending!) of my spoon carving hobby.  More recently, I started to think about how spoon making as a hobby is different from knife making or bookbinding as a business.

This Sears Craftsman mini hatchet is a great weight and size for how I work.

One of the primary differences is that a craft business is, uh, a business. Once you come up with a product that sells, you need to make more and more identical ones, often according to a client’s order or deadline. With spoon carving I have no such constraints, since I have no intention of selling them. This is freedom from having to make a consistent end product, which is the corner stone of craft. Or maybe I am not skilled enough at spoon carving to turn out an easily and naturally consistent product?

Many people can make one of something, but to make hundreds requires discipline and often knowledge of traditional craft techniques which make the work of repetition easier and more certain (in the David Pye sense). With spoon carving, if a piece of wood splits at the end, I don’t care, I’ll just make it a bit shorter.

My only self-imposed restraint is not to use sandpaper, and leave the faceted knife cut finish.  This is mainly for the pragmatic reason that I don’t like creating a lot of dust, not for any purity-craft-workmanship-ideal kind of thing. I have no qualms about using a bandsaw to rough out blanks, which Pye would consider workmanship of risk.

I had a small steel stamp made from my handwriting to mark them.

In fact, I couldn’t sell them since they take so long to make; I’d only make a couple dollars an hour. I can only give them away. Freedom from monetary constraints increases my own agency in making, so it is a more relaxing activity, as a hobby should be.

But don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to be able to spend a day making knives or conserving books, rather than being a wage slave making nothing but money.

The lines become blurred when I make a knife to make a spoon.

When monetizing craft, there are continual pressures to simplify production, increase output, or raise the price in order to keep up or outpace the cost of living to profit. Continuing education and research into materials and techniques is a way to accomplish this. With conservation and knives, I keep up on new techniques, philosophic approaches, and materials. With spoons, my primary interest is the process of making them: whittling, shaping, and carving. The history of them and what other people are doing is interesting, but doesn’t influence me all that much.

A hobbyist has the freedom to make what they want, when they want, without regard to how long it takes, how other people make it, or how other people regard it. These are some of the pleasures of a hobby, pleasures that can diminish by making a living selling your work. Caveat Venditor!