An Ugly Hunk

Image: Ref 1996.8.1

Any guesses what is pictured in the above image?

I’m really happy museums are collecting this kind of thing.

It is from the Maritime Heritage East, and it is a hunk of beeswax that sailors waxed their whipping cord with, much like traditional bookbinders do with sewing thread. Looking at this, I can see how someone pulled the thread through it, likely holding it in one hand between their thumb and forefinger and rotating it 90 degrees occasionally to prevent the thread from cutting through. In fact, the museum notes that Harold Scot, an orphan sailer, received this wax in 1933 when he was 16, and used it for the next 66 years. It is unusual to have this type of provenance concerning tools and craft materials.

So what? Why does this ugly hunk of beeswax matter? Because here we have a physical record of technique, seemingly frozen in time. We can interpret the technique from this object, and it is an interesting object because it is a material that acts like a tool. The thread is shaped the wax, somewhat like a potter’s rib shapes clay. It is difficult to know, from this isolated example, if this was a common technique or waxing thread, a local custom, or possibly novel.  It would be interesting to compare other examples of beeswax, possibly from other trades. Was this hand sized square of wax a common size?

We do know that using beeswax to prevent kinking and reducing abrasion of sewing thread was common in many trades, including bookbinding. Yet materials like this are not commonly passed on when a bindery is sold. The use of beeswax seems to be waning, because of concerns about acidity and the fact it is not really necessary if the needle is the right size, and the thread properly relaxed. In fact, the sewing thread of most early bindings I’ve examined does not seem to be waxed.

beeswax in holder

Image: <http://www.achildsdream.com/sewing-beeswax-in-holder/&gt;

A 20th century “innovation” in beeswax is the plastic holder pictured above, which is marketed to bookbinders and other sewing related crafts and even sold at Walmart. I suspect that one motive was to sell more tiny disks of beeswax, and the holder encourages waste because only part of the wax can be used. To be fair, the holder does keep the beeswax and the workers hands clean. But unless you are very careful, it is easy to abrade the thread on the sharp plastic edges, in contrast to the advertising claim that this device “strengthens” the thread. What does the holder, with its regulated placement of the thread imply about the marketing and deskilling technique in modern craft? Is the holder akin to training wheels?

Since the history of craft technique is generally unwritten, it is the responsibility of craft practitioners and conservators to interpret—or at least preserve and draw awareness—to these physical traces of past technique.

 

Hurricane Sandy, Reading, Money

Last week, after hurricane Sandy, I had no power, heat, lights, internet, hot water, cell service or client meetings.  Life and work were on hold. The temperature in my studio was a crisp 53 degrees, which was not conducive to working, so I spent most of the days walking around Manhattan. One thing I noticed was that while paper and screens were used for communication, paper emerged as a necessity for commerce.

Myself, and most residents living in lower Manhattan needed to walk to 27th St., where power and cell service began. The grocery stores that remained open in lower Manhattan had plenty of food and water: what people needed was juice for their phones and cash. Mass charging on daisy chained power strips took place in coffee houses, outside of stores, at portable generators in parks, and even at pedal powered dynamos on Avenue C. This atmosphere of cooperation extended into the street where cars—without traffic lights—negotiated the intersections without incident in my observation.

But paper still had its place. At Fishs Eddy, many wrote cheeky post it notes to Sandy, a kind of postmodern post card. Also, paper money was once again a necessity. Credit cards were useless without electricity or cell service.  But Banks and ATM’s were closed. Do many Manhattan residents stash cash under the mattress? Merchants tallied bills with a pencil and paper or visual inspection. Tax was largely ignored, possibly rationalized because there were no services, or likely too difficult to record.

Could this be a glimpse at a potential post-apoclyptic culture?  What if all cell phone service had disappeared? How many of us still have battery powered radios? Among other things, Sandy highlights the overlapping and non-linear nature of technological change as well as the durability of paper, a technology which is at least 2,000 years old.

I didn’t see anyone using books, though….

*****

Contact me or the AIC-CERT disaster response team, or The New York Alliance for Response if you have wet or water damaged books.

*****

Things are back to normal for me, but there are still ongoing needs for others. Many, especially in New Jersey, are still without power, heat, and need gas, food, etc. Donate to your favorite charities if possible, or these local ones.

*****

David Nye has a great and very readable social history of blackouts titled “When the Lights Went Out”. There is a section on the 2003 east coast blackouts.

Tools, Technique and Teachers

Can technique be embodied in a tool? Does the universal nature of hand tools enable a reasonably skilled practitioner to pick up and use an unfamiliar tool?  Is experience with tool use, or common sense, enough?  Or is it necessary to have external guide: a teacher, book or video?  How does the use of obsolete tools become rediscovered, like stone axes?  Can they ever be understood and used ‘correctly’ or in a historically accurate manner?

I investigate questions such as these in my research of 18th century French bookbinding, in part by making and using reproduction tools as pictured in Diderot’s Encyclopedié and Dudin’s L’Art du Relieur-doreur de Livres.  Since I am familiar with bookbinding tools, it is a matter of subtleties — very important subtleties! — but not massive unknowns.

I had a chance to think about these questions a bit more broadly when I purchased the tool pictured below at a flea market.

At the time I didn’t know what it was for, but it was cheap and appealingly well made.

At first I thought it might be a tool for cutting a groove in leather. The curved tine on the top is sharp (or should be) on both ends and is slightly adjustable in height.  This tool is strongly constructed; observe the thick bolster and tapered forged tang. Small details like the wedge shaped, chamfered scales make it comfortable to hold and indicate it was meant to be operated by a pulling motion. The length of the handle is about three inches, or nine centimeters, and I’m slightly embarrassed to use such a cliche, but it really does fit my hand perfectly. It is heavily used but completely functional — often the sign of a quality tool used by a professional.  Tools for the amateur market are more likely to be damaged by inexperienced users and poor quality construction.

Later, a bit of looking through Salaman’s Dictionary of Woodworking Tools revealed that this is timber scribe or log race, made to carve letters and numbers onto stakes, crates, barrels or other wooden objects. Surveyors used to use it to mark bearing trees.

After learning the name of this tool, and by extension its intended use, how to use it seemed obvious.  It can be used to carve straight lines just by using the cutting edge, and make curved ones by jabbing the point into the wood.   I had no real knowledge of this specific tool and hadn’t seen one being used. Is this a part of what a tool is — an object that contains information about its use?

There are nagging questions and doubts that the technique informed from the tool is not as elegant or efficient as possible. Tool use is only a part of the skill sets necessary for a craft. Maybe we do need teachers to demonstrate — or confirm our efforts — that we are using a tool the ‘right’ way. Craft skills are traditionally transmitted by close contact with skilled users, which seems to be one reason for the popularity of short term workshops, even though aspects of this contact can be captured in writing or video.

And as the tearout in the image below illustrates, we all need to be occasionally reminded  to sharpen our tools.

Finally, why the irresistible impulse to carve initials into wood?  Old school tagging?

Here are images of a timber scribe in use.