Are you leather curious? Interested in larger issues of hand craft? Then you will enjoy this zoom presentation on the craft of hand paring leather. Both practical and theoretical aspects of hand and tool interaction will be explored. Leather is a three dimensional material, and selectively reducing the thickness is essential for making a well functioning binding.
I will begin by showing some historic examples of leather paring, then to demonstrate the process of paring vegetable tanned leather using just one knife. Have a seat, make yourself comfortable, grab your beverage of choice and a snack, then enjoy watching the relaxing progress of gradually paring leather. While working, I will attempt to narrate — like a homunculi in my head — some of the complex decisions that go on in this process. As the leather gets thinner and thinner, excitement will mount: will I ruin the skin by tearing it? Towards the end of the demo, there will be time for Q&A and comments from the audience.
This presentation is based on my recent article, On Tool Embodiment, and I encourage everyone to read it beforehand.
Jeff Peachey: The Craft of Hand-Paring Leather. Sponsored by the American Bookbinder’s Museum. Saturday November 12, 4pm EST. Zoom. Attendees will have access to a recording after the event.
I’m very pleased to see my article, “On Tool Embodiment” published in the online Journal Decorating Dissidence. I’ve been refining these ideas for a while now, since I began exploring them in the inaugural issue of The Bonefolder back in 2004.
Using leather paring as an example, I explore some of the complexities and often subconscious hand actions that allow us to pare leather. If you are a beginning bookbinder who is interested in paring leather, this article contains some valuable practical tips. If you are an experienced binder, you will likely find some similarities to your own experiences, and perhaps some contradictory ones! If you are interested in craft or technology in general, embodiment is common in all tool use.
Decorating Dissidence is a thoughtful, inclusive, craft-positive online journal. Their mission is succinctly summed up on their homepage:
“The decorative is political. Craft is powerful. We host workshops, curate exhibitions and facilitate discussions on the topics of decorative art. We trace the lineage of modernist making legacies to the contemporary and bring to light stories of marginalized makers.” https://decoratingdissidence.com
The theme of Issue 15 is Tools, Use and Mastery. There are many articles of interest to anyone with involved in craft. Issue 14 focuses on Craft and Education, another rich important, and complex topic. It’s worth poking around through the archives, too. Enjoy “On Tool Embodiment”
Thanks to the rock star book artist Miriam Schaer for bring this journal to my attention!
Actual medieval bookbinding tools are almost nonexistent. Apart from a few finishing tools, there really aren’t many documented, extant examples. That’s why a knife that John Nove brought to my attention is extraordinary. Could it really be a medieval bookbinder’s knife? A note associated with this knife claimed it might be.
At first glance it looks similar to a typical “gift set” carving knife given to newlyweds in the 20th century. The tip looks to be slightly serrated, or perhaps just extremely pitted. The handle has the tonality of antler, but it is actually a carved, lightweight wood according to John. This strikes me as odd: historically, the handles of most knives tend to be a dense exotic woods, bone, horn, or antler. The blade is extremely rusted, while the handle is relatively intact. Is this a red flag?
Is it a knife that maybe belonged to a bookbinder or bibliophile, hence the very cool handle decoration? Or is it an assemblage of some older and newer parts? Or something else?
The handle is what makes this knife so special. These intricately carved books are convincingly realistic. To me, the books look Gothic, and possibly Germanic, given the overall morphology. The sewing supports appear to be double cords or split tawed thongs, both appropriate to a Medieval book. The pronounced endbands, with the cores lying on the spine are also consistent with this. The clasps look like split thongs, possibly there is a pin attachment? The very rounded spine with pronounced supports extending onto the face of the board is typically Gothic. The carved representation of panels is also typical, though a little odd with the carved triangles, though this might be a limitation of the size of the original and the carver. After all, it only about an inch wide.
The curved, almost spiral grip in the center of the handle is similar to Medieval carved columns I have seen in the Cloisters at the MET. The traces of red (paint ?) on the page edges is somewhat unusual, yellow or a blue would be more common, if in fact it is a German binding represented. The overall length of the knife is 9 inches, with 5 inches for the blade. The blade is quite flexible, with the back measuring only .012 inch.
The elaborate handle seems out of place with a functional tool used by a craftsman, but there are many examples of very elaborate Medieval tools with zoomorphic designs carved into them. The ferrule is also strange with its scalloped collar. John Nove wondered if the blade might have been stuck into an older handle. Book-themed ornamentation on a knife like this might indicate a 19th c. page opening knife? The size is right for that as well.
If this is a medieval bookbinder’s knife in the German tradition, are there modern styles we can compare it to? And how would it have been used? I’d guess that all knives were originally undifferentiated for different trades. Knife-makers would make their knives for a variety of purposes. When did the specific needs for specific trades start? Even today, shoemakers and bookbinders, in the English tradition, use a the same Barnsley paring knife, older examples having an image of a shoe stamped on them.
I’ve noticed the similarities between German style chef’s and bookbinder’s knifes for a while. The primary one is the taper of the blade from the back to the cutting edge, parallel to the length of the knife. It doesn’t make sense functionally to make a paring knife like this, so German binders wrap the handle with leather, cord or thread to hold it more comfortably. The thin metal around the cutting edge is quick to resharpen, though. There are also the three cutlery rivets on the handles; these are technically called scales on a full tang knife.
The text mentions that the Offenbacher shape is good for weaker leathers, and the Parisian shape is good for thicker leathers. For the leather to be held in the hand position depicted with the Parisian knife, the leather would have to be very thick, almost more of a tanned cowhide, rather than a typical bookbinding calf, sheep, or goat.
The paring knife in Zaehnsdorf’s manual has a similar shape to the medieval knife and moddern chef’s knifes, as do the ones in Peter’s 1928 Braunwarth & Luthke catalog, below. Most seem to have a taper towards the edge of the blade on the left, as indicated by the thicker black line indicating the back of the blade.
To return to the central question. Is this knife a medieval bookbinder’s knife? Without having any scientific analysis of the materials (XRF? FCIR? Carbon dating on the handle?), or more information on province, and examining it in person, I can’t say for sure.
But I can say it is an intriguing object, worthy of further research, preservation, and hopefully clarification in the future.