A Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife?

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.

Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife? Private collection. Photo: John Nove.

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?

The ferrule is very odd, one piece of metal hammered around the blade tang hole. Photo John Nove.

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.

Top: My Henckel 8 inch Chef’s knife. Bottom: Modern German style bookbinder’s leather paring knife.

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.

Bauer and Franke, Handbuch der Buchbinderei, 1903. Thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference

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.


Detail p. 91. Zaehnsdorf, Joseph. The Art of Bookbinding. 2nd. ed. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890. <https://archive.org/details/artofbookbinding00zaehrich&gt;

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.

Braunwarth and Lüthke catalog from 1928. Collection: Peter Verheyen

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.

SPRING 2022, ONLINE WORKSHOP: MAKING DELRIN AND BAMBOO TOOLS FOR CONSERVATION AND BOOKBINDING

The ability to make and modify tools adds considerably to a conservators’ arsenal.

Making tools is not only engaging and fun, but entirely practical since the result is set of tools you can use daily. Book conservators, photo conservators, paper conservators, bookbinders, and others will find this workshop valuable. Filing, scraping and polishing are meditative activities, no previous experience required. Working Delrin and bamboo is a great way to start toolmaking and we will make folders, lifting tools, microspatulas, hera, creasing tools, tongs and more. This workshop will give you confidence in maintaining and altering your existing tools for specific needs. Give yourself the gift of learning and with some new tools and tool making skills that will keep on giving for the rest of your career! Fair warning: making your own tools is highly addictive!

OVERVIEW : All aspects of making tools with delrin and bamboo will be discussed in detail: design considerations, thinking through working procedures, cutting, filing, rough shaping, final shaping, and polishing. The workshop consists of two 3- hour synchronous zoom sessions with PPTs, videos, discussion of handouts, demonstrations, Q&A chat sessions, and working together. Also included is two week access to the workshop website, which contains information, links, videos and PPTs. The workshop includes a kit with enough materials to make nine tools with a retail value over $300. A set of hand tools to make the tools is also included: a cherry bench hook, scraper, burnisher, a file for plastics, and a variety of sanding and polishing supplies.  You need a stable work surface, some time to work, a few basic hand tools, and an interest in making tools.

SCHEDULE: Two 3-hour sessions on Saturdays for each workshop. Three sections of the workshop will be offered three times. February 12 + 19, March 11 + 19, and April 9 + 16.  12-3pm Pacific,  1-4pm Mountain, 2-5pm Central, 3-6pm Eastern, 8-11pm GMT, 9-12 CET, 10 – 1am EET, 5am – 8am (+ 1 day) JST, 6am – 9am ( +1 day) UTC

DOMESTIC REGISTRATION: https://www.peacheytools.com/shop/online-workshop-making-delrin-and-bamboo-tools

INTERNATIONAL REGISTRATION: Email me for an invoice to pay by credit card. I will hold your place for 24 hours after sending an invoice. Up to 3 kits can be shipped together for the shipping price of one. I am currently unable to ship to Australia and New Zealand, but contact me if you would like to be on a notification list.

COST: $390 US ($440 Canada, $465 EU and other countries, includes shipping)

CANCELATION POLICY: If you cancel before the kits are shipped there is a $100 fee, and no refunds after kits are shipped.

I hope to see many of you there!

Some possibilities for tools, though students are encouraged to work on their own designs.
I never thought I’d really like a plastic, but Delrin is special.

An Investigation of Seventeenth Century English Bookbinding Tools in Randle Holme’s  “Academy of Armory” to be presented at The Guild of Book Workers Standards of Excellence 2021 Online Conference October 9

I’m making great progress on my bookbinding tool presentation. But I need a longer title….

Randle Holme’s 1688 Academy of Armory contains the only known images of seventeenth century English bookbinding tools. It has been almost forgotten in bookbinding literature, and wasn’t included in Pollard and Potter’s standard reference, Early Bookbinding Manuals: An Annotated List of Technical Accounts of Bookbinding to 1840. Holme describes six essential tools: a folder, a beating hammer, a needle, a sewing frame, a lying press, and a plough. The relationship between actual books of the time and the tools used to make them will be explored in this presentation. A demonstration of reproduction folding sticks — and a discussion of the difficulties in deciphering extant evidence of them — will end the session.

It only costs $79 to attend the entire conference. This includes the opening reception for the WILD/LIFE exhibition, Peter Verheyen on fish-skin in bookbinding, Karen Hanmer on an even more simplified binding, Radha Pandey on Indo-Islamic papermaking, and a roundtable discussion on exhibiting books. I hope to see some familiar faces there, in little squares.

Register here for this online event!

If you can’t attend the conference, or are thirsting for more information concerning Randle Holme and 17th c. bookbinding tools, an article will soon be published in The New Bookbinder 41.

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