Category Archives: tools

The Origins of Marbling: Glass?

Most of us think of marbling as paint or ink applied to a sized bath, usually manipulated somehow, then transferred onto a sheet of paper. This is essentially the definition put forward by Richard J. Wolfe, in his magnum opus, Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns. His book is an invaluable resource, tracing the history of European marbling. The extensive plates dating particular patterns alone justify the price.

But what if we think of marbling not primarily as the transfer of colors, but the technique of using a stylus — or a number of them in a row, i.e. a rake — to manipulate strips or blobs of color into patterns? Visually, this is where most of the beauty and magic happens. And Egyptians were doing this as early as the 6th century BCE in glass.

Egyptian Alabastron and Flasks, 6th – 3rd century BCE. Corning Museum of Glass.

Recently I visited the Corning Museum of Glass,  which has some very early glass containers that look marbled. The museum catalog describes the center container as having the, “entire surface decorated with alternating registers of fine trails [thin threads of colored glass] wound ten to twelve times before changing color; all threads have been marvered in and dragged alternately up and down sixteen times to form an elaborate and delicate festooned or feathered pattern….” ( 55.1.61)

Instead of colors applied to a viscous bath, glass trails are wound around a container. Then they are manipulated with a point or stylus. The alternating up and down stylus movement at regular intervals is quite similar to how many styles of marbling are done even today.

Does specialization in the decorative arts cause us to overlook a fundamental cross-disciplinary technique like this one? Or, is this a common decorative technique that it is continually independently rediscovered. If so, are there other examples?


A Craftsman Reads “Craeft”

The idiosyncratic spelling of “Craft” is intended to reference the earlier Anglo-Saxon conception of craft. The 2018 American edition is titled “Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts” The 2017 English edition is titled “Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making” Does the publisher think Americans like the “true meaning” of crafts? And the English assume craft is just about making stuff?

Book Review. Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.

People working in craft often have philosophic inclinations. We work outside of mainstream society. We make objects that are not strictly necessary anymore. Combine this with long hours working alone, extremely repetitive hand work which affects the rhythm of our thoughts, getting lost in archaic techniques, and it only seems natural existential questions arise. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this? (and the annoying corollary, why am I doing this for so little money) Does it matter? Is craft in the 21st century anything more than a marketing term for a new cider? As partial compensation, I habitually buy most new books on the philosophy of craft, which means I must be looking for some new insight or different perspective.

With a few significant exceptions, the history of craft is recorded by writers and artists who described the actions of a craftsmen, but were not experts in the fields they described. Alexander Langland continues in this tradition. “I’m no craftsman” he announces near the end of his book. (297)  He does consider himself a “jack-of-all trades, master of none”, though. There is an almost universal prohibition against attempting to learn too many trades in most languages and cultures on earth. But why? Most people I know who are good with their hands are adept at a number of crafts. Is mastering a craft a different category altogether?

Langlands writes with a poetic sensitivity detailing the activity of handwork which renders the fact he is not a professional craftsman irrelevant. I became completely absorbed in his descriptions of hand work. David Esterly’s Lost Carvings (my review here) may have been the model for this style of craft writing: you feel you are inside a craftsman’s head, thinking what he is thinking while he moves his hands and tools. Esterly is a master craftsman writing about his own long years of carving. Langlands admits he is good at talking about it. (297)

Over a dozen crafts are described in Langlands book. Descriptions of performing a craft can sometimes go on for pages, and could have easily become inconsequential and dull. With Langlands firm narrative, however, they are engaging and even exciting. For example, the chapter on making a thatch roof is almost pornographic in detail; from sharpening the scythe, selecting the stubble thatch, twisting the thatch, augering the rafter peg holes, pegging it with a square greenwood trenail, driving the spars, and more. After reading, I felt exhausted and relieved to get off the roof and have the day’s work finished.

Each chapter has a similar recipe. He starts by placing a particular craft in a historical context, mixes in a bit of etymology, describes the importance of the materials, then narrates his own experimental recreation. His background as an archaeologist and British television personality (The Victorian Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm) serve him well in presenting the information in an engaging and readable manor. The chapter on weaving and hurtle fence making, for example, is exemplary: he unites these two disparate appearing crafts through a fundamental commonality of warp and weft. All the while he emphasizes the respect he has for the abilities of earlier craftsmen.

Though the book is filled with interesting factoids — who knew that the tines of traditional wooden French pitchforks are made out of trained branches! — the real value is in Langlands’ underlying conception of craft, “… a vehicle through which we can think, through when we can contemplate, and through which we can be.” (343)  He continues a philosophy of craft born in the arts and crafts movement, then overlaid with a bit of Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, my review here), David Pye (Nature and Art of Workmanship), and Howard Risatti (Theory of Craft). Another great strength of this book is the explication what he feels is the “craeft” way of knowing: evaluating and sourcing raw materials, working within constraints of cost and time, using your hands, and working towards a specific means. Craft, to Langlands, is not just a final product, but the sum total of the involvement in the process by the craftsman with the environment. Is this just a slight variation of farm-to-table cooking applied to objects?

For all of practical and engaging description, and his extensive experimentation, he has a romanticized view of craft, likely because he is an amateur.  “Perhaps harshly, I would not consider a topiarist who uses electric hedge trimmers a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes their level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.” (36) Attitudes toward work — even for a real craftsman —  change quite a bit when doing something day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. Pecuniary pressures can also negatively impact a craftsman’s enjoyment of work. David Pye would also take issue with this statement, though on the grounds that an electric hedge trimmer takes a great deal of hand skill to operate, and the source of the power is irrelevant.

Langlands pays little attention paid to how craft skills are passed on or inherited. For all of his emphasis on craft as a integrated system and way of thinking, this is a significant omission. When discussing a Viking longship, he theorizes “It’s a craft that relies on building something relative to the materials employed… allowing the materials to speak for themselves, to answer back, to tell you what the natural shape must be…” (333) This sounds more something you would hear from an exercise guru or in a Monty Python skit, not the way a craftsman would think about constructing a ship in the ninth century. “Thor, let the keel timber be what it wants to be!”

There are several chapters where he describes the actions of a skilled craftsman, but he does not investigate the transmission of knowledge. Re-enactment, etymological history, and the study of extant artifacts are his primary methods of inquiry. But this was is not how craft was taught and transmitted for most of human history.

At the risk of coming across as a mystic, but I do believe Craft (with a capital “C”) resides outside of objects. Craft objects are the result of Craft. Learning or experiencing this way of thinking is traditionally taught through close contact with skilled practitioners. But I also think you can get there on your own, it just takes a lot more time. Before the nineteenth century this took place in apprenticeships; now it is more commonly acquired during internships. The transmission of craft knowledge is an important part of the entire craft ecosystem.

A Picnic Table as Art

An art picnic table in Inwood Hill Park, NYC.

I’m always interested in artwork that references tools or functional objects. This artwork is located in Inwood Hill Park, NYC , and interrogates a common functional object, the wooden picnic table with attached bench seats. An all too common approach when creating an artwork referencing a functional object is to do one of two things; somehow make the object non-functional, or make a replica of the object out of a material that cannot function (such as making a wrench out of clay).  Here, however, the artist considers the history of the wood, so instead knots left in the wood, the branches are left on. The result looks quite tortured, much like the making of this object must have been. It reminds me of W.S. Merwin’s poem, “Unchopping a Tree”.

Some of my other posts on tools and art.

Whatsit #3

It has been almost a decade since my first two whatsit posts,  Whatsit #1 and #Whatsit #2. Number 2 was identified by Tom Conroy, #1 is still a bit of a mystery. For those unfamiliar with this colloquial American term, a “whatsit” is an unidentified object, short for “what is it”? The Mid-West Tool Collectors association often features a number of them in their quarterly publication, The Gristmill. You get a lot for your annual membership from them, including a reprint of a classic tool oriented book. The Early American Industries Association usually features a panel discussing a number of them in front of a live audience. Full bore geeky fun!

Recently a colleague has sent me images of a seriously odd, unidentified tool she found in her conservation lab.  She first thought it was some kind of cloth cutting tool, but it didn’t really work. This makes sense given the conically shaped brass end of it: a cloth cutter would have to have two steel blades. The shape of the handle indicates it is used by pushing forward, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

Here is a more detailed description of the business end. “The cone is not solid.  The brass sheet overlaps the wooden handle for about 1.25 in.  The cone is secured on the handle with two brass “pins” (visible in the photos, 1 pin on each side) onto the handle.  The blade-like part opens wider than is shown in the photo.  I can move it to a  90° angle with the cone.  When I open the blade fully and squint at the base of the blade, it looks as though the same pin(s) attaching the cone to the handle may also attach the blade to the handle.  Maybe it’s a single pin that runs all the way through.” She later mentioned the blade opens to almost 90 degrees.

The size of the brass end seems too large for bookbinding applications, my first guess is it is a type of gardening tool called a dibber or dibble.  Possibly the blade would aerate the soil or cut small roots??  It is odd how new the handle and brass cone looks when compared to the wear and discoloration on the blade.

But I’m not sure of any of this And why did it end up in an institutional book conservation lab? I’m stumped.

ADDED: Sept. 27, 2017. MYSTERY SOLVED!  John Nove, coment below, and in a personal email sent me the identification.  It is a  Humboldt Sharpener for Cork Borers.  Well done John!



The stamping reads ” MADE IN WEST GERMANY”

This is the other side. Even the blade pivot pin is made of brass, which suggests light duty use.

Artascope. The Machine That Makes Ideas

As readers of this blog may have surmised, I spend a lot of time looking through flea markets, junk shops and antique malls. Often it is just for the fun of looking at lots of random material culture, sometimes it is a search for inspiration from an obsolete tool or machine, and sometimes it is the thrill of finding a rare bird in the wild.

My Collection. Daily’s “Perfect Stroke” Brushes and Supplies, Catalog # 15. Front cover.

A couple weeks ago I scored big on a $3 investment. This seems to be the only known copy of this particular catalog. Worldcat only lists #3, #11, and #17. No copies of catalog #15 are available on ABE or other online sites. I’m guessing my #15 copy is from 1929.

Trade catalogs are very useful. They provide information and context about specific tools or techniques.  They often have detailed illustrations and textual descriptions of unusual tools. For example, there is an incredibly cool folding palette knife with an ebony handle on page 51. And only $1.35! If I could only go back in time .  Technical information often abounds. For example showcard brushes were pure red sable, while lettering brushes were grey camel hair.


My Collection. Daily’s “Perfect Stroke” Brushes and Supplies, Catalog # 15. Page 24.

One tool in particular caught my eye: the Artascope.

The Artascope is described as an “idea-machine”.

The kaleidoscope on-line book mentions it is constructed with a 4 Point Mandala or 45 degree 2-mirror system which generates the internal image. I can’t quite wrap my head around this. The inclusion of it in a professional sign painters catalog is at odds with the general current classification of this early kaleidoscope as a toy. Contextual evidence from the literature adds to our understanding of this odd little machine, which was at least co-marketed to professional artists.

“Sometimes you may feel stale, but your Artascope never does. It never fails to produce.”


Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?


“Tree Down!”   Jeff Peachey, 2013.

“Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, … .” (the rest of the poem)

W. S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree” is a wonderfully meditative poem/essay that will resonate with anyone in craft, conservation, technology, or environmentalism. It articulates the hubris of humans when working with natural materials by emphasizing the complex and one-directional time-bound nature of growth and craft.

There is not a backspace key for craft. Only starting over, or more rarely, working around a mistake. A second of inattention can create hours or days of extra work when dealing with physical materials. Possibly even failure. Chopping is quick. Unchopping takes a long time.

We can all appreciate the section on the structural inappropriateness of trying to glue back the severed fibers of the tree, which will never function as the original. It is as futile as gluing a spinal cord nerve.

The poem ends by zeroing in on the insecurity at the heart of all art and craft. How can any human construct even begin to compare to Nature?