Two Reprinted Catalogs

Mini Sears

A mini facsimile (ca. 1970-80) Sears and Roebuck catalog. Orig. 1902.

I’m not sure when, where, or why, but I acquired this mini Sears and Roebuck catalog when I was a kid. I do remember reading it with a magnifying lens, and I kept it in a stash of prized possessions.  I think the childish thrill of wishing I could go back and time and buy a dozen of one thing or another then bring them back to sell at todays prices was part of its appeal. The lure of a wood burning porcelain clad kitchen stove for $14.95 is strong. Since this catalog had images and prices of real things, it somehow seemed to me more of a time-travel-portal to the past than story books, which were fiction. Maybe something about it being in miniature intensified the secretive nature of this little time travel machine?


Today, the appeal of older catalogues, though perhaps less for prices than for other types of information.  And I have to confess that most of the time it still doesn’t matter all that much if it is a reprint or original. For example, the 2014 annual reprint from the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, which is free (and ONLY available with membership, just $25 per year) is Otto Bergmann’s Woodworking Tool Catalog from Berlin, 1928-29.  This is a beautiful facsimile: cleanly laid out, well printed, the cover design even incorporating small details such as three staples from the original, both on the front and back.

bergmann catalog

Facsimile Otto Bergmann’s Woodworking Tool Catalog from Berlin, 1928-29.

At first I thought it would be useful to have a german words for a number of tools familiar to bookbinders (winkel, schabhobel, ziehklingen, spitzzirkel, bogenzirkel, leimtopfe, etc…) but soon I recognized a familiar friend: a hilfskantenzwinge, as it is called in the image below, or single screw edge clamp. I bought one very similar to this last year—since it seemed incredibly useful for something—I just wasn’t sure what. Mystery solved.

Bergmann catalog

Facsimile Otto Bergmann’s Woodworking Tool Catalog from Berlin, 1928-29. Detail page 13.

Two Ways of Reinforcing Splits in Wood

Walnut board with splits

I inherited this lovely walnut board, 16.25″ wide, 24″ long. Unfortunately, it was starting to crack in two places. I repaired the larger crack with an ash bowtie (aka butterfly), which I rounded to echo the grain of the board. It it is the full thickness of the board. In the image you can see how it has pulled the crack together next to it very tightly, so that it almost seems to disappear. I tried a different repair on the smaller crack, an end-grain insert, also ash, that has two wedge shaped legs on the inside. I’m hoping this will keep the board from splitting more, though it didn’t seem to affect the appearance of the current crack.

In both cases, I drilled the walnut to remove the majority of the wood, then cleaned it up with chisels. Working on something I own is a pleasant change from the ethical constrictions of performing conservation work on wooden book boards. It is also a good chance to experiment a bit, since I will be able to monitor any changes. On a related note, a version of the article Alexis Hagadorn and I wrote, “The use of parchment to reinforce split wooden bookboards, with preliminary observations into the effects of RH cycling on these repairs”  (Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 33, No. I, p. 41-63) should be available soon online at Columbia University’s repository. I’ll post a link when this happens.

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.

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