BOOKBINDERS AND SPOKESHAVES
“Spoke shave, (spok) n: a cutting or planning tool consisting of a blade with a handle at either end, usually in line with the blade, and a narrow sole in front of, and sometimes also behind, the cutting edge; used for shaping, trimming, and /or smoothing a variety of materials, usually wood or leather” (Lamond 1997, II)
Judging from Lamond’s definition, he considers the use of a spokeshave to thin or trim leather second only to its use on wood. For those trained in an English tradition, it is a common, useful tool for gradual beveling of leather, especially around the turnins and caps. While a Scharfix or Brockman type paring machine is useful, you would have to do a lot of sanding if you want a long, gradual bevel found on English fine bindings, and for reducing thickness in the spine area. It is invaluable for conservation, because one can selectively pare areas to the precise thickness desired. It can also be used for the beveling of boards by skewing the blade to almost parallel to the board edge, which lowers the effective cutting angle. In a pinch you could shape wooden boards with it.
Although cobblers have been using specialized shoe shaves and heel shaves since the mid 19th C., it was only in the beginning of the 20th that shaves were used by bookbinders. Earlier binders either purchased leather of the required thickness, sent it back to a leatherseller to thin it for them, or in the second half of the 19th C. would use a French Knife. Although today we tend to think of a French knife as having a gently curved cutting edge somewhat perpendicular to the length of the blade, and Salamon notes “This has a broad blade c. 2.5 in. wide, bevel sharpened across the end like a chisel, either straight or at an angle.” (Salamon 1986, 57) Dudin illustrates a similar knife shown below. (Dudin 1997, 115) These engravings are detailed and carefully observed- note the leather wrapped around the handle for comfort.
Defining features of a French knife seem to be a rather broad blade and a half tang wood handle mounted in the center of the blade; the shape of the cutting edge seems superfluous.
Middleton mentions that spokeshaves became common about 40 years age (written in 1962), which would put it in the 1920’s. (Middleton 1963, 298) This is pure speculation, but perhaps the combination of WWI and the depression forced some leather tanners and curriers out of business and binders were forced to do the thinning themselves? Some French trained binders still send their skins for paring. Perhaps the bookbinding leather market became too small? I have often heard that WWI killed many trade bookbinders. Or was it the relatively new Stanley 151 spokeshave, with its precise blade adjustment, that simplified and speeded up the paring of relatively thin bookbinding leathers.
Zaehnsdorf in 1903, and Cockerell in 1902 don’t mention the use of a spokeshave. Pledger, in 1924 mentions the Fortuna Skiving Machine or using a knife, but no spokeshave. (Pledger 1924, 209) Mathews is the earliest bookbinding manuel that references the spokeshave for paring leather that I have found. He notes that for paring leather,
“…a steel spokeshave should be used. Some prefer what is termed a French Knife, but this is a somewhat laborious method, and the spokeshave is quicker, and, what is more important, it does the job much more evenly, and is therefore better. The blade of the spokeshave must be kept very sharp and finely set—that is to say, it should not project too far.” (Mathews 1929, 111)
Noting that a “steel” spokeshave should be used highlights how common wood bodied shaves must have been at the time of writing. Once a spokeshave is properly configured for leather work, the only difficulty some have is setting the blade at the right height, which is also commented on. Mathews advice is almost the same that James Brockman gave me in a workshop on leather covering. He taught me to hold the spokeshave upside down with the blade recessed at eye level, and advance it slowly until it was barely visible dark line. He noted that a properly set blade has a peticular, high pitched whispering sound when in use. Using a spokeshave is very similar to using a wood plane- the tool should already be in motion before you start to make a cut.
As I started to collect older spokeshaves, I was surprised to learn that no one had conducted a type study of 151 style spokeshaves. Type studies are useful in dating, determining chronology and rarity of manufactured tools. A standard 151 sells used for between $15-45, but a 151R sells between $250-500, for example. (Waltner N.D., 214) Studying the spread of tools, and their influence on the quality, speed and style of work performed gives us valuable clues to industrial and craft history.
According to Lamond, 151’s were manufactured in the US from 1911-1978, although production continued in England until around 1996. (Lamond 1997, 206) No patents were ever issued for the 151, 151M or 151R, though some early examples are marked “PAT. APPL. FOR”. (Lamond 1997, 205) He notes that the 151 design is very similar to the Murray Adjustable Spokeshave, patented 1901, since they share a double screw to adjust the blade depth and angle (Lamond 1997, 207) The current veritas spokeshave is suprisingly similar to the Murray, in that the blade is notched on the edges to accept the adjustment knobs.
The adjustment screws allows the user to raise or lower the blade without having to take it out of the shave and remove the cap. In 1911, a dozen 151’s sold for $6.00. (Lamond 1997, 209) At that time there were 23 different Stanley styles of spokeshaves available for specific functions—by the 1980’s only the 151 and 151R were being made in England. (Lamond 1997, 206)
Since the blades are easily interchanged, and wear out, it is dangerous to assign too much meaning in dating them, but sometimes it was the only clue I had, and sometimes wear patterns, dirt, and damage convinced me that they had been together for a long time. This is the type of information that many tool collectors like to remove in an attempt to “restore” their tools to a pristine, unused condition. Even an improperly sharpened blade, or a old blade with a factory grind contains many clues to how it was used (or not used), and I argue should be preserved. Many tool collectors gleefully love (read bordering on obsessional) to clean and polish their finds. Eventually the market, I predict, will give them pause. I have seen it happen in books and furniture, and those who have rechromed, milled and buffed and otherwise “Prettified” their tools will end up destroying monetary value along with historic evidence.
Early 20th C.
Shaves tend to have a partial chamfer around the top of the keyholes. Large pockets behind the blade. Overall build quality is higher, threads fit tighter, the blade caps usually fit very precisely. No “Made in ….” Information under the handles. With or without thumb rests. Smooth casting.
Mid 20th C., Postwar?
“Made in USA” or “Made in ENG” cast into body under handles. Small pockets behind the blade. Often “649” cast into underside of blade cap. Slightly rougher casting surface.
Late 20th C.
Red or Orange painted blade caps. “Made in …” left off most recent models, except on the blade, which indicates the bodies are now being made overseas, perhaps India or China.
There are huge gaps in our knowledge about the history of tools—which surprises me given the number of 151 style spokeshaves produced in this century. I have no clue how many. Any and all corrections, additions, conjecture, images of different types of 151’s are welcome, I intend to keep incorporating new information on this page. Please leave a comment or email me if you have information. If you have more than a passing interest in spokeshaves, Lamond’s highly illustrated, encyclopedic “Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves” is a must. And believe it or not, it is a good read as well.
NOTE: Most of these spokeshaves are virtually identical if viewed from the front, therefore I have provided pictures of the back, plus details, which illustrate casting variations.
CREDIT: Thanks to Tom Lamond and Tom Conroy for alerting me to errors.
A TENTATIVE TYPE STUDY
THE STANLEY 51
This was the Stanley spokeshave looked like in 1911. There are no adjustment knobs, and its overally size is smaller than a 151. They were sold at about half the price of a 151, were introduced to the market earlier, between 1850-1870 and were made in the USA until 1974. (Lamond 1997, 206) The pockets are marked with “640” and the blade cap is marked “649”, which corresponds to Lamond’s type “G”. (Lamond 1997, 388)
THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 1, 1911-?
This model lacks thumb rests, unlike all later 151’s. The Model number is cast in the middle of the back and reads, “No 151” in raised letters against a recessed rectangular background. The deep pockets behind the blades seem an indication of age- later models have small pockets. The sweetheart logo on this blade dates between 1923-1936. Perhaps this model, without thumbrests, seemed too similar to the 51, to justify twice the price?
THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 2, 1913-1919 (?)
This has thumbrests, is painted blue (the only one I have seen so painted) The black of blade cap is marked “x1 / 10” which is similar to Lamond’s “K” type blade cap. (Lamond 1997, 388) The logo on the blade dates between 1913-1919. This is also the last type to have what I call “large pockets” behind the blade, pictured on the bottom of this image.
THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 3
As above but the back of the left handle is marked in raised small san serif “MADE IN USA”
THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 4
Back of the left handle is marked in a larger san serif “MADE IN U.S.A.” With periods between the “U.S.A.” Back of the blade in numbered “649” There are many extant examples of this type, or persisted for a long time. Three of the shaves I examined had blades with the “Sweetheart” logo, but, again the blades are often switched for various reasons. This version of the “SW” logo was used 1923-1936.
I’m unclear if this 151M fits in here. There was no “Made in xxx” marking on the underside of the handles, but the blade had a “SW” logo and “649” cast into the bottom. Black.
I’ve also seen photos of what I think is a type 4, marked “MADE IN ENG” on the left, and marked “2CX” on the right, and the blade cap marked “X1/13”. Black. Again, I’m not sure if it fits in here.
THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 5
The first with a orange or red blade cap. The “No 151” is cast into the body without the rectangular boarder. Most seem to be marked “MADE IN ENG”. This one was purchased at TALAS in the late 1980’s. Lamond notes no 151’s were made in USA after 1978. (Lamond 1997, 206) This image also illustrates how I like the bottom shaped for leather work.
THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 6
I bought this from Buck and Ryan, March 2008 in London. No casting marks on the body, but at least the blade is marked “Made in England.” I suspect the body was made in India or China.
These Red ones are made of Malleable Iron, and were common in the 1970’s? Record identified them as “RECORD No. A151” stamped on the outside of the blade cap. Overall, the Records have slightly thinner handles, and the mouth tends to be quite large. According to the book Planecraft: Hand Planing by Modern Methods, “Record Cast iron spokeshaves are designated with O to preface the number whilst unbreakable spokeshaves are prefaced with A; thus Record spokeshave 0151 is a cast iron tool, painted blue, whilst Record Spokeshave A151 is unbreakable, and painted a bright red.” This book also has an illustration, which I assume is from the original 1934 edition, in which the sides of the blade cap are stamped “Record” on the left side, and “A151” on the right with the letters raised. At least four places in this text the Malleable Iron spokeshave is strongly recommended, and since it was not that much more expensive than the normal one, I wonder why both were kept in production. (Hampton, 1982, 194) The current Record A151 spokeshaves are painted blue, however, like the one below.
I bought this one from Buck and Ryan, March 2008, in London. I purchased a similar one in a hardware strore in Mexico City in January, 2008 that was marked “ENGLAND” Now they read “IRWIN” where the “ENGLAND” once was. Like the new Stanley’s, the blade is marked “Made in England”. Both of these have a nicely chamfered blade cap screw that is diamond knurled, thicker and more comfortable than any Stanley.
AMT (American Machine and Tool Co.) made copies of a number of planesand spokeshaves out of cast brass, made in Taiwan, portions of the black painted brass ground away. The casting is completely different that the other 151’s. I like the heft of these and find it attractive, but for unknown reasons it has never worked very well, perhaps because of the brass?
India 151 Clone
These were sold by Tools for Working Wood from around 2004-7. I also used to modify and sell them, but they got so sloppy in the manufacturing that I would have to buy at least 2 spokeshaves, piece them together to get one useable one. There are no marks on the body or the blade.
I recently photographed this 151 clone labeled “Draper”. The crude casting on the body look to be of Chinese or Indian origin, but the adjustment nuts are very nicely machined and knurled– better than the current Stanley or Record. Any other information would be appreciated.
The 152 was made from 1911-1942, according to Lamond, (p. 206) Except for the handles, which are flatter, this seems identical to the 151 Type 3 or 4, with “649” cast into the unpainted blade cap and small pockets. This model would be very difficult to modify or use on leather, since you would have no finger clearance.
STANLEY 53 ADJUSTABLE MOUTH SPOKESHAVE
I’m throwing these photos of a Stanley 53 in because Eric Burdett has a picture of it in his introduction (pp. 26-27) and mentions starting out with the mouth small and opening it slightly until it starts to cut. I haven’t heard about any other bookbinders using a number 53. The blade on this particular shave had a slight camber, which as I was resharpening it discovered that the bevel was at a slightly higher angle on the edges, so that it was originally formed by slightly lifting the blade as a higher angle on the sides. It works fairly well, the adjustable mouth does control the depth of the cut much easier than raising or lowering the blade, but its angle would be impossible to lower, so it does chatter somewhat.
HOW TO MODIFY A 151 SPOKESHAVE FOR USE BY BOOKBINDERS: WEB BASED INFORMATION
Many have differing ideas on what is necessary. For many years I used an unmodified Record, and would have to tediously sand large areas where the blade would “chatter”, leave a series of ridges. I find eight modifications need to be made to make the spokeshave an easy to use, precision tool. The effective cutting angle is reduced, the adjustment knobs are trued, the surface area of the sole is reduced to lessen leather stretching and the front edge is rounded, the sides of the sole are beveled, the mouth is opened (or closed by shimming the blade bed) to about .040”, the blade bed is flattened and dampened with an epoxy/ paper laminate and the Hock A2 blade is sharpened and the corners slightly rounded.
I believe Middleton was the first to mention specific modifications to the spokeshave. “No varieties of this tool are specially made for bookbinders, so usually it is necessary to modify it by widening the gap between the blade and the guard to prevent clogging. It is a good thing, also, to grind part of the bottom of the tool to give it a shallower angle when in use, because a steep angle gives too much of a scraping action” (Middleton 1963, 236)
Johnson also mentions a couple of modifications: filing the mouth slightly bigger so that parings do not jam, giving the blade a longer bevel and curving it so that only the center does the cutting. (Johnson 1978, 89) Mark Esser in his GBW article below also mentions rounding the blade. Burdett doesn’t use a 151, and I havn’t been able to identify what model it is, but it appears to have an adjustable mouth and is on the far left of the photograph. (Burdett 1975, 27)
*** As of May, 2009 the new Records require much more extensive work shimming the mouth if you lower the cutting angle on the bed. It is much easier to start with a Stanley***
Information of how to modify a spokeshave for bookbinding is available at:
The first article, in “Skin Deep” from hewit.
Mark Esser published additional comments on in the GBW Newsletter No. 154.
Tom Conroy and I added additional comments in the GBW Newsletter No. 155.
Here is a large bibliography of resources on how to use and fine tune a spokeshave, although for wood.
Mario Rodriguez”s “The Spokeshave” Fine Woodworking, January/ February 1997. 69-73.
HOW TO USE A SPOKESHAVE
First, some wise words from Burdett: “The use of the spokeshave demands confidence born of experience–sometimes bitter” (Burdett 1975, 173) A few general observations:
- The blade needs to be very sharp and only protrude a few thousands of an inch below the sole.
- Make sure the blade is level, and not cutting deeper on one side. Your skin can rapidly be ruined if this is the case.
- The spokeshave needs to be in motion before it starts to cut the leather, sort of a swooping motion.
- Hold it lightly with your fingers and thumb– you don’t need to have a death grip completly around each handle.
- Keep the front edge of the spokeshave pressed flat on the leather.
- Ordinarily the spokeshave moves fairly quickly. Once the leather gets very thin it is advisable to go slowly to avoid tearing. Press down a little harder on the front of the spokeshave, and lighter on the blade.
- If the blade starts to chatter, re-sharpen and make sure you have modified it correctly for leather.
- If the leather keeps puckering in the mouth, and gets cut through, the mouth is too big and the blade needs to be shimmed from behind.
- Be vigilant about cleaning bits of leather from under the leather–they can cause tears or an uneven thickness.
- Skewing the blade in use, and approaching the leather from differing angles helps get a clean cut and not just skate across the surface.
- Watching the color of the leather change is a good visual indication of the depth of the cut. Folding the leather over on top of itself doubles any thickness discrepancies for quick identification of areas that need more work.
- Goatskin is the easiest to spokeshave. Calf and Tawed skin are more difficult.
1911 Stanley R. & L. Co. Catalogue No. 110.
Burdett, Eric. 1975. The Craft of Bookbinding. New York: Pitman Publishing Co.
Cockerell, Douglass. 1902. Bookbinding and the care of books… NY: D. Appleton and Co.
Dudin, M. 1977. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder. Leeds, England:The Elmente Press.
Hampton, C.W. and E. Clifford. 1982. Planecraft: Hand Planning by Modern Methods. Woburn, Mass.: Woodcraft Supply Corp.
Johnson, Arthur. 1978. The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding. London: Thames and Hudson.
Lamond, Thomas C. 1997. Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves and Similar Tools: Identification of the Artifacts and Profiles of the Makers and Patentees. N.P.: Thomas C. Lamond.
Middleton, Bernard. 1963. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. NY and London: Hafner Publishing.
Matthews, William. 1929. Bookbinding: A Manual for those interested in the Craft of Bookbinding, London: Victor Gollancz.
Pleger, John J. 1924. Bookbinding. Revised Ed. of Bookbinding and Its Auxiliary Branches. Chicago: The Inland Printer Co.
Salamon, R.A. 1986. Dictionary of Leather-Working Tools c. 1700-1950. Mendham, NJ:Astragal Press.
Waltner, John. N.D. Antique and Collectable Stanley Tools; 2001 Pocket Price Guide. N.P.: John Waltner.
Zaehnsdorf, J.W. 1903. The Art of Bookbinding. A Practical Treatise. London: George Bell and Sons.