Possible Origins of the Board Shear

Tom Conroy  speculated in an informative comment on my post about millboard shears, that the basic principals underlying the board shear may have originated from playing card shears of the 1760’s. I thank him for bringing this to my attention, and I’ve commented on some of his points, and added some visuals for clarity. The images below are from ARTFL, an on-line project that reproduces  the first printing of the Paris edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedie, a wonderful resource with over 21 million words and 2,569 plates — over 75,000 objects identified. Incroyable!

Fig. A.  Detail of two types of playing card shears, from Diderot’s Cartier (Plate III)

Pictured above are the playing card shears as depicted in Diderot’s cartier. I’m puzzled by the top piece (rod? screw?) in Fig. 12, No. 2, the text mentions it forms a blade stop– to keep the upper blade rigid, and move it in and out?  It almost appears this same piece is stuck into part 12, in Fig. 12, No. 3? The pins (number ‘3’) are identified in the text to guide the card, in order to keep it from bending to achieve accurate alignment?  The wing nut under the shear could be loosened to move the shear, or wedge under the board, to alter the width of the cut, which presumably would not be done very often, if the playing cards were a standard size.  It is an appealing idea that playing card makers adapted a guillotine type cutter from the type more suited for aristocratic neck trimming; alas, no evidence supports this. Supposedly, in 1789, French physician J. I. Guillotin thought a blade falling more compassionate than the traditional use of an axe, and created the guillotine.  The guillotine paper cutter seems to be a mid 19th century, English invention, however this is another topic which needs more investigation.

Fig. B. Detail of Diderot’s Cartier (Plate I) Carton shears in action.


The shears themselves look like large gardening loppers, and must have been capable of cutting through playing cards, which at this time were made from four layers of paste-board: a double layer of brown paper in the middle (to prevent show through of the printing)  sandwiched between playing-card paper  and pot paper on the outside. It is hard to imagine they could cut through a thicker material like the boards binders used, however.

French bookbinders at this time would have used a thicker pasteboard which would be cut to the desired size with a large pointe. A little later, English binders would have used a millboard shears to rough out board to size.  Afterwards, the boards were trimmed more precisely with a plough. The board shear combined both of these functions in one machine– cutting down large sheets of thick board with precision, which was perfect for later, out-of-boards binding styles.

In Salamon’s Dictionary of leather-working tools, there is an illustration of what is labeled a “bench knife (Card shears)” (p. 9) Regretably, the source of and date of this illustration is not recorded, but it seems to date between the French card cutter and the early board shears.  The upper blade is curved, and it has a class two lever, an integral handle, a 12-25 inch blade and this one clamps onto holes in a bench.  Salamon mentions some of them have their own base– an early version of what we now call a paper cutter.  Many of us have fond memories of these green, gridded, dangerous machines from grade school art projects.

Fig. C. ‘Card Shears’ image,  reproduced in Salaman’s Dictionary of Leather-Working Tools. Early 19th Century?


If playing card shears served as a precursor to board shears, the question might be how and when did playing card shears evolve from a class one lever to a class two lever occur?  One tiny clue might be the handle of some of the early shears — they often look small and stuck on, as it they are an afterthought.   It also looks like the length might be adjustable, yet any advantage in leverage would seem to be negated by the additional deflection of the thin supporting arm. Of course, there are other important, as yet untraced defining characteristics of board shear:  its curved upper blade, fairly obtuse cutting angle,  the lower blade mounted flush to the table, a bottom gauge fixed at 90 degrees, and the foot clamp.

Fig. D. From Knight’s  A Day at the Bookbinders, 1842. ( p. 341) Later used in Dodd’s Days at the Factories (1843), and Walker’s The Art of Book-Binding (1850).





Beating Hammers

The hammer pictured below is a beating hammer, and it was made  for beating paper and book board.  At first glance, it  seems to resemble a judge’s gavel, but the head is made of iron, not wood. It is slightly unnerving, yet distinctly pleasurable– an ‘anti-conservation’ experience– to repeatedly beat a textblock with a large hammer.

In late 18th century France, for example, the sheets and books were possibly beaten eight different times.  In England, the beaters, a semi-skilled subset of bookbinders, were replaced by what is considered the first bookbinding machine, the rolling machine, in the 1820’s.  Beating, or not beating, was also an important in distinguishing between ‘temporary’ structures, and more permanent ones.

Currently, beating hammers are notoriously difficult to find– I have been looking for over a decade.  Since the practice of beating has gradually declined throughout the 19th and  20th centuries, many of these hammers must have made some kind of gradual evolution from working tool, to doorstop, to the bottom of the closet,  then sold for scrap, or left to rust. Thanks to a hot tip from the anonymous bookbinder, I managed to purchase not one, but two last week.

The first one is a Hickock judging from the overall shape, even though it is not labeled. It is possibly a bit later than the one pictured in the illustration below, which came from Palmer’s A Course in Bookbinding (1927).  The shape of the handle is very similar, but a bit simpler than the beaded handle pictured below, and the head is almost exactly the same, note the polished  faces, edges of the faces, and the little rim.

The faces are about 3 inches in diameter and it weighs just under 5 lbs– fairly light by beating hammer standards.  The Hoole catalogue No. 79 (1911) lists their selection from 5 to 14 lbs.  Middleton, in A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique,  reports seeing reference to 16-18 lb. hammers (p.7)

I’m a little unclear if this second hammer is actually a beating hammer, it could also be a gold beaters hammer, which often have a similar weight and face shape. This one weighs about 6 lbs. The handle it came with was very weak and deteriorated, so I carved a new handle in order to use the hammer, as well as polished the faces.

Traditional beating hammers had a bell shape, like the one pictured in Jost Amman’s bookbinder print (1568). This shape continued into the 19th century, like this Harrild & Sons beauty from 1892. I need a bell shaped beating hammer!

If you haven’t tried hand beating, it is instructive for appreciating why older books look, feel and function the way they do.  Softer mouldmade and handmade papers can compress up to half the thickness, resulting in a solid, yet light book. The surface of the paper changes.  Softer types of book board, such as paste or waterleaf, also compress.  Some traditions even lightly beat the leather after covering. The  unforgiving hardness of modern book papers and book boards is a modern affliction.

Beating hammers were used with a stone to beat on, although some sources report the iron was also used after 1800.  Given the numerous dings and dents on the hammers I purchased have, I suspect they were used on iron.  The surface of my Jacques board shear seems to have been used for beating, or perhaps rounding, at some point in its life, given its numerous dings and dents.

Contemporary reports that the stone, or iron, gives such a bounce to the hammer that most of the effort is stopping its rebound, not hammering downward.  Middleton, summarizing some of J. C. Huttner’s Englische Miscellen (Band 6, 1802), states:

…the English beat their books harder than do the Germans (though not so keenly), due to the iron block and the standing position of the workman, but especially to the method of holding the hammer.  German binders hold the handle so that the tips of the fingers meet underneath, whereas the English have their fingertips meeting on top, so that the back of the hand is underneath, and they strike the book slightly sideways.  The hammer bounces back level with the ear from the iron block, and workmen can do it for days on end without complaint. On the Continent books are beaten twice, before folding, and before sewing, but in England, due to the efficiency of the standing presses [ wood frame with an iron screw-jp] it is necessary to beat before sewing only. (p. 253-4)

When making a historical model, using the proper tools adds to the authenticity of the fabrication experience.  They certainly make it more fun. And I believe that they subtly, perhaps invisibly, influence perception of the completed model.

Beating hammers are rarely, if ever used for book conservation, so I suspect this one will primarly  function as a weight, much like  Nicasius Florer used his for in this painting from 1614.

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