Timothy Ely’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Timothy C. Ely

Artist in private practice – makes books, prints, drawings and the occasional guitar. Instagram

I had enough warning that I could watch over the course of a few days exactly what was used often. These are tools I grab when I am traveling to teach and they find cross over into other areas. Jeff knows this was a challenge as I have many tools inherited, made and gathered over the years. Next challenge should be the most important twenty five.

First off, a custom weight made by Randall Hankins of Salt Lake City. I have many weights of Randy’s as well as heavy things found over the years like massive things to hold x-ray machines in place. After making do with essentially the wrong things for decades, Randy and I designed these sixteen inch long weights so that some of the endpapers varieties I make could be selectively weighted or just kept from moving. I have a pair and I could not now work without them. Being steel, magnets can be applied — here is one catching a needle.

I can put you in touch, [contact Tim here] All are custom made.

Cobblers knife from Buck and Ryan [sadly gone] London. Purchased in 1982. Cutting paper and used as a marking knife.


Margaret Smith [d.1982] her dividers, about 6 inches long. She was born while Victoria was still alive and bound books with a Victorian sensibility. Very gracious and knew everyone. Studies a bit with S. Cockerel and was full of stories. She made her stone burnisher from flint found at Brighton. I use this tool more than any. No idea how many dividers of all configurations and lengths that I have found.


Triangle for various squaring and metering jobs. This one allows the worker to dial up the amount of focus required for certain jobs.


My first bone folder. It is sharpened on the lower edge, about 3 inches so that I can fold and then cut folds without needing two tools. I have many bone folders, they are sort of talismans to the discipline and are nice. I have a giant folder made from free range mastodon by Jim Croft. This one is balanced for throwing.

Andreas Dombrowskyj’s Five Essential Book Repair Tools

Andreas Dombrowskyj

Conservation Technician, Columbia University Libraries.
[ NOTE: I worked with Andreas beginning in the early 1990s at Columbia University’s Conservation Lab. Once they reopen, he will soon be completing 60 years of service! ]
1. My bone folder which I can’t do without.
Andreas uses an older version of this German bookbinding knife. Source:  https://hollanders.com/collections/knives-cutting/products/paper-knife-w-unfinished-wood-handle
2. My four knives which I use in different situations, they differ in size and  sharpness. Two are like the one above. What is good is about them is they have a certain amount of flex which I need when I’m peeling binders board from the back of the end sheet. In order to save original end sheets (often maps or other decorative designs), I have to go from the back of the end sheet. This involves peeling different types of binders boards, with different densities. and made of different materials. A sharp knife is needed to peel away the back of the end sheet.
I made this replica of Andreas’s rigid dull knife from memory. I think the shape was caused by 50+ years of work and resharpening, given the thickness of the spine of the blade.
The other two are smaller and have a more rigid back of the blade (see below). They are good for cleaning the book spines.  When I clean the back of the books, a dull knife like these is good because it is a scraping action and not a cutting one.
3. Scissors, a standard bookbinder’s model with one blunt end.
4. Micro-spatula, a Caselli, of course.
5. Sanding block, which is helpful when tip-ins are done. The sandpaper block  is used on any bits of paper that sticks out.
I could list others, but those are ones that I use most.

Chris Brown’s Five Essential Book Conservation Tools

Chris Brown

As primarily a conservator, the majority of the time, I set a book on the bench for conservation and repair, and immediately gather my primary tools.
In order of reach are:
The bone folder which was gifted to me by my mentor, when I started my apprenticeship. I have since been gathering folders that I like, but are not as married to as this one, so that I may give a bone folder to those I teach, should the time arise. This is tradition for me, more so than an immediate need for the folder in the first part of the conservation work.
Next is the Olfa 9mm, with Ultrasharp black blades. They’re worth the relatively minor increase in cost, as they last far longer than the regular blades, for my work needs. When I switched to the retractable from an X-acto knife, I stopped bleeding by about 90%, per book. I have to have sharp blades, good visibility and dexterity without sacrificing safety, as I disbind a book, open hinges and trim leather to fit.
Third is my my large steel spatula. This assists me with most lifting, as I can feel far greater subtlety in the process of lifting a delicate page, than I can with the lifting knife my sensei taught me to make. When I need good, old-fashioned horse power and material removal, I go to the hacksaw based blade. When I want to feel the difference between lifting paper and the first layer of board, this is what I need.
Fourth, will be the dental scraper/pick. When the proteinaceous glue on the spine, is cantankerous after three applications of wheat paste or Metyl Cellulose, the fourth application of glue removal compound is coupled with detailed work to keep as much of the fold integrity as possible, while removing as much old glue from the crevasses as can be.
Finally, the fifth tool I wouldn’t be without is the Peachey Delrin folder. I chose this shape because I needed to be able to smooth down larger sections of leather or end-papers, fold and manipulate leather and paper and generally be able to work with straight PVA in some areas. The Delrin doesn’t feel as flimsy in my grumpy fingers as does a folder made of Teflon. It also has the tendency to stay out in my hand and not go flying around the table like a watermelon seed violently pinched between thumb and forefinger. From paste to PVA, this folder provides me with the ability to smooth no small range of cloth, leather and papers to provide an aesthetically pleasing finished product for the client.
If I were to add anything to this list, I would add two types of brushes, and a one meter long, non-cork back straight edge, with millimeter gradations.
The two types of brushes: Good natural bristle paste brushes, and a good set of artificial bristle brushes of varying size, for PVA application.
With the first 5 tools, I can conserve most things.