A Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife?

Actual medieval bookbinding tools are almost nonexistent. Apart from a few finishing tools, there really aren’t many documented, extant examples. That’s why a knife that John Nove brought to my attention is extraordinary. Could it really be a medieval bookbinder’s knife? A note associated with this knife claimed it might be.

Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife? Private collection. Photo: John Nove.

At first glance it looks similar to a typical “gift set” carving knife given to newlyweds in the 20th century. The tip looks to be slightly serrated, or perhaps just extremely pitted. The handle has the tonality of antler, but it is actually a carved, lightweight wood according to John. This strikes me as odd: historically, the handles of most knives tend to be a dense exotic woods, bone, horn, or antler. The blade is extremely rusted, while the handle is relatively intact. Is this a red flag?

The ferrule is very odd, one piece of metal hammered around the blade tang hole. Photo John Nove.

Is it a knife that maybe belonged to a bookbinder or bibliophile, hence the very cool handle decoration? Or is it an assemblage of some older and newer parts? Or something else?

The handle is what makes this knife so special. These intricately carved books are convincingly realistic. To me, the books look Gothic, and possibly Germanic, given the overall morphology. The sewing supports appear to be double cords or split tawed thongs, both appropriate to a Medieval book. The pronounced endbands, with the cores lying on the spine are also consistent with this. The clasps look like split thongs, possibly there is a pin attachment? The very rounded spine with pronounced supports extending onto the face of the board is typically Gothic. The carved representation of panels is also typical, though a little odd with the carved triangles, though this might be a limitation of the size of the original and the carver. After all, it only about an inch wide.

The curved, almost spiral grip in the center of the handle is similar to Medieval carved columns I have seen in the Cloisters at the MET. The traces of red (paint ?) on the page edges is somewhat unusual, yellow or a blue would be more common, if in fact it is a German binding represented. The overall length of the knife is 9 inches, with 5 inches for the blade. The blade is quite flexible, with the back measuring only .012 inch.

The elaborate handle seems out of place with a functional tool used by a craftsman, but there are many examples of very elaborate Medieval tools with zoomorphic designs carved into them. The ferrule is also strange with its scalloped collar. John Nove wondered if the blade might have been stuck into an older handle. Book-themed ornamentation on a knife like this might indicate a 19th c. page opening knife? The size is right for that as well.

If this is a medieval bookbinder’s knife in the German tradition, are there modern styles we can compare it to? And how would it have been used? I’d guess that all knives were originally undifferentiated for different trades. Knife-makers would make their knives for a variety of purposes. When did the specific needs for specific trades start? Even today, shoemakers and bookbinders, in the English tradition, use a the same Barnsley paring knife, older examples having an image of a shoe stamped on them.

Top: My Henckel 8 inch Chef’s knife. Bottom: Modern German style bookbinder’s leather paring knife.

I’ve noticed the similarities between German style chef’s and bookbinder’s knifes for a while. The primary one is the taper of the blade from the back to the cutting edge, parallel to the length of the knife. It doesn’t make sense functionally to make a paring knife like this, so German binders wrap the handle with leather, cord or thread to hold it more comfortably. The thin metal around the cutting edge is quick to resharpen, though. There are also the three cutlery rivets on the handles; these are technically called scales on a full tang knife.

Bauer and Franke, Handbuch der Buchbinderei, 1903. Thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference

The text mentions that the Offenbacher shape is good for weaker leathers, and the Parisian shape is good for thicker leathers. For the leather to be held in the hand position depicted with the Parisian knife, the leather would have to be very thick, almost more of a tanned cowhide, rather than a typical bookbinding calf, sheep, or goat.

Detail p. 91. Zaehnsdorf, Joseph. The Art of Bookbinding. 2nd. ed. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890. <https://archive.org/details/artofbookbinding00zaehrich&gt;

The paring knife in Zaehnsdorf’s manual has a similar shape to the medieval knife and moddern chef’s knifes, as do the ones in Peter’s 1928 Braunwarth & Luthke catalog, below. Most seem to have a taper towards the edge of the blade on the left, as indicated by the thicker black line indicating the back of the blade.

Braunwarth and Lüthke catalog from 1928. Collection: Peter Verheyen

To return to the central question. Is this knife a medieval bookbinder’s knife? Without having any scientific analysis of the materials (XRF? FCIR? Carbon dating on the handle?), or more information on province, and examining it in person, I can’t say for sure.

But I can say it is an intriguing object, worthy of further research, preservation, and hopefully clarification in the future.

Chip Fix: Seven Approaches to Repairing a Damaged Knife Edge

It is a sinking feeling when you take a look at the cutting edge of your knife, and see a chip in it. But it happens. Sometimes completely regrinding the bevel is the best solution, sometimes not. Below are some options to consider, depending on the nature, size and location of the chip, how the blade is used, and what your sharpening set-up is.

A small chip like this will work itself out after a few resharpenings.

1)  Live with it. This is often a good solution for small chips. It will make a weird little ridge in the leather (or other material), and you will have to go back over it with a different part of the knife, like removing the ridge between multiple passes of a double edge razor blade paring machine. As you resharpen the blade it will get smaller each time.

Hand forged Japanese gardening tool with the chip reground to function.

2)  For large chips, alter the cutting angle around the chip so the blade can still function.  The example above shows a huge chip, and fixing it by regrinding the bevel would have removed most of the knife. The previous owner cleverly fixed it by putting an edge on the large chip.  This blade still works quite well for hacking small branches. In fact, I kind of like having the notched higher bevel area. Of course, this depends on what type and size of blade you have and how you use it.

The bevel edge of a chisel in very poor shape from abuse. A good candidate to regrind.

3) Regrind to the original bevel using the coarsest diamond stone you can find, at least a 220 US grit.  Even though I have belt grinders, for a narrow chisel like this one, it is easier to control working by hand on a diamond stone. It really doesn’t take that long. And you can skip your HIIT tomorrow.

The bevel angle of this chisel was ground too shallow for how it was used, and the entire cutting edge rolled off on the left side. A good candidate to regrind.

4) Regrind to the original using a belt sander, belt grinder, Tormek, or a stone grinder.  If the blade is wide or thick, and the damage severe, a complete regrind might be the best option. Obviously, it is quicker to have a machine do the work, rather than your arms.  I highly recommend the Kalamazoo 1 x 42 belt sander if you are in the market for a new one. I’ve had one for over 20 years, and sometimes during workshops it has run almost continuously for a couple of days.

The width of this chisel was reduced (on the top) to get rid of a chip at the top corner.

5) To fix a chipped corner, if the width of the blade is not of that much importance to you, it is often easier to reduce the it rather than regrind the bevel, like on the chisel above. This can ruin a rare or important tool, though. Often the entire width does not need to be reground, as the image above shows, but it can be rounded towards the tip. This can be done by hand on a diamond stone or on a machine grinder. Sometimes only a small amount of the blade on the bevel needs to be ground, sometimes the entire length. In this case, it was an inexpensive Buck chisel that I use for crude chopping, and has little value otherwise.

A tip chip.

Solution: a new rounded tip.

6)  If the tip or corner is chipped (which is very common) it can be easier to round it. Some prefer to have rounded tips on leather paring knives and other knives anyway. Think carefully if you want to keep the original bevel angle, or raise it slightly as in the above example. The above chip could also be fixed by reducing the width of the knife on the left side of the image.

Regrinding a knife back to the original bevel angle.

August Eickhoff French Style Paring Knives

A pair of August Eickhoff french style paring knives, made in New York, 19th century.

A side benefit of my regrinding and knife sharpening service is that I get to see some interesting antique knives. These August Eickhoff knives are beautifully made, have a wonderful balance, a lovely patina, and given the amount of distal taper (both on the blade and the tang) must have been forged. Eickhoff also made round knives (aka. head knives) for leatherworkers which occasionally show up for sale today. In the late 19th century, Eickhoff was located at 381 Broome St, NYC, making scissors, woodworking tools, and resharpening knives. He served on the NY Board of Education, and advertised his wares in a Teachers College Educational Monograph. It may be time to make a few reproduction Eickhoff knives.

%d bloggers like this: