Jacques Board Shears

Bill Minter has recently written an excellent summary of how to adjust a Jacques Board shear, on the Guild of Book Workers Blog. There is also a fantastic diagram of the yoke and what the nuts, bolts and lock washers actually do.  I had opportunity to take Bill’s workshop a few years ago on adjusting these troublesome beasts. For a large, seemingly indestructible cast iron machines, they are finicky to adjust, and even just moving them can cause alignment problems. It can take a long time to get them adjusted. But when they are working well, they are a real pleasure to use; much nicer than any currently manufactured board shear I’ve used. I’ve written a bit in the past about the importance of the board shear in the nineteenth century.

Bill mentioned two basic types of Jacques shears, though I would consider at least three early twentieth century ones and would guess there are more. Bill provides images of these three machines in a Jacques catalog from 1923, and below are earlier images starting around 1898. Although we generally call all of these machines board shears, some were originally made to cut specific types of board.


The Paper Box Maker, Vol. 27, No. 1, November 1918, p. 29.

Above is my favorite Jacques Board Shear.  Bill mentions the reinforced “L” shaped arm that makes these extremely rigid machines, but the outer gauge is also heavy duty, with a stop on the two rack and pinion. This is the only model I’ve used where the outer gauge can be adjusted and stays in place. Once you use one of these machines it is difficult to use another one. The only downside is that they take up the most floorspace, are the heaviest and are the most cumbersome to move.


jacques with automatic clamp

The Paper Box Maker and American Bookbinder, Vol. 7, No. 10, August 31 1899, p. 15.

The Fine Paper Box Makers’ Shears, were not only made in wood and metal tops, but with automatic or foot operated clamps.  I have a small 30 inch machine with an automatic clamp.  It is very cool: bring down the blade and the clamp automatically lowers onto the material to be cut. This is one sweet machine, though I wish the arm were a little beefier. This is not a hugh problem on my small 30″ machine, but might be on larger ones.  Another nice feature of  a Fine Paper and Box Makers Shear is that the clamp is very narrow, about 3/8″. This makes sighting the cut easy, but virtually eliminates the most common accident that happens on board shears, pinching your finger under the fence. Pinching is perhaps an understatement: I know binders who have lost a fingernail and had to go the the emergency room.

paper box machinery

Name plate on my Jacques “Fine Paper Box Makers’ Shears” circa. 1899 with automatic clamp.


paste board shears

The Paper Box Maker and American Bookbinder, Vol. 7, No. 1,November 1898, p. 15

The pasteboard shears are the lightest, and least expensive of the three. Bill mentions that some board shear blades have a chisel edge, rather than a fairly obtuse grind that is best suited for mill or binders board. I have seen a number of these machines—all with wood tops—sold from leather working factories, were they also made specifically for cutting leather? They also tend to be very large, 50″ and up. The arms are not reinforced, so they are fine, but less than ideal for cutting thicker binders board, especially at full length. The wood top makes them lighter, though. In my experience, these are the most common machines encountered.


Bill makes a number of important points in the article Instead of routinely regrinding the blades it is possible to touch them up fairly easily in situ. This not only extends blades life, but is cheaper and might be necessary in the future. Many blade grinders use expensive, large machinery and were dependent on printing and newspaper industries which are now in decline. I used to make a jig to sharpen blades, but now feel it is easier to hold a small diamond stone (like the fine/ extra fine folding handle stone, 4 11/32 x 7/8″) and touch up the blades by hand, concentrating on the portion closest to the handle where the blade is used the most.

Of course all of this is fairly preliminary research— the basic types of machines are barely identified, let alone the variations through time. The mechanization during the nineteenth century in bookbinding seems strongly related, if not tied to similar trades, like paper box makers. The first commercial paper box was reportedly sold in England in 1817. Much exciting research need to be done.


It is regrettable that the vendors of used machinery seem uninterested in researching, documenting, and preserving these machines. Of course, these machines need to be functional. But many of the alterations I have seen are done for aesthetic reasons, not functional. Many, even today, are routinely sandblasted and repainted, original wood tops replaced, historical value lost. There is a lot of finger pointing going on: Conservators blame the vendors for over-restoring machines, vendors claim that the purchasers want newly painted machines to match their bindery or conservation lab. How a book conservator can condone this wanton destruction of our mechanical heritage by participating in the marketplace is incomprehensible to me. If book conservators don’t know better, or hold themselves to a slightly higher standard than a non-specialist member of the general public, I’m not sure what to think of the field.

Alternative Uses for a Book Press

Buster Keaton & Fatty Arbuckle, The Bell Boy, 1918


The Three Stooges, Disorder in the Court, 1936


For information on the use, history and dating of copy presses, see Rhodes, Barbara and William Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art & History of Mechanical Copying 1780-1938. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press and Northhampton, Mass: Heraldry Bindery, 1999.

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).





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