Tag Archives: bookbinding

The Origins of Marbling: Glass?

Most of us think of marbling as paint or ink applied to a sized bath, usually manipulated somehow, then transferred onto a sheet of paper. This is essentially the definition put forward by Richard J. Wolfe, in his magnum opus, Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns. His book is an invaluable resource, tracing the history of European marbling. The extensive plates dating particular patterns alone justify the price.

But what if we think of marbling not primarily as the transfer of colors, but the technique of using a stylus — or a number of them in a row, i.e. a rake — to manipulate strips or blobs of color into patterns? Visually, this is where most of the beauty and magic happens. And Egyptians were doing this as early as the 6th century BCE in glass.

Egyptian Alabastron and Flasks, 6th – 3rd century BCE. Corning Museum of Glass.

Recently I visited the Corning Museum of Glass,  which has some very early glass containers that look marbled. The museum catalog describes the center container as having the, “entire surface decorated with alternating registers of fine trails [thin threads of colored glass] wound ten to twelve times before changing color; all threads have been marvered in and dragged alternately up and down sixteen times to form an elaborate and delicate festooned or feathered pattern….” ( 55.1.61)

Instead of colors applied to a viscous bath, glass trails are wound around a container. Then they are manipulated with a point or stylus. The alternating up and down stylus movement at regular intervals is quite similar to how many styles of marbling are done even today.

Does specialization in the decorative arts cause us to overlook a fundamental cross-disciplinary technique like this one? Or, is this a common decorative technique that it is continually independently rediscovered. If so, are there other examples?


A Method of Brushing Glue onto Paper

I’ll be teaching a hardcover pamphlet binding workshop to a group of undergraduates later this week, and wanted to include a diagram illustrating the technique of gluing paper.  I couldn’t find anything useful on the web, so had to draw my own. Is it considered too basic to bother describing? Clean and efficient glue handling is one of the most fundamental skills in bookbinding, and a common place to make mistakes.

The sequence of applying adhesive to paper for a right hander. Click on the image to enlarge.

If your adhesive is the right consistency, your brush the right size, and it is charged appropriately, you should be able to cover the entire sheet without adding more. This is how I was taught by Thea Hamman, a German trained bindery supervisor who worked for many years at Columbia University.

A.  Apply the adhesive to a large area in the center of the sheet of paper, which is placed on a larger waste sheet. Press down firmly with your index finger and thumb to keep the sheet from shifting. If the paper is large or highly reactive to moisture, you might want to relax it by misting with water. I usually jigger the brush back in forth in Area 1 during application. Make sure to put enough on to later drag it over the edges.  Most commonly, I use a 1 inch Princeton 5450 Natural Bristle Brush. Since the adhesive is not on the waste sheet yet, if the paper happens to shift or expand a bit, the good side of the sheet remains clean. Next, brush the adhesive in Area 2, off the top and right side. If the paper expands or warps, hold it down so that it moves towards the left, so adhesive doesn’t get on the good side. 

B. Move your hand and place your ring, middle and index finger on the bottom of the sheet, in the area where there is not adhesive, then brush the top left side. This can also help keep the sheet from curling into into itself. On small sheets, 1, 2, and 3 can be done at the same time. All of this depends on a balancing how fast you are working, how reactive your paper is, and how much moisture is in your adhesive.

C. Now place your fingernails fairly flat on the top edge, making sure not not to dent the paper. By using the flat parts of your nails, the adhesive doesn’t get on your fingertips. If you do happen to get a little glue on your fingers, it is useful to keep a damp rag nearby to wipe them clean. Finish spreading the adhesive and lift the paper near two opposite corners, and stick it in place. Smooth it down, starting in the center, working outward, with the part of your hands that is opposite your thumbs to eliminate any bubbles.  This avoids your fingertips which now have adhesive on them. Then achieve firm adhesion by burnishing using a Delrin folder, or your weapon of choice.

Please comment if you have another preferred method!

New Tool For Sale! The M2 Hybrid Paring Knife

Traditionally, leather paring knives either have round or straight cutting edges.  I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each in this post. I usually use an English style straight blade, but became tired of the fact it could only be used for edge paring. Partially inspired by the rounded corners of a spokeshave blade, I made a couple of other modifications to a standard M2 English style knife so that it can be used for more than edge paring.

A slightly curved cutting edge on essentially an English style knife allows it to scoop out leather, necessary for the spine area, headcaps, and decorative work. The blade is oriented at a 45 degree angle, like an English knife, so right and left handers need to purchase different knives. The corners of the knife are rounded so that the tip or heal will not cut through the skin while performing this scooping action. The tiny secondary bevel allows quick resharpening.

This knife can be used for all types of paring necessary in bookbinding: edge paring, reducing spine and caps, paring deep into a skin (similar to a spokeshave’s action) and even for overall scraping, if you are into that.

M2 Hybrid Knife. Around 8 – 9 inches long, and 1 inch wide. Since the grind marks on the primary bevel go along the length of the blade, the primary bevel is not apparent when looking at the top of the knife. The exact curve of the cutting edge varies a bit from knife to knife.

A lower angle primary bevel cuts down on the amount of time it takes to resharpen the blade, since there is less metal to remove. The 13 degree cutting edge is only a millimeter or two. The disadvantage is that there is not a large enough bevel that you can feel when you put your knife on the sharpening substrate; you have to trust your hands and the angle you are holding it at. This is quite similar to sharpening a kitchen knife by hand. Another advantage of the small secondary bevel is that it can be stropped back into shape very quickly, again because not much metal has to be removed. This is a perfect blade for sub-micron stropping. M2 steel seems easier to strop than A2, for some reason.

Cross section of primary and secondary bevels.

The slightly curved blade creates more opportunity to find a sharp area as the knife dulls, so it can be used longer. Straight blades, as they become dull, don’t seem to bite the leather enough to get started with a cut. The disadvantage is you can’t just rub it back and forth like a standard straight edged knife when resharpening. Stropping takes a slight twist of the wrist, to keep parts of the cutting edge in contact with the strop throughout the stroke.

The rounded areas allow you to work into a skin, for headcaps and the spine. But the shape also allows you to use it like a standard English style knife for edge paring.

The third change is that the tip and heel of the cutting edge are rounded.  This prevents the knife from cutting through the skin when you are working away from the edge, similar to how a spokeshave blade works. In practice, I don’t miss having a pointed, sharp tip. A rounded tip also makes it less likely to dig into your paring surface.

The M2 Hybrid used like a standard English knife for edge paring.

All of these aspects combine to make a sensitive and versatile knife intended for professionals. An analogy for cyclists might be this is more like a track bike than a road bike. This knife, in addition to edge paring, can do most of what a spokeshave can do, albeit with more “workmanship of risk”. If you want the most versatile knife on the market, look no further.

Close up of a piece of goatskin feather pared,, so that the valleys of the grain are cut through. The middle of the blade was used for this, almost parallel to the edge of the leather..

Progressively paring towards the center. The rounded edges keep the blade from cutting through the leather as it stretches.

M2 Hybrid Paring knife. M2 Steel. The handle is hand carved wood, covered with vegetable tanned goatskin, and ergonomically shaped. The metal is .040″ thick, the handle around 5/8″ at the thickest point. It is about 1 inch wide and around 8-9″ in overall length. The secondary bevel is 13 degrees.  Hand sharpened to .1 micron.

The M2 Hybrid Paring Knife.  $250.00.  Order here.

Small M2 Hybrid knife. The best knife for onlays and intricate leather decorations. Also great for paring paper. M2 Steel. The metal is .025″ thick, about 5/8″ wide and 6-7″ long. Leather covered wood handle. The  secondary bevel is 13 degrees. Hand sharpened to .1 micron.

The Small M2 Hybrid Paring Knife.  $150.00.  Order here.

Small M2 Hybrid knife bottom left, regular size next to it.

A W.O. Hickok Press

On the one hand, I am happy to see this beautiful Hickok press, apparently still functioning, was not thrown into the trash heap. The repurposed aspects of this press appear easily reversible, simply by removing the wine box.

However, many artifacts are totally destroyed by being “repurposed”, which is often code for sold in the interior design marketplace. The Retrofactory blurb dates this press to ca. 1860’s, which seems like a wild guess. Hickok started in 1844, there are very scanty records pre-1930. If this date is correct, this press is the earliest known transitional Hickok book press I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see the documentation.

Transitional presses have metal and wood components. I used to sneer at them, so old fashioned!

Then I used one.

They develop wonderful creaking noises when gradually fully tightened, which gives some auditory feedback on the amount of compression. Look at the intelligent engineering of the thick cross-bracing on the upper platen — this is where rigidity is necessary in a press. The whole press is elegantly built for maximum lightness. The wood and iron elements interact complexly and organically. I think this helps prevent the press from backing off as much as all metal ones. The wood moves a bit, and the steel threads can settle in more parellel? The size of this press is very nice, the tightening wheel at a comfortable hand height. The wooden base is convenient to brace a foot against to keep the press from twisting in operation.

One of my pet peeves are presses that are not attached to a workbench or floor. You know who you are! If you have to hold onto the press while tightening it, you loose at least 30% of the compressional power, and are much more likely to damage whatever you are pressing.

Looking at the image of the press above, I bet a lot of shoes have braced themselves against it, though it was likely also bolted to the floor at some point, note the small slots at the ends of the feet. Given the distinctive shape of the four knobs on top of the wheel, there must have been a specialized press pin designed to fit them.

It irks me to see this beautiful press being removed from the functional bookbinding world, and co-opted into the interior design world, where its only value is to feed the appetite of the 1%. An unnecessary and silly wine storage rack for $3450.00.

More broadly, is sad when our collective culture values one of a limited number of remaining functioning 19th century Hickok presses more as a decorative object than functional one. Tools have become so invisible that we no longer even notice them, or value them.

Even though the W. O. Hickok Manufacturing Company is still in business, they have transitioned into primarily a job machining shop due to lack of demand for bookbinding equipment. Their web site mentions they still make presses and job backers on special order. The genuine Hickok 001/2 is my favorite press for general bookbinding and book conservation, much nicer than the copies of it. Please support them!

W.O. Hickok
Manufacturing Company

900 Cumberland St.
Harrisburg, PA 17103
ph 717.234.8041
fx 717.234.2587





W. O. Hickok Box

W.O.Hickock box. My Collection.

How much can we tease out of this nicely made wooden box with a sliding lid? Someone once told me that with enough rigor, knowledge and time, the whole history of the world could be found in any object. Mmmmm.

The Hickok company is still in business, and has made bookbinding and paper ruling tools for over 150 years. On this box, the shipping label also keeps the lid from sliding open in transit. The addressee, “News Bookbindery” must have been associated with the Goshen News, which was the newspaper in Goshen, Indiana. The wood is Southern yellow pine and has finger joints which are machine made using circular cutting heads. The bottom has saw marks from a 12 inch diameter circular saw.

Given the size, and very sturdy packaging, my guess it that it contained fragile Hickock ruling pens. The end of the box not visible in this image has written in pencil “17 point”, which would also support the ruling pen hypothesis, and could indicate the box was also used for storage. There is a Hickok order number, which I haven’t identified yet.

1910 Gane Brothers Catalog. Specific mention of mailing a small package. Apparently this is novel at the time? Source: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433057476958;view=1up;seq=44

In a 1910 Hickok catalog, there is special mention that smaller packages can be sent through the mail, and this occurs on the page that lists the styles of ruling pens.  The 3 cent purple Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809 stamp on the outside of the was issued in 1938.  I’m a little suprised a ruling machine was still in use at this late date, even in a small midwestern town. This must have been near the end of ruling machines.

Hickok is still in Harrisburg Pa, and still has lots of spare parts for ruling machines, and they still sell bookbinding equipment, such as my favorite book press, the Hickok 001/2. I visited in 1998 and wrote a short piece, “The W.O. Hickok Mfg. Co.: 150 Years of Bookbinding Equipment” for the Guild of Book Workers Newsletter #121.


Prices of Hickock ruling pens from a 1910 Gane Bros Catalog. They cost .015 cents per point. Source: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433057476958;view=1up;seq=44

The history of the world in this little box? Physically, it is evidence of the timber industry and industrial manufacture, as well as transportation and storage. The label is record of printing technology and the postal system. If the box contained ruling pens, these were used to make the pages for record keeping by clerks and accountants. This spins out into record keeping, finance, written marks, memory, foundations of civilization….


My blog post “An Overview of Leather Paring Knives, Tools and Machines” was translated into Dutch and appears in the current issue of Handboekbinden (Jaargang 10, Nummer 3, 2017): 92-95.  According to Google translate, Leerdunmessen means “Learning Lessons”. Kind of cool!

Added 31 Oct 2017: A dutch friend let me know that Google translation is wrong, and Leerdunmessen actually means “Leather Paring”. Thanks Edith!

Just Looking

Once a year I teach a knife sharpening and tool making workshop in the bookbinding department at North Bennett Street School (NBSS) in Boston.  NBSS has the finest bench oriented two year bookbinding program in the world. If you have the passion, drive, commitment, dedication — and are crazy enough to pursue this antiquated profession in the 21st century — this is the place to do it. You will find many kindred spirits in your cohort.

I cover all aspects of sharpening related to bookbinding: blade angles, bevel angles, types of steel, types knives, types of grits, grit progression, hand grinding using power tools, free hand sharpening, and stropping. These techniques can be adapted to virtually any type of sharpening system: oil stones, diamond stones, waterstones, lapping powders and finishing films. Free hand sharpening throws many students into the deep end, for a while, but ultimately equips them to sharpen most types of edge tools. Most bookbinding knives have complex shapes and handles  which preclude the use of jigs or honing guides.

The foundation of this class is critical looking. Critical looking is not only closely watching the instructor demonstrate a technique, but it is looking at what you have done. Often when sighting or aligning, one eye is better than two.

Once you can visually analyze what your hands have done, then you can correct, alter, adjust, repeat your hand technique. Critical thinking is taught via writing in undergraduate curriculums. Could critical looking be linked to drawing?  Taking a photo or shooting a video can be a useful shortcut for note taking that may gloss over important aspects, such as processing and replicating. Drawing really forces you to look closer, again and again and again.

Critical looking is different from just looking. In a narrow sense it means learning to interpret what you are looking at, what the scratch patterns, reflections, divots, rounded bevels mean in relation to how you were holding the knife. In a broader sense it means understanding  what the effect of your actions are. Critical looking is the basis of all sharpening, maybe all craft skills?


Below are some images of the 2017 workshop shot by Brian Burnett.


All Photos Copyright 2017 Brian Burnett. And he was critically looking.