Interpreting a Plough: Observations From the Bookbinding Tool Expert Tom Conroy

Jenny Hille, a book conservator who is perhaps best known as the co-author of the invaluable practical manual “Endbands From East to West and How to Work Them“, sent me some images of a plough she owns, and wondered what I could tell her about it.

I contacted Tom Conroy, a bookbinder in Berkeley and bookbinding tool expert who is perhaps best known for his essential article on how books function, “The Movement of the Book Spine”, and his groundbreaking reference book  “Bookbinders Finishing Tool Makers: 1780 – 1965“, for some assistance.

Tom kindly shared what he knew about this plough, and he wanted to remind readers of this blog that his writing here is informal, unedited, and taken from email correspondence. All the lovely photos are by Jenny Hille.

Ploughs were traditionally used for cutting the edges of books, and seem to have started when book boards shifted from wood to paperboard boards, and textblocks from parchment to paper in the 15th century. Ploughs were a mainstay of binderies until the second quarter of the 19th century, when they were replaced by guillotines for most trade work. Some fine binders today still use them, since the resulting  book edge is much smoother than a guillotine, and they are more portable.

Top view of a the plough.

Tom writes:

I’d say English or just possibly American, last third to quarter of the 19th Century. Not French, not German.

Blade and handle end cheek. Note the cut-outs on the top of the cheeks.

The cheeks are a slightly unemphasized version of what I call a “snail’s-horn” plough, the common English form in the late 19th century and first third of the 20th century. Cut-outs on the top edge, front edge, and back edge create little hornlike protrusions that remind my fancy of a snail’s horns. The Hickok variant of this, the commonest variant in America, has one cut-out at each rounded corner and a rounded-over corner, creating an s-shape. After WWI the plough was pretty much out of use in trade binderies in both England and America, with as far as I can tell just two makers surviving: W.O. Hickok in Harrisburg, PA for American style ploughs, and N.J. Hill/Hampson Bettridge in England. The half-sized ploughs made by Dryad for school arts-and-crafts binding classes were not worth professional attention. By 1960 Hampson Bettridge had shifted from the snail’s-horn profile to simple rounded-over corners. I have no precise dating criteria for the changes, because (metal process-engraved) blocks made for use by the 1870s were re-used in subsequent catalogue editions until the 1930s, and were loaned to publishers for use in manuals.

Profile of the handle and wrought iron wing nut on the end cheek. The wing nut shape is strangely reminiscent of a strong man pose. The checks in the wood do suggest some age.

As Jeff points out, the big wing nut is a diagnostic point; but to me it suggests English-not-American even more strongly than age. On Hickok ploughs the blade-holding mechanism and other metal parts tend to be machinists’ work, while on English they tend to be blacksmith’s work. Not a difference of function (in fact the English style is functionally better than the more highly regulated American form) but one of style of finish. However, by the end of the 19th century most of the Hampson Bettridge presses I have seen have cast brass wing nuts, not wrought iron, though of similar less formal workmanship; so the wrought iron wing nut suggests earlier to some extent, as well as English.

One other diagnostic point is the use of round-section rather than square-section guide bars between the cheeks. This detail points rather toward America, not England; all Hickok ploughs I have seen have dowels as guide bars, whereas all full-size English ploughs have has square-section guide bars (the half-size Dryad plough, one of the commonest and least useful at this point, has round-section metal guide bars; but this was made from the 1920s onward for the use of middle-school binding classes, the market Dryad’s whole operation was set up for, and is little more than a toy; as are the late-period English ploughs copied from Dryad after the 1970s). The mixing of discordant diagnostic indicators is common on ploughs, which are usually highly individual; so ascription of date and place are usually a matter of balance, except in the most clear-cut Hickok and Hampson-Bettridge examples. Even there – well, I have a Hickok plough with a “bolt knife” (i.e. non-adjustable, very wide and long to allow for wear), and I know someone with a post-WWII round-cornered Hampson Bettridge with a bolt knife, though in general the bolt knife was out of use in England by the 1870s, and never spread at all to America.

French ploughs generally use one runner on the press, and the plough has one cheek with a central groove along its base to engage with the runner. German ploughs tend to have circular blades, and run next to a single runner on the press. It is clear that your plough is neither.

Signature stamped on the top of the guide cheek.

The signatures on ploughs are normally on the end grain of the cheeks, like those of wooden binding presses and those of wooden woodworkers’ planes. With just a name it is possible that you have an owner’s name, not a maker’s name; but I have never seen a binder’s name stamp of this kind, though they were common among woodworkers. Reason: many planes were a woodworker’s personal tools, whereas ploughs were shop-owned tools in a bindery. Stamped-in touchmarks don’t last well on flatgrain wood, so where they are used professionally they are always on the endgrain (front and back surfaces of a plough). If a stamped-in mark occurred on the side grain I would assume it to be an owner’s mark without compelling evidence to the contrary.

If the plough were American I would rather expect the signature to include a city name: binding tool makers were rather localized in London, but were spread out over many cities in the U.S. If you live fairly close to a good research library and want to try a check of the London Post Office Directories for likely years. I can’t find them on line yet, but they may be available in the pay-for-it genealogical sites. The LPO Directories were published every year, but most American libraries have no more than half-a-dozen strung out along the century 1850-1950.

I did a bit of digging online and found what looks like a fullish set of Post Office directories put up by the University of Sheffield. The navigation of the site is a horror, but I managed the push my way to the volume of Classified Business Directory for 1884, and further to the page listing “BOOKBINDERS’ PRESS (AND PLOUGH KNIFE MAKERS” despite a mysterious disguise under a Sheffield directory:


Merriam wasn’t listed in the classified London list for 1884, but it is still possible that he was listed in the general alphabetical directory.

What needs to be done is to check the general alphabetic volumes year-by-year for Merriam, from about 1860 to World War I.  If I were doing it I would start with a check every five years, and if I found him I would work backward and forward from that date. The whole process would be quick and straightforward with a run of hardcopy, but I’ll confess that I’m not up to it with the bad indexing. Still, I may have saved you a step or two.




Embossed mark on the end grain of the handle cheek.

Fast response to first new batch of photos: The “PD” mark in the end grain looks like an owner’s mark to me. This form of mark with the letters rising from a depressed background and a border of small vees to the background (a “serrated embossed mark”) is the classic form for woodworkers’ planes. There is a chapter on marks in Goodman’s British Planemakers from 1700; I have the posthumous 3rd edition which has become very rare and pricey, but I believe there is a 4th edition now. On planes, the embossed mark with just initials was used for both makers’ and owners’ marks and is very common. Since you could buy one cheaply from pretty much any blacksmith, I would bet it is an owner’s mark on a binding tool. All the marks I can remember previously seeing on binding tools were “incuse” marks (letters sunk into the tool) and were rarely just initials. A maker’s mark is advertising, so it needs the full name and, often, place, which demands an engraver’s skills. An embossed mark can be made by anyone by taking a standard set of letter stamps and punching the end of an iron rod, then filing the border close to the initials and filing the little triangles into the edge with a triangular file. Since an owner’s mark won’t be used all that often you don’t even have to harden it if you want to save money.

Top view with blade disassembled. Note the square attachment on the blade holder bolt which also fits into the keyway on the handle. Also note the common compression in the wood from the washer on this attachment.

The blade and mechanism is a classic “bolt knife,” the earlier and universal form in the 18th century. The “sliding knife” or “scotch knife” appeared early in the 19th century, but took many decades to completely replace the bolt knife, since the bolt knife was significantly cheaper. Crane’s Bookbinding for Amateurs has an 1870s or 1880s discussion of the two forms. On balance the bolt knife points toward an English origin and an earlier date; though, as I think I mentioned, I have a late Hickok “amateur” (small size) plough that is probably middle 20th century (small screw size) and know someone with a Hampson Bettridge bolt knife plough that is certainly post-WWII.

Bottom view of knife attachment. Larger bolt heads, like the above square, are generally earlier.

Back to Jenny’s photos, I notice that the butt end of the knife is not nearly as wide as the cut-out for it in the cheek; this suggests to me that it is the second knife for this plough, the first one having been sharpened down to nothing. I have seen bolt knives with five inches and more of blade, and I believe I have seen then with two inches or less remaining.

Not much to say here. The use of the bolt knife bolt (or of the analogous bolt for a sliding knife) to do double duty to make the cheek “follow” the screw in and out is usual for English presses, and frequent if not quite as common for American ploughs; it is found, with some variants that seem to come from lack of understanding the mechanism, on some French ploughs. The large diameter of the bolt is typical blacksmith-made English; machinist-made Hickok ploughs are usually thinner and lighter-weight.

$ $ $

I don’t know what ploughs would be worth now, since they are so rare. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was following binding equipment on eBay, and at that time you could get a new, real, plough from Frank Wiesner for around $500, suggesting a used price around $250; but the few that appeared on eBay didn’t sell for anything like that, and the market didn’t seem to distinguish between crap amateur-made ploughs and good professional ploughs. So few people know how to use them, or want them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one with an asking price of $80 or $500 or more, I wouldn’t be surprised if one lingered unsold at either price, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one sold very rapidly at either price. I just don’t know. I have a small collection of ploughs, including good English, Hickok, and French ploughs, and two or three good ones I made; but I never paid more than $25 for one.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one from 2013 where Tom discusses another plough.

Nineteenth Century Style Textured Bookcloth For Sale

Some nineteenth century style textured cloth I’ve made.

Dot pattern nineteenth century style bookcloth for sale. Made with conservation grade materials.  14 x 22″ pieces. Order here.



Starting around 1823, bookcloth was embellished not only with color, but with texture. Although there were plainer types of cloth used on books before this, such as silk, velvet, canvas and muslin, when people refer to bookcloth, they often are referring to a starch filled, textured cloth.  It was used on some of the earliest publisher’s bindings, like the Pickering Diamond Classic below.

A Pickering Diamond Classic. Le Rime del Petrarca, London, 1822. Height: 3.625 inches.

The origins of bookcloth has been recounted many times, notably in John Carter’s The Origins of Publishers’ Cloth Bindings, Leighton’s Canvas and Bookcloth, and Sadleir’s The Evolution of Publishers’ Binding Styles.

In the 1990’s, Tomlinson and Masters’ Bookcloth 1823-1980, provides a fascinating account of cloth manufacture, detailing how the early cloth was manufactured at the Winterbottom cloth company. The earliest book cloths seem to have been made in small pieces, like I make mine, but soon continuous rolls of textured bookcloth were cranked out. The complexity of the process is astounding, with at least five specialized types of machinery used, including three bowel padding mangles, backstarching mangles, friction calendaring machines, sentering machines, brush dampening machines, and embossing calendars. One wonders if any of this machinery is still extant. And if anyone could figure out how to operate it.

More recently, Andrea Krupp’s Bookcloth in England and America, 1823-1850 compared various bibliographic systems that describe these cloths, and includes an incredibly useful appendix with actual size photographs of many cloth patterns. And of course, we have the artifactual evidence on the books themselves to guide us.

A book bound in my dot pattern book cloth among a few 19th century books.

So we know some things about how early bookcloth was invented, was originally made, and has evolved. Since there are no commercially available bookcloths that remotely resemble these early cloths, how can bookbinders and conservators make something similar on a small scale?

I’ve been interested in bookcloth for a while. I described replicating an earlier, untextured muslin using XSL dyes a couple of years ago. I’ve taught a number of classes on nineteenth century binding and done more cloth rebacks than I care to remember.

But the only source of published information about texturing book cloth I’ve found comes from Bill Minter in 1999. He briefly gives an overview of his methods in the Book and Paper Group Annual, Vol. 18. He begins with an unbleached muslin, to which he laminates an acrylic dyed Japanese tissue and sizes with methylcellulose. He creates texture by using wire screens as dies. This was in the context of creating a sympathetic new spine for a reback.

Another approach, by Vernon Wiering, uses dyes, starch paste and texturing plates to achieve a very realistic looking cloth, which he uses for his period and facsimile bindings.

Tim Ely, my first bookbinding teacher, has also experimented with texturing cloth using his etching press to create texture, and has an interesting conception of this as decorating the skin off the book, before attaching it.


An English style case binding covered in dot pattern cloth.

My own goals for making the cloth were fairly straightforward. I wanted to make a cloth that looked and felt similar to nineteenth century textured cloth, in a size that would be useful for a majority of books, that was made of conservation grade materials, was durable, and could be blind and gold stamped. I also wanted to make a cloth that would be affordable. On this last point, I may have failed. Mea culpa.

After a couple of months of experimenting, I developed a product that basically meets my criteria.  The base is a scoured muslin, the coloring is conservation grade acrylics, and the sizing is methylcellulose and wheat starch paste. The die to texture it is made from stainless steel, and it is tissue backed to make gluing and handling easier. Each piece is 14 x 21 inches, big enough for two smaller books or one large one.

Detail of the dots.

The texture is pretty durable, though you have to use a light touch with your bone folder when turning-in, and be careful when casing-in. I lined my pressing boards with volara, aka. closed cell polyethylene foam to avoid smashing the dots.

To field test the durability, I recased a book I’m reading (Edmund Morris’s Edison, which I have mixed feelings about, btw) and treated it roughly by hauling it around in my backpack and for over a month. The cloth became a little abraded around the edges of the spine, on board edges, and on the dots, but overall survived quite well.

Tooling by precision dampening of the cloth and a heated roll.

The color is not completely even in the pieces I make, but varies slightly in order to blend in with the irregularities of a older cloths in historic collections. So far I’ve made muted browns, greens, and blues. The dot size and pattern is not an exact reproduction of anything historic, but meant to look sympathetic with a wide range of nineteenth century books. If you have an important nineteenth century book or need to make a box in a historical sympathetic cloth, this cloth will be perfect.

Gold foil stamping.

Dot Texture Nineteenth Century Style Bookcloth. The unbleached muslin is scoured and the pH adjusted to around 7. The cloth is dyed with conservation grade acrylics, and coated with wheat starch paste and methylcellulose. The embossing is done with a stainless steel die. The resulting cloth takes gold stamping and tooling well, and the cloth is dyed throughout the thickness so you can clean up a bit by scraping without exposing white fibers. The colors are all sympathetic with an aged nineteenth century pallet, primarily muted browns and greens. If you would like a particular color, I can let you know what I have. 14 x 22 inches. Purchase cloth here.

LIMITED TIME OFFER: I have some free small samples of the cloth, just contact me with your mailing address. Domestic US only. First come first serve.

What do the Sizes of Linen Thread Actually Mean? It’s Complicated.

Some common sizes of linen thread for bookbinding, ranging from 18/6 to 80/3.

Bookbinders likely know that linen thread is classified by a two number system, such as 35/3. And most know that the second number represents the number of threads plied together, and the first number how thick or thin the thread is.  But what does the first number actually refer to?

It turns out that two different systems, an English system and a Metric system that use a similar two part description of size separated by a forward slash. However, these two systems are not the same. Most thread sold by bookbinding supply companies uses the English System.

The English system (aka. Number English, Lea, NeL, Linen Count) is based on how many skeins (of 300 yards) make up one pound in weight. I *think* this means that twelve  12/1 skeins would weigh one pound, or thirty-five 35/1 skeins would weigh one pound. I’m still not sure how adding the plied threads results in the classification. Would a 35/3 thread weigh 3 pounds?

The Metric system (Nm, aka. the Japanese Gunze Count) is based on how many meters of thread weigh one gram.  So I think for a 60/1 thread, 60 meters weighs one gram. It is the same as the English system in that overall, thicker and stronger threads have lower numbers.

Other thread systems include:

Tex — How many grams 1,000 meters of a thread weighs. In this case, the larger the number, the thicker the thread.

Denier — How many grams 9,000 meters of a various thread weights. Again, the larger the number, the thicker the thread. This is useful for very thin threads and microfibers.

Grist — Yards per pound.  For example, a 20/1 linen is 3,000 yards long per pound. Different fibers have different weights.

I’m still not sure what system the Londonderry Linen Lacing Thread in the image above uses. It is labeled only a mysterious “#4”. I love sewing with this thread, though, since it is thick, soft, easy to untwist, tangle free without waxing, and remarkably compressible. It is possible to sew a book naturally packed with it. It consists of five plies, and is roughly equivalent to a 20/5.

If you are wondering what size thread you should use to sew a book, check out my Guide to Swell.

Finally, Colophon Book Arts is a reasonably priced, one stop shop to purchase a wide variety of sewing threads.

Wait, there are more systems  … AARGH!



Cor Knops, of Knops Boekrestauratie in the Netherlands,  kindly sent me these images of some antique thread he owns.


Great name!

These packages contain hanks of thread, and all weight about a pound.  I think the package on the left is 25/3, and on the right 12/3. So if my calculations are correct, the 12/3 should contain 1200 yards of thread, assuming a 12/1 would contain 12 – 300 yard skeins = 3600 yards.  Enough thread for a lot of books in any case!