Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?

Wooden Spoons and the Price of Craft

I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.

Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.

I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.

Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?

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It only takes a few simple tools to start making wooden spoons. On the top, a small vintage (ca. 1970’s) Norlund hatchet with my handle, which split when mounting the head. Grrrr. Still, it works fine. Under it, on the left, a Mora knife, next to it a sweep knife made by Robin Wood, and a hook knife made by Pinewood Forge.

Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.

This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool.  I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?

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A wooden spoon I made out of Swiss pear wood.

I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.

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I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal.  The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.

There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business.  I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.

But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used?  many books get read?  When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.

Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”

Unchopping a Tree

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“Tree Down!”   Jeff Peachey, 2013.

“Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, … .” (the rest of the poem)

W. S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree” is a wonderfully meditative poem/essay that will resonate with anyone in craft, conservation, technology, or environmentalism. It articulates the hubris of humans when working with natural materials by emphasizing the complex and one-directional time-bound nature of growth and craft.

There is not a backspace key for craft. Only starting over, or more rarely, working around a mistake. A second of inattention can create hours or days of extra work when dealing with physical materials. Possibly even failure. Chopping is quick. Unchopping takes a long time.

We can all appreciate the section on the structural inappropriateness of trying to glue back the severed fibers of the tree, which will never function as the original. It is as futile as gluing a spinal cord nerve.

The poem ends by zeroing in on the insecurity at the heart of all art and craft. How can any human construct even begin to compare to Nature?