Reflections on Five Essential Bookbinding Tools. Broken Chocolate and Shards of Glass: A Brief History of the Olfa Knife.

Over the past eighteen posts, a number of bookbinders and conservators responded to the question, “What are the five most essential bookbinding tools, and why?

The responses were interesting for a number of reasons: how the authors interpreted the question, their actual choices, and their reasoning. Some took a desert island approach, some took the “what would I grab if my studio was on fire” approach, some based their decision on frequency of use, some discussed intricacies of their handmade tools, and some recorded provenance of heirloom tools they were gifted.

I discovered new tools myself (especially thanks for the splinter forceps Jim and your beautiful curved needles Allessandro!) and was pleased that my A2 paring knife and delrin folder were frequently mentioned.

Two ancient tools, a bone folder and a needle, topped the most cited list. John C. Whittaker, in the book “Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools” speculates that Homo hablis likely used bone tools around 2 million years ago to make arrowheads and other stone tools. The needle dates to around 50,000 years ago.

The third most commonly mentioned tool is a relative baby. Yoshino Okada invented the Olfa snap-off blade knife in 1956. He lived through the occupation of Japan by the United States in WW2, and later remembered American GIs giving him chocolate bars which could be broken into pieces.  Working for a printing company, he grew tired of not having a sharp knife always at hand. Inspiration struck when he was looking at the sharp shards of a broken glass, the memory of the chocolate resurfaced, and the concept for a snap-off blade was born. At least according to official company lore.

The Olfa name has become generic for any snap-off blade. Like other brands that have become generic — Google, Popsicle, Xerox, Kleenex, Bubble Wrap, Dumpster — it is a sign of outsized influence and dominance in a market. Once a brand name reaches such market penetration, even if it is trademarked, it is no longer enforceable. Most bookbinders and conservators, myself included, use an Olfa daily.

An early Olfa knife. https://www.olfa.co.jp/en/birth_of_ofla_cutter/index.html

The image above is one of the earliest extant Olfa knives. The genius of the snap-off blade design is that the breaking score line does not extend into the blade bevel, so that when it breaks it naturally forms a sharp cutting tip. The Olfa Silver is a direct decedent of this early handle design. The blade lock was not yet invented, nor the blade breaking end piece. Yet it is a clever piece of bent sheet metal engineering.

The original Olfa design was not patented, hence the plethora knockoffs that persist to today. I’d guess the reason it wasn’t is the same reason a number of new inventions are never patented today: patents now are comparatively expensive, around $13,000. It is a huge leap of faith for a novice inventor secure one, and then have additional expense to deal with infringements. At that time, Okada had no idea if his knife would be a success or not.

Once the Olfa company was established, it patented a number of later inventions. The most well known of these is a rotary cutter still extensively used by fabric crafters.

An early 20th c. wallpaper cutter in my collection. Although the blade can roll, it is used locked in stationary position. Rotating it allows new cutting edges to be exposed.

Of course, everything has antecedents. I have a rotary wallpaper knife in my collection from the early 20th century, though I think it is used with the blade locked and not rolling. It is unmarked and not patented, beautifully made and the entire knife balances precisely on one finger. Rolling cigar cutters, pizza cutters, pie crimpers all have a similar morphology and predate the rolling Olfa.

The company was originally named “Olha”which in Japanese “Ol” means to break, and “Ha” means blade. There was some confusion in French, so the name was changed to Olfa. The yellow color scheme was introduced in 1967, and intended to reference both safety and the familiarity, with the yellow evoking the warmth of an egg yolk color. Even some of the knock-offs use a similar color.

A number of the Olfa style knives I use. Using a variety of handle shapes is much less tiring on your hands if you have a lot of cutting.

I’m a bit of an Olfa collector, and the newest handle, and one of the nicest IMHO, it the the PA-2, which stores and automatically loads five complete blades in the handle, which is more than enough for onsite work or an extended workshop. The thickness is just a bit more than the Model 300. It has a amazingly smooth action, and so far has resisted blade pull out even in thick and dense materials. The blade support at the tip is beefier than other models.

Limited edition all black PA-2. Purchased from Japan. Kireina!

Some object, not unreasonably, that using an Olfa is wasteful since the blade is not resharpened, but discarded. It that bothers you, genuine Olfa blade steel is good quality, and can be stropped back into shape once it starts to dull.

Pay attention to what you eat and break!

 

Timothy Ely’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Timothy C. Ely

Artist in private practice – makes books, prints, drawings and the occasional guitar. Instagram

I had enough warning that I could watch over the course of a few days exactly what was used often. These are tools I grab when I am traveling to teach and they find cross over into other areas. Jeff knows this was a challenge as I have many tools inherited, made and gathered over the years. Next challenge should be the most important twenty five.

First off, a custom weight made by Randall Hankins of Salt Lake City. I have many weights of Randy’s as well as heavy things found over the years like massive things to hold x-ray machines in place. After making do with essentially the wrong things for decades, Randy and I designed these sixteen inch long weights so that some of the endpapers varieties I make could be selectively weighted or just kept from moving. I have a pair and I could not now work without them. Being steel, magnets can be applied — here is one catching a needle.

I can put you in touch, [contact Tim here] All are custom made.

Cobblers knife from Buck and Ryan [sadly gone] London. Purchased in 1982. Cutting paper and used as a marking knife.

 

Margaret Smith [d.1982] her dividers, about 6 inches long. She was born while Victoria was still alive and bound books with a Victorian sensibility. Very gracious and knew everyone. Studies a bit with S. Cockerel and was full of stories. She made her stone burnisher from flint found at Brighton. I use this tool more than any. No idea how many dividers of all configurations and lengths that I have found.

 

Triangle for various squaring and metering jobs. This one allows the worker to dial up the amount of focus required for certain jobs.

 

My first bone folder. It is sharpened on the lower edge, about 3 inches so that I can fold and then cut folds without needing two tools. I have many bone folders, they are sort of talismans to the discipline and are nice. I have a giant folder made from free range mastodon by Jim Croft. This one is balanced for throwing.

Bill Minter’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Bill Minter

Inventor and Book Conservator, Penn State University Libraries.

 

Five Essential Tools for bookbinding is an intriguing question.

While thinking, I tried to imagine trying to bind a book on a deserted island, or at home during a pandemic. What tools are essential?

For a Simple/Basic Pamphlet:
Tool:   Needle — If paper were available, it can be folded without a bone folder, it can be wetted and torn, and then folded to a codex for sewing with thread, so the needle seems to be essential.

For a more elaborate book with some precise details:
Dividers (see note), straight edge, knife/cutter, and maybe a scribe (awl) or pointed bone folder?   No ruler, no scissors; no pencil, etc….

Note:  Initially, I thought dividers were needed, but then Karen Hanmer suggested a piece of paper for duplicating dimensions. Essentials!

PERHAPS the most important and essential tool (if we can call it a tool) is what we have learned. Someone shared their experience and their ideas that allows us to grow and expand beyond the basics. In essence, what we have learned is a tool that allows us to build beyond our inner talent. Someone inspired us to work beyond what we know, which allows us to experiment and grow ever more.

While we might have the very best tools, it is how we use our skill with those tools that is the ultimate and essential.