In my practice I create artist’s books and content-sensitive altered book works. I rarely use the sewn codex as a format, so I did not include an awl —I have three lovely ones in different sizes made for me by my partner David— or a needle. My two most used tools in any project are a home-made scoring/scribing tool and an Olfa snap-off-blade knife. I also use a scalpel when cutting, especially curves. The eighteen inch steel rule is absolutely essential. The surgical forceps would not have made my list under normal circumstances, but I discovered that they were the only tool I own that would enable me to assemble my most recent artist’s book.
The tools I would miss most:
Bone folders (four at this point)
Glue brushes (though I have been known to use my fingers)
Swivel knife and Circle Tool
Set of graduated width steel rules
Tom Conroy asked me an intriguing question. What are the five most essential bookbinding tools? And why?
I asked a number of bookbinders and conservators to weigh in, and will roll out their answers, one a day, for the next week or so. It is a deceptively intriguing question, as well as being an engrossing distraction. And possibly contentious!
Spoiler alert, if you want to think about this a bit without prejudice, scroll down no further!
Bookbinder and Book Historian, Berkely, CA.
Bone folder, of course, first; and then I would say knife and straightedge. Spring dividers. Needle. Its a bit more complex than that, of course. My favorite folder is about six inches long, tapers gradually almost from the butt end, and is strongly curved (when “flat” on the bench the tip is raised by almost 5/8″), and is broadly useful for folding, rubbing down, casemaking, and covering; but it is a bit big for working headcaps, definitely too big or a lot of paper treatment and probing where I like a thin folder, and I avoid creasing with it since creasing wears tips so quickly; so actually, several folders are necessary. Well, the more the better, really. A knife and straightedge normally require a cutting board as well, and a knife requires sharpening equipment (disposable blades are never sharp enough) My preferred bench knife is a “small McKay” used by shoemakers and is perfect for use with a straightedge and for disbinding, generally useful, even for light paring, but it it is too short for slitting paper and too small for serious leather paring. Dividers: almost any will suffice, really bad ones are very rare (though I have seen them), and I can, with a strong grimace, imagine making do with just one pair. My preference, though, is 6″ Starrett “Fay” style, with the screw piercing almost-rectangular legs. Needles: now there’s a essay, good ones haven’t been made for at least half a century now, but some needle is indispensable. It’s hard to stop at five. My first thought, before I remembered needles, I had a paste brush on the list (at least 1-1/8″ diameter, usable for hot glue in desperation, but never for PVA); but then I recalled Bernard Middleton pasting up leather for rebacking by grabbing a handful out of the pot and scrubbing it in with the flat of his hand….I think he did it to shock the young folks, that workshop was full of French-style design binders and newly-minted program conservators, and while Bernard was as gentle and quiet as any man I have ever seen, once in a very great while he would show a touch of teasing, immediately hidden away again. I’d find it hard to do without awls (four main kinds in constant use for binding, and others for leatherworking and woodworking). Long tweezers and needle-nosed pliers would be hard to do without. But, on balance: bone folder, straightedge, knife, dividers, needle.
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?
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?
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.
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!?”