How to Pare Leather: Knives, Machines, Techniques, Tips, and an Exhortation

At first glance, leather paring seems quite straightforward. You take a sharp knife, move it along the leather in a series of cuts, and gradually reduce the thickness. What’s so difficult about this? If you are using a spokeshave, just push it over leather to gradually reduce the thickness. Done. A razor blade paring machine? You don’t have even have to know how to sharpen the blade, just pop in a new one, and simply pull the leather through. Yet, like many craft activities, what is simple conceptually can take some time — often a frustratingly long time — for your hands to learn what your head knows.

There are three common methods of paring leather: a paring knife, a modified spokeshave, and a double edge razor blade paring machine. Most binders use a combination of these depending on the task. All have advantages and disadvantages. All have a learning curve. All are useful arrows in a bookbinder’s quiver.

CONTENTS

I. AN OVERVIEW OF LEATHER PARING KNIVES, TOOLS, AND MACHINES

II. HOW TO EDGE PARE WITH AN ENGLISH STYLE KNIFE

III. DETAILS OF ENGLISH KNIFE TECHNIQUE

IV. SURFACES FOR PARING

V. AN EXHORTATION

Edge paring with an A2 English style knife showing tip paring.

I. AN OVERVIEW OF LEATHER PARING KNIVES, TOOLS, AND MACHINES. WITH CONSIDERATIONS OF THEIR ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES

Many bookbinders, when getting into leather binding, are surprised by the wide variety of leather paring knives and machines. In bookbinding terminology there are four basic styles of knives and they are named for the nations that generally use them: English, French, German and Swiss. Other leather crafts use different terminologies for similarly shaped knifes, and leather workers often refer to “paring” as “skiving”.

In addition to paring knives, many binders use paring tools and machines. Most commonly a modified 151 style spokeshave, a double edge razor blade paring machine, or more rarely a razor blade plane. If you have a lot of work, skins can be sent out to be split, often by an a band saw type machine. A few also thin leather by sanding or grinding. Below are my observations on the advantages and disadvantages of all of these.

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A. ENGLISH STYLE KNIVES

In North America, most binders use an English Style knife for edge paring, often oriented around 45 degrees to its length, followed by a spokeshave for making a long, gradual bevels. This type of beveling is used for English style fine bindings and rebacking. The knife making firm G. Barnsley made the most common knives used by English bookbinders in the 20th century.

ADVANAGES

DISADVANTAGES

  • Can only be used for edge paring
  • You will need a different style knife, a spokeshave, or a razor blade paring machine to thin larger areas

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B. FRENCH OR SWISS STYLE KNIVES

French style knives are very popular with fine binders, many of whom were French trained. Both French and Swiss style knives have a round cutting edge, and the Swiss knife is usually a piece of steel without a handle One defining stylistic feature is a center mounted wood handle, however. The handle on the French knives has always puzzled me, since you tend to hold it more on the blade and rest your palm on the handle. The handle protrudes onto the leather, limiting the angle the knife can be held. To get lower paring angle, I was the first to introduce the top mounted wood handle.

ADVANTAGES

  • One knife can do it all, though some binders use this in conjunction with an English style knife
  • Can be used with a scraping motion for thinning anywhere in a skin, useful for headcap or spine areas
  • Round blades seem to stay sharp longer, since there is at least some area that is still sharp enough to get a “bite” into the leather

DISADVANTAGES

  • Much more difficult to resharpen
  • More difficult to learn to use
  • More difficult to control
  • Scraping with a knife is more dangerous than spokeshaving or using a razor blade paring machine

german-knife
Joseph Zaehnsdorf. The Art of Bookbinding. 2nd. ed. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1890), 91.

C. GERMAN STYLE KNIVES

I’ve only used these a couple of times, so don’t really have an opinion. I did have a German trained student who used it expertly.  The one I have is slightly flexible. In  Zaehnsdorf’s 1890 The Art of Bookbinding, the German paring knife looks like a regular chef’s knife. Even the modern versions have a wedge shaped taper, so that the back is fairly thick and the opposite edge is sharp. Did the modern German style knife morph from a regular chef’s knife?

spokeshave

A modified 151 spokeshave with shaving collector thinning leather.

D. MODIFIED 151 SPOKESHAVE

A modified 151 style spokeshave is a powerful and effective tool for making long, gradual bevels in leather; ideal for rebacking or an English style full leather binding. It can also be used to bevel binders board. It is a lot of fun to use. These were originally intended for woodworkers, and I think binders started to modify these for leather starting in the 1920’s. Here is some of my research, and a tentative type study of 151 style spokeshaves.

ADVANTAGES

  • Much faster than a French knife for reducing leather thickness over a large area
  • Less chance of tearing through leather, especially with a shaving collector
  • A must for calf, which tears or gets marked in a razor blade paring machine
  • Can also be used to bevel board creating much less dust than sanding

DISADVANTAGES

  • Difficult to modify a regular 151 style spokeshave
  • There is a bit of a learning curve to learn to use them
  • The leather must be clamped to the stone or glass, or the leather can be traditionally held with your stomach
  • Cumbersome to use with leather smaller than 6 inches or so in one direction, to allow for room for clamps and motion of the spokeshave
A spokeshave can also be used to bevel binders board.

E. RAZOR BLADE PARING MACHINES: SCHARFFIX, KNOCK OFF SCHARFFIX, BROCKMAN, AND THE FELSTED SKIVER

Razor blade paring machines, including the Scharffix, Brockman and the new “Felsted Skiver” all use a very similar arrangement: a double edge razor blade suspended above an anvil or roller. These are very useful for thinning small or large areas flat. Razor blade machines excel at paring leather very thin. Common bookbinding applications include millimeter bindings, spines and corners for half bindings, and most commonly leather labels. A spokeshave is sometimes used to clean up ridges created from overlapping cuts on larger pieces.

My favorite paring machine is the original style Brockman, which is not available new anymore.  One advantage of his design is a curved bed for for the razor blade, which gives it significant rigidity and positions it to cut into the the leather straight on, rather than at an angle. Older hand held double edge razor blade handles also bend the blade like this. Brockman told me he made the first 100 of them himself, which are painted blue, and the later black ones were manufactured for him. A third green cast version was briefly produced in the 2000s (?), which looked very nice, but I haven’t tried it.

There are rigidity problems with many Scharffix machines, so make sure to test them out before purchase. There are also extremely cheap knock-off versions of the Scharffix machines for around $50 or less on you know where. I bought one, thinking how bad could it be? After wasting three days trying unsuccessfully to get it to function I had my answer.

The Felsted Skiver is the newest machine. Malcolm Raggett designed and is selling these. He has tested a variety of commercially available double edge razor blades, which is very useful research, and confirmed the Feather as one of the best blades. I tried one for a short period of time and it worked quite well, much like an old Brockman.

ADVANTAGES

  • Short learning curve
  • The best for paring very thin, flat areas of leather, like labels or half-leather bindings

DISADVANTAGES

  • Difficult to create bevels (at least for me)
  • Almost impossible to use on vegetable tanned calfskin
  • Blades wear out quickly and need to be replaced
  • Some of the machines can be tempermental
  • Changing the blade can alter the cutting depth
The Felsted Skiver in action.

F. RAZOR BLADE PLANES

I wrote a brief history of them, then added some tips on their use, and later recorded my failed attempt to make a better version.  I ended up tearing a lot of leather, and went back to using a 151 modified spokeshave and razor blade paring machine. One quality skin can be more expensive as any of these tools.

G. INDUSTRIAL SPLITTING

This used to be common for french design binders, who even indicated what thickness the leather should be at various areas, through use of a template.  I’ve heard these specialists are disappearing, though. We do have leather manufactures who will split a skin (or more likely a dozen) down to a certain thickness. This is an excellent option if you are an edition binder. If the skin is thick enough you can get both sides back. The machine that does this is like a toothless horozontal bandsaw. I’ve used Hohenforst Splitting Company and they did an excellent job on a difficult leather; undyed and unfinished calfskin.

H. SANDING OR GRINDING

I wouldn’t recommend either of these methods unless there are extraordinary circumstances. Not only do these methods produce a lot of hazardous dust, they are very slow and, at least in my experience, grinding is very uncontrollable. I have done this if the leather is exceptionally weak, or need to level chatter that has resulted from an improperly tuned spokeshave. In this case choose a very coarse sandpaper, around 80 US grit. Sanding an entire piece of leather for rebacking or covering is very tedious.

II. HOW TO EDGE PARE WITH AN ENGLISH STYLE KNIFE

“One of the most admired skills in bookbinding is the paring of leather, yet only sharp tools and confidence are required.  Confidence is gained by experience, and sharp tools by a zealous consideration and care for knives.” Arthur Johnson, The Thames and Hudson Manuel of Bookbinding, p. 89

• As Johnson reminds us, make sure your knife is sharp. Strop it evenly on both sides to make absolutely sure. Then strop it again!

• Board your leather. This breaks down stiffness and reduces hard areas in the leather that can catch your knife, and cause it to veer unexpectedly. Boarding means folding your leather onto itself on your paring surface — flesh side to flesh side — and roll it over itself with your palms in four directions: top to bottom, side to side, corner to corner, and the other corner to corner.

• Place the blade angle of the knife at roughly 45 degrees to the edge you are paring. See the image below for the difference between blade and bevel angles.

• Cut into the leather place the tip of the knife so it is just shy of the paring surface. It should cut at an angle through the leather, coming in from the edge about a quarter of an inch.

• Place the length of the knife at low angle, relative to the paring surface. You may need to place your hand off the edge of the paring surface to achieve this.

• Use the fingers holding the knife as a jig to hold this angle

• Use your left hand to push the knife across the leather, taking off one long continuous strip. If you knife holding hand is strong, and your blade sharp, you will eventually be able to do this without the aid of your left hand.

• When the strip is made, go back the beginning and repeat the process form the beginning, but hold the knife at a lower angle, taking off 

• The most you can edge pare with an English knife is about an inch into the thickness of the skin. If you need a more gradual bevel on the leather, use a round knife with a scraping action, an M2 hybrid knife, or a modified 151 spokeshave.

III. DETAILS OF ENGLISH KNIFE TECHNIQUE

To flesh out the above, it is critical to pay attention to the blade angle of the knife, since it affects how the knife cuts, and the angle one holds the knife at, and consequently how the leather is cut. I’ve found that roughly a 40-50 degree angle works best for tip edge paring. First, a few terms defined.  The blade angle is from an imaginary line 90 degrees to the length of the blade.  I am calling a zero degree angle one that would be straight across where the dotted line is, pictured below would be roughly a 45 degree blade angle.  The bevel angle is the amount of slope on the bevel, in the case of leather paring knives usually around 13 degrees.  The diagram below is the style of knife a right handed binder would normally use. (1)

I’ve found there are two main issues that determine the optimal angle of the blade;  how much the blade is skewed in use and how the knife is held.  The way I hold and use an English paring style knife is outlined below, as are the reasons why I consider a 40-50 degree blade angle ideal.  

Skewing the blade in use reduces the effective cutting angle, improving the initial cutting performance and not altering edge retention.  Although the more acute the bevel angle in effect creates a sharper the blade, if it is too severe the cutting edge will be very fragile and quickly deteriorate. It is also difficult to sharpen, since the thin tip deflects. I haven’t figured out the math, but if the bevel angle is 13 degrees, I estimate an extreme skew reduces the effective cutting angle by half?

DIFFERENT WAYS OF USING AN ENGLISH PARING KNIFE

Although I outlined the a basic method of using an English knife above, I actually hold it in three ways when I am edge paring: first to make a series of cuts using moderate skew, then a few finishing cuts using extreme skew, and finally use the knife with no skew. This final way performs like a spokeshave and smooths everything out. It doesn’t seem to make too much difference if you pare across the skin, as pictured above, or push the knife away from you, which is the traditional heel paring.

THE FIRST CUT

To make a long, even bevel the angle of the knife held steady by my thumb and second finger on the other side of the the knife– they slide along the surface of the paring surface. In order to pare the leather evenly, the knife must be held at a consistent angle. (2) The angle the knife is held varies with the type of leather and skill of the binder- too high of an angle takes off virtually no leather, makes it more likely to slice through the flesh side of the skin and dulls the knife tip by digging into the paring surface.  Too low an angle makes the knife difficult to control, since most of the cutting edge is engaged into the leather.  Wide knives with long bevels exaggerate this problem.  Right handed beginning parers may want to use the forefinger of left hand to push the knife along the leather.  This allows one to concentrate on using the right hand to hold the knife at a consistent angle, as illustrated below.

After a first cut is made, a second (and possibly third or fourth, depending on how long of a bevel is desired) is made by holding the knife at progressively  lower angles.  The depth of the cut can be judged by changes in the color of the leather or folding the leather in half, which doubles any errors.    If the leather is disturbed to check the progress, it is imperative that any stray bits be cleaned from under the skin, otherwise the knife will cut through these thicker layers.

THE SECOND CUT

As the leather becomes thinner, it becomes weaker, so I adopt the second knife position.  I skew the knife towards a more extreme angle and press down harder, which creates a lower effective bevel angle. This helps prevent tearing the leather.  It is much easier to take the leather off in long even strips with the first cuts, rather than try to correct mistakes later on.  If there are many irregularities, sometimes it is easier to use a spokeshave to even things out. Note the fingers on my right hand used as a jig, to hold the knife at a consistent angle relative to the surface of the leather.

 

THE THIRD CUT

After the edge is pared to the length and thinness desired, I rotate the knife into the third position, so that it is not skewed, and push it forward to even the previous cuts out.  This is almost more of a scraping action than a paring cut, and is meant to smooth out irregularities left from the previous cuts, not remove a lot of skin. The angle of the camera in the illustration seems to exaggerate angle that the knife is being held- in reality it is almost parallel to the skin. Again, a spokeshave could do this as well. The cutting edge of this knife is one inch, which is slightly larger than most turnins. Most of the time 7/8″ is a reasonable turn in width–compromising between giving a little extra room in case the leather is torn, and conserving leather.  One unintentional consequence of the acidic nature of some leathers is that they rapidly stain the pastedown, making it possible to observe in detail the pattern of trimming and size of turnins.  I admire the judgement (and frugality!) of some binders, capable of covering the book so economically that only a millimeter of two of leather extends under the pastedown in various places.

OTHER  BLADE ANGLES

A roughly 45 degree angle seems to be the most comfortable in all three of the ways I hold the knife.  I have a set of knives that I use when teaching which consist of 22.5, 45, and 67.5 degrees, in order to compare what is most comfortable for each individual, and most opt for a roughly 45 degree angle. Another consideration is the angle of the wrist when using the knife– I’ve found around 40-50 to be most comfortable.  Keeping the angle of your wrist comfortable is important if you do a lot of production work, to avoid carpel tunnel syndrome.  Any numbness or tingling sensation is possibly a very serious problem, and medical attention should be sought.  Choosing a good quality knife, keeping it well stropped and sharp will also reduce the force needed to pare leather, reducing strain on the hand and wrist.  Finally, a 45 degree blade angle is much easier to sharpen than a 67.5 degree angle for two reasons– it is easier to get even pressure across the entire width of the bevel (especially the tip), and there is less metal to remove, so the sharpening is more rapid.  Paring leather is not difficult, as Johnson pointed out, it just takes some practice with a sharp knife, and an awareness of the blade angle.

***

NOTES

1. As a left handed binder pointed out to me, simply changing the direction of paring allows a right hander to use a left handed knife, or vice versa.  Below I am comfortably using a left handed knife, holding the leather at the top and paring towards myself.  

2.  Some find it more comfortable to hold a knife with a handle.  In this case, it is sometimes necessary to hold the handle area of the knife off the paring surface in order to achieve a low angle.  This illustration also demonstrates side to side paring.

 

 

IV. SURFACES FOR PARING

I really don’t think it makes much difference, as long as it is smooth and reasonably hard enough. Keeping it clean and free of debris is probably more important than what material it is made from.  Any small stray bit of leather can get trapped under the piece you are paring, and the additional thickness cause you to create a hole in your skin. Litho stones, glass, glazed porcelain tiles, 12 x 12 pieces of marble are all used successfully by binders I know. If you are cutting into your paring surface and damaging you knife, the problem is your technique, not the softness or hardness of the surface you are paring on.

I photograph many of my knives on litho stones, but not for functional paring considerations; rather it looks traditional, the stones are non-reflective, and also roughly 18% grey. In other words, perfect for photography. 18th century paring surfaces seem to generally be marble, I suspect the only reason litho stones became popular was that they were a cheap plentiful source of a flat surface in the late 19th. Save the litho stones for the printers or bookbinding photography.

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Charles Tomas Jacobi The Printers’ Handbook of Trade Recipes, Hints & Suggestions  (London: Chiswick Press, 1891), 265.

V. AN EXHORTATION

Most introductory bookbinding manuals contain a section on leather paring. This can help learning different ways of holding the knife, and understanding the basic concept of gradual thinning. Videos (and there are lots of them) can also help; when it is well done it looks so easy! More information is better than less information. But really, boils down to getting a feel for it, or “embodied procedural knowledge” if you want to use a fancy term.

Finding someone to give you some feedback on your technique in a class or workshop can really speed up the learning curve, save a lot of time, and reduce wasted leather. Chances are if you are really struggling, something is wrong that can be fixed.  Often it is your knife is not sharp enough. Sometimes just moving the knife a few degrees this way or that way can be the difference between success or failure.

But the best way to get better at paring is the most obvious: practice, practice, practice. So quit reading and make some shavings!

 

NOTE: the above is a compilation of revised blog posts I’ve written over the past dozen years concerning leather paring. 

Towards a Type Study of Stanley 151 Spokeshaves

BOOKBINDERS AND SPOKESHAVES

“Spoke shave, (spok) n: a cutting or planning tool consisting of a blade with a handle at either end, usually in line with the blade, and a narrow sole in front of, and sometimes also behind, the cutting edge; used for shaping, trimming, and /or smoothing a variety of materials, usually wood or leather” (Lamond 1997, II)

Judging from Lamond’s definition, he considers the use of a spokeshave to thin or trim leather second only to its use on wood. For those trained in an English tradition, it is a common, useful tool for gradual beveling of leather, especially around the turnins and caps.  While a Scharfix or Brockman type paring machine is useful, you would have to do a lot of sanding if you want a long, gradual bevel found on English fine bindings, and for reducing thickness in the spine area.  It is invaluable for conservation, because one can selectively pare areas to the precise thickness desired.  It can also be used for the beveling of boards by skewing the blade to almost parallel to the board edge, which lowers the effective cutting angle. In a pinch you could shape wooden boards with it.

Although cobblers have been using specialized shoe shaves and heel shaves since the mid 19th C., it was only in the beginning of the 20th that shaves were used by bookbinders. Earlier binders either purchased leather of the required thickness, sent it back to a leatherseller to thin it for them, or in the second half of the 19th C. would use a French Knife.  Although today we tend to think of a French knife as having a gently curved cutting edge somewhat perpendicular to the length of the blade, and Salamon notes “This has a broad blade c. 2.5 in. wide, bevel sharpened across the end like a chisel, either straight or at an angle.”  (Salamon 1986, 57)  Dudin illustrates a similar knife shown below.  (Dudin 1997, 115)  These engravings are detailed and carefully observed- note the leather wrapped around the handle for comfort.

Defining features of a French knife seem to be a rather broad blade and a half tang wood handle mounted in the center of the blade; the shape of the  cutting edge seems superfluous.

Middleton mentions that spokeshaves became common about 40 years age (written in 1962), which would put it in the 1920’s. (Middleton 1963, 298) This is pure speculation, but perhaps the combination of WWI and the depression forced some leather tanners and curriers out of business and binders were forced to do the thinning themselves? Some French trained binders still send their skins for paring.   Perhaps the bookbinding leather market became too small?  I have often heard that WWI killed many trade bookbinders. Or was it the relatively new Stanley 151 spokeshave, with its precise blade adjustment, that simplified and speeded up the paring of relatively thin bookbinding leathers.

Zaehnsdorf in 1903, and Cockerell in 1902 don’t mention the use of a spokeshave. Pledger, in  1924 mentions the Fortuna Skiving Machine or using a knife, but no spokeshave. (Pledger 1924, 209) Mathews is the earliest bookbinding manuel that references the spokeshave for paring leather that I have found. He notes that for paring leather,

“…a steel spokeshave should be used. Some prefer what is termed a French Knife, but this is a somewhat laborious method, and the spokeshave is quicker, and, what is more important, it does the job much more evenly, and is therefore better. The blade of the spokeshave must be kept very sharp and finely set—that is to say, it should not project too far.” (Mathews 1929, 111)

Noting that a “steel” spokeshave should be used highlights how common wood bodied shaves must have been at the time of writing. Once a spokeshave is properly configured for leather work, the only difficulty some have is setting the blade at the right height, which is also commented on. Mathews advice is almost the same that James Brockman gave me in a workshop on leather covering.    He  taught me to hold the spokeshave upside down with the blade recessed at eye level, and advance it slowly until it was barely visible dark line. He noted that a properly set blade has a peticular, high pitched whispering sound when in use.  Using a spokeshave is very similar to using a wood plane- the tool should already be in motion before you start to make a cut.

As I started to collect older spokeshaves, I was surprised to learn that no one had conducted a type study of 151 style spokeshaves. Type studies are useful in dating, determining chronology and rarity of manufactured tools. A standard 151 sells used for between $15-45, but a 151R sells between $250-500, for example.  (Waltner N.D., 214) Studying the spread of tools, and their influence on the quality, speed and style of work performed gives us valuable clues to industrial and craft history.

According to Lamond, 151’s were manufactured in the US from 1911-1978, although production continued in England until around 1996.  (Lamond 1997, 206) No patents were ever issued for the 151, 151M  or 151R, though some early examples are marked “PAT. APPL. FOR”. (Lamond 1997, 205)  He notes that the 151 design is very similar to the Murray Adjustable Spokeshave, patented 1901, since they share a double screw to adjust the blade depth and angle (Lamond 1997, 207) The current veritas spokeshave is suprisingly similar to the Murray, in that the blade is notched on the edges to accept the adjustment knobs.

The adjustment screws allows the user to raise or lower the blade without having to take it out of the shave and remove the cap. In 1911, a dozen 151’s sold for $6.00. (Lamond 1997, 209) At that time there were 23 different Stanley styles of spokeshaves available for specific functions—by the 1980’s only the 151 and 151R were being made in England. (Lamond 1997, 206)

Since the blades are easily interchanged, and wear out, it is dangerous to assign too much meaning in dating them, but sometimes it was the only clue I had, and sometimes wear patterns, dirt, and damage convinced me that they had been together for a long time.  This is the type of information that many tool collectors like to remove in an attempt to “restore” their tools to a pristine, unused condition.  Even an improperly sharpened blade, or a old blade with a factory grind contains many clues to how it was used (or not used), and I argue should be preserved.  Many tool collectors gleefully love (read bordering on obsessional) to clean and polish their finds.  Eventually the market, I predict, will give them pause. I have seen it happen in books and furniture, and those who have rechromed, milled and buffed and otherwise “Prettified” their tools will end up destroying monetary value along with historic evidence.

GENERAL DATING

Early 20th C.

Shaves tend to have a partial chamfer around the top of the keyholes. Large pockets behind the blade. Overall build quality is higher, threads fit tighter,  the blade caps usually fit very precisely. No “Made in ….”  Information under the handles. With or without thumb rests.  Smooth casting.

Mid 20th C., Postwar?

“Made in USA” or “Made in ENG” cast into body under handles. Small pockets behind the blade.  Often “649” cast into underside of blade cap. Slightly rougher casting surface.

Late 20th C.

Red or Orange painted blade caps.  “Made in …” left off most recent models, except on the blade, which indicates the bodies are now being made overseas, perhaps India or China.

There are huge gaps in our knowledge about the history of tools—which surprises me given the number of 151 style spokeshaves produced in this century.  I have no clue how many.  Any and all corrections, additions, conjecture, images of different types of 151’s are welcome, I intend to keep incorporating new information on this page.  Please leave a comment or email me if you have information. If you have more than a passing interest in spokeshaves, Lamond’s highly illustrated, encyclopedic “Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves” is a must.  And believe it or not, it is a good read as well.

NOTE: Most of these spokeshaves are virtually identical if viewed from the front, therefore I have provided pictures of the back, plus details, which illustrate casting variations.

CREDIT:  Thanks to Tom Lamond and Tom Conroy for alerting me to errors.

A TENTATIVE TYPE STUDY

THE STANLEY 51

This was the Stanley spokeshave looked like in 1911.  There are no adjustment knobs, and its overally size is smaller than a 151. They were sold at about half the price of a 151, were introduced to the market earlier, between 1850-1870 and were made in the USA until 1974. (Lamond 1997, 206)  The pockets are marked with “640” and the blade cap is marked “649”, which corresponds to Lamond’s type “G”. (Lamond 1997, 388)

THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 1, 1911-?

This model lacks thumb rests, unlike all later 151’s. The Model number is cast in the middle of the back and reads, “No 151” in raised letters against a recessed rectangular background.  The deep pockets behind the blades seem an indication of age- later models have small pockets.  The sweetheart logo on this blade dates between 1923-1936.  Perhaps this model, without thumbrests, seemed too similar to the 51, to justify twice the price?

THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 2, 1913-1919 (?)

This has thumbrests, is painted blue (the only one I have seen so painted) The black of blade cap is marked “x1 / 10” which is similar to Lamond’s “K” type blade cap. (Lamond 1997, 388) The logo on the blade dates between 1913-1919.  This is also the last type to have what I call “large pockets” behind the blade, pictured on the bottom of this image.

THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 3

As above but the back of the left handle is marked in raised small san serif “MADE IN USA”

THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 4

Back of the left handle is marked in a larger san serif “MADE IN U.S.A.” With periods between the “U.S.A.”   Back of the blade in numbered “649”  There are many extant examples of this type, or persisted for a long time. Three of the shaves I examined had blades with the “Sweetheart” logo, but, again the blades are often switched for various reasons. This version of the “SW” logo was used 1923-1936.

I’m unclear if this 151M fits in here.  There was no “Made in xxx” marking on the underside of the handles, but the blade had a “SW” logo and “649” cast into the bottom. Black.

I’ve also seen photos of what I think is a type 4, marked “MADE IN ENG” on the left, and marked “2CX” on the right, and the blade cap marked “X1/13”. Black.  Again, I’m not sure if it fits in here.

THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 5

The first with a orange or red blade cap.  The “No 151” is cast into the body without the rectangular boarder. Most seem to be marked “MADE IN ENG”. This one was purchased at TALAS in the late 1980’s.  Lamond notes no 151’s were made in USA after 1978. (Lamond 1997, 206) This image also illustrates how I like the bottom shaped for leather work.


THE STANLEY 151, TYPE 6

I bought this from Buck and Ryan, March 2008 in London.   No casting marks on the body, but at least the blade is marked “Made in England.”  I suspect the body was made in India or China.

RECORD A151

These Red ones are made of Malleable Iron, and were common in the 1970’s? Record identified them as “RECORD No. A151” stamped on the outside of the blade cap.  Overall, the Records have slightly thinner handles, and the mouth tends to be quite large.  According to the book Planecraft: Hand Planing by Modern Methods, “Record Cast iron spokeshaves are designated with O to preface the number whilst unbreakable spokeshaves are prefaced with A; thus Record spokeshave 0151 is a cast iron tool, painted blue, whilst Record Spokeshave A151 is unbreakable, and painted a bright red.”  This book also has an illustration, which I assume is from the original 1934 edition, in which the sides of the blade cap are stamped “Record” on the left side, and “A151” on the right with the letters raised.  At least four places in this text the Malleable Iron spokeshave is strongly recommended, and since it was not that much more expensive than the normal one, I wonder why both were kept in production. (Hampton, 1982, 194)  The current Record A151 spokeshaves are painted blue, however, like the one below.

I bought this one from Buck and Ryan, March 2008, in London.  I purchased a similar one in a hardware strore in Mexico City in January, 2008 that was marked “ENGLAND”  Now they read “IRWIN” where the “ENGLAND” once was. Like the new Stanley’s, the blade is marked “Made in England”.  Both of these have a nicely chamfered blade cap screw that is diamond knurled, thicker and more comfortable than any Stanley.

AMT

AMT (American Machine and Tool Co.) made copies of a number of planesand spokeshaves out of cast brass, made in Taiwan, portions of the black painted brass ground away.  The casting is completely different that the other 151’s.   I like the heft of these and find it attractive, but for unknown reasons it has never worked very well, perhaps because of the brass?

India 151 Clone

These were sold by Tools for Working Wood from around 2004-7.  I also used to modify and sell them, but they got so sloppy in the manufacturing that I would have to buy at least 2 spokeshaves, piece them together to get one useable one.  There are no marks on the body or the blade.

DRAPER

draper ft.

draper inside

I recently photographed this 151 clone labeled “Draper”.  The crude casting on the body look to be of Chinese or Indian origin, but the adjustment nuts are very nicely machined and knurled– better than the current Stanley or Record.  Any other information would be appreciated.

STANLEY 152

The 152 was made from 1911-1942, according to Lamond, (p. 206)  Except for the handles, which are flatter, this seems identical to the 151 Type 3 or 4, with “649” cast into the unpainted blade cap and small pockets. This model would be very difficult to modify or use on leather, since you would have no finger clearance.

STANLEY 53 ADJUSTABLE MOUTH SPOKESHAVE

53

53-mouth

53-mouth2

I’m throwing these photos of a Stanley 53 in because Eric Burdett has a picture of it in his introduction (pp. 26-27) and mentions starting out with the mouth small and opening it slightly until it starts to cut.  I haven’t heard about any other bookbinders using a number 53.  The blade on this particular shave had a slight camber, which as I was resharpening it discovered that the bevel was at a slightly higher angle on the edges, so that it was originally formed by slightly lifting the blade as a higher angle on the sides.  It works fairly well, the adjustable mouth does control the depth of the cut much easier than raising or lowering the blade, but its angle would be impossible to lower, so it does chatter somewhat.

HOW TO MODIFY A 151 SPOKESHAVE FOR USE BY BOOKBINDERS: WEB BASED INFORMATION

Many have differing ideas on what is necessary.  For many years I used an unmodified Record, and would have to tediously sand large areas where the blade would “chatter”, leave a series of ridges.  I find eight modifications need to be made to make the spokeshave an easy to use, precision tool.  The effective cutting angle is reduced, the adjustment knobs are trued, the surface area of the sole is reduced to lessen leather stretching and the front edge is rounded, the sides of the sole are beveled,  the mouth is opened (or closed by shimming the blade bed) to about .040”, the blade bed is flattened and dampened with an epoxy/ paper laminate and the Hock A2 blade is sharpened and the corners slightly rounded.

I believe Middleton was the first to mention specific modifications to the spokeshave. “No varieties of this tool are specially made for bookbinders, so usually it is necessary to modify it by widening the gap between the blade and the guard to prevent clogging. It is a good thing, also, to grind part of the bottom of the tool to give it a shallower angle when in use, because a steep angle gives too much of a scraping action” (Middleton 1963, 236)

Johnson also mentions a couple of modifications: filing the mouth slightly bigger so that parings do not jam, giving the blade a longer bevel and curving it so that only the center does the cutting. (Johnson 1978, 89)  Mark Esser in his GBW article below also mentions rounding the blade. Burdett doesn’t use a 151, and I havn’t been able to identify what model it is, but it appears to have an adjustable mouth and is on the far left of the photograph.  (Burdett 1975, 27)

*** As of May, 2009 the new Records require much more extensive work shimming the mouth if you lower the cutting angle on the bed. It is much easier to start with a Stanley***

Information of how to modify a spokeshave for bookbinding is available at:

The first article, in “Skin Deep” from hewit.

Mark Esser published additional comments on in the GBW Newsletter No. 154.

Tom Conroy and I added additional comments in the GBW Newsletter No. 155.

Here is a large bibliography of resources on how to use and fine tune a spokeshave, although for wood.

Mario Rodriguez”s “The Spokeshave” Fine Woodworking, January/ February 1997. 69-73.

HOW TO USE A SPOKESHAVE

First, some wise words from Burdett: “The use of the spokeshave demands confidence born of experience–sometimes bitter” (Burdett 1975, 173)  A few general observations:

  1. The blade needs to be very sharp and only protrude a few thousands of an inch below the sole.
  2. Make sure the blade is level, and not cutting deeper on one side.  Your skin can rapidly be ruined if this is the case.
  3. The spokeshave needs to be in motion before it starts to cut the leather, sort of a swooping motion.
  4. Hold it lightly with your fingers and thumb– you don’t need to have a death grip completly around each handle.
  5. Keep the front edge of the spokeshave pressed flat on the leather.
  6. Ordinarily the spokeshave moves fairly quickly.  Once the leather gets very thin it is advisable to go slowly to avoid tearing. Press down a little harder on the front of the spokeshave, and lighter on the blade.
  7. If the blade starts to chatter, re-sharpen and make sure you have modified it correctly for leather.
  8. If the leather keeps puckering in the mouth, and gets cut through, the mouth is too big and the blade needs to be shimmed from behind.
  9. Be vigilant about cleaning bits of leather from under the leather–they can cause tears or an uneven thickness.
  10. Skewing the blade in use, and approaching the leather from differing angles helps get a clean cut and not just skate across the surface.
  11. Watching the color of the leather change is a good visual indication of the depth of the cut.  Folding the leather over on top of itself doubles any thickness discrepancies for quick identification of areas that need more work.
  12. Goatskin is the easiest to spokeshave.  Calf and Tawed skin are more difficult.

REFERENCES

1911 Stanley R. & L. Co. Catalogue No. 110.

Burdett, Eric. 1975. The Craft of Bookbinding. New York: Pitman Publishing Co.

Cockerell, Douglass. 1902. Bookbinding and the care of books… NY: D. Appleton and Co.

Dudin, M. 1977. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder. Leeds, England:The Elmente Press.

Hampton, C.W. and E. Clifford.  1982.  Planecraft: Hand Planning by Modern Methods. Woburn, Mass.: Woodcraft Supply Corp.

Johnson, Arthur. 1978. The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding.  London: Thames and Hudson.

Lamond, Thomas C.  1997. Manufactured and Patented Spokeshaves and Similar Tools: Identification of the Artifacts and Profiles of the Makers and Patentees. N.P.: Thomas C. Lamond.

Middleton, Bernard. 1963. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. NY and London: Hafner Publishing.

Matthews, William.  1929. Bookbinding: A Manual for those interested in the Craft of Bookbinding, London: Victor Gollancz.

Pleger, John J.  1924. Bookbinding. Revised Ed. of Bookbinding and Its Auxiliary Branches. Chicago: The Inland Printer Co.

Salamon, R.A.  1986. Dictionary of Leather-Working Tools c. 1700-1950.  Mendham, NJ:Astragal Press.

Waltner, John.  N.D. Antique and Collectable Stanley Tools; 2001 Pocket Price Guide.  N.P.: John Waltner.

Zaehnsdorf, J.W.  1903.  The Art of Bookbinding. A Practical Treatise. London: George Bell and Sons.

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