Elissa O’Loughlin’s Five Essential Tools for Paper Conservation

Elissa’s five essential tools for paper conservation. Center: Noribake paste brush. Left: Caselli #11 microspatula and bone folder. Bottom: 000 sable brush and a string wrapped Japanese chop carving knife.

Elissa O’Loughlin

Paper Conservator and Wren Haven Tools

Most paper conservators identify with all things Japanese. This is because we use so many Japanese-made materials and methods in our work. If there was a universal symbol for paper conservators, it would be the noribake or paste brush. This traditional tool is used in conservation for application of paste to linings and for making prepared repair tissues. It has goat hair bristles and is made of Japanese cedar, cherry bark, and cord. The care of these brushes is time consuming—long, careful washing and rinsing plus special drying technique—bristles hanging downwards! The brushes cost between $150 and $300. They are made by craftsmen in Kyoto and in Tokyo. Each city has its own style of handle. Kyoto has a rounded shoulder, but Tokyo’s is angled. Leave it to the Japanese to have different styles! I have had mine for 38 years.

The second tool is a very thin and narrow carbon steel microspatula. Made by Caselli, located in Milan. It is the number 11 Minarette – but don’t go looking for one because they are not made anymore. A colleague in Milan visited the shop only to discover that the one ancient venerable craftsman who was skilled enough to make them had retired. Their larger spatulas are still available and can be worked down to your requirements. Many sad instances of dropped Casellis have resulted in bends or breaks—Not to worry! The steel is wonderful and easily re-worked on a stone or slow rpm grinding wheel. Just don’t get the steel too hot! The picture shows several reworked versions.

Number three must be the bone folder I first got in 1983. It has no special characteristics except for the fact that I scratched the new year into it every year for ten years. Don’t know why I stopped! You probably can’t see the numbers in the picture, but rest assured the blue color was an unfortunate accident … poor old thing!

The fourth tool is a triple-zero Windsor and Newton Series 7 Kolinsky sable brush. No paper conservator can work without this trusty brush used for solubility testing. They are a miracle of craftsmanship!

The fifth tool is a Japanese chop-carving knife. This little knife is made from rectangular stock and is worked down to a puffy blunt-angled edge. It is used to thin paper and to delaminate Japanese papers for mending and filling losses and tears. The handle is wrapped in silk. They are hard to find any more.

I have always been particularly protective of my tools, but I won’t hesitate to put one into your hands for you to learn by. This surprises many students – but how else can the tool and its potentials be felt? Luckily, as a conservator, the students I’ve taught are overwhelmingly respectful and careful.

Woe be to the abuser of tools!

Japanese Burnishers, Part Two

Part One of my investigation into Japanese Burnishers concluded by mentioning the next step would be to make a larger version with a Delrin sole.

After testing this new iteration for a couple of weeks, I find the larger size much more useful for the way I work, perfect for high pressure/ low friction applications. Paper conservators may find the smaller, more precise tool desirable. Both sizes have a plum wood handle which is attractive and has a silky smooth feel. They are easy to make in five steps.

The sequence of making a Japanese style burnisher.

The basic premise is simple: all you have to do is remove everything that is not the final shape of your burnisher.

  1. Rough out the wood with a bandsaw, a turning saw, or coping saw using the template below, or one of your own choosing. Fruitwood is ideal for this, at least 5/4 thick.
  2. Refine the basic shape using a carving axe.
  3. Smooth the axe work with a spokeshave and define the inner curve with a half-round rasp.
  4. Sand everything smooth and add a Delrin (or material of your choice) sole. Screw into place.  Tips on shaping Delrin.
  5. Finally, apply a coat of your favorite wood finish. I like Watco Danish oil finish for this purpose, which in this case darkens the plum wood beautifully.
The template shape I like to begin with. Make it comfortable for your own hand!

I keep finding more uses for this tool, most recently while laminating museum board to make wooden board thickness boards for a rebinding. It is also great for smoothing linings on the inner trays of drop spine boxes, or other operations where a lot of pressure is necessary. The heel of the sold is rounded in order to apply extreme pressure. The raised handle makes it easy to pick up, and it looks quite attractive sitting on my work surface. Even a client has commented on it.

 

 

Eat Craft

Soba kiri, or soba-giri bocho, a Soba cutting knife. 

There are many noodle restaurants near me in the East Village of Manhattan. What is different about Sobakoh is that the noodles are cut by hand. And you can watch them being cut by a master soba maker, Hiromitsu Takahashi.  Japanese food + handcraft = I’m there.

Sobakoh has been making hand cut soba, from organically grown sobakoh (buckwheat flour), since the mid 2000’s. Nozaki’s book on Japanese kitchen knives mentions soba was originaly a kind of fast food in Japan, beginning about 300 years ago. [1] Hand cut soba is called Teuchi-Soba to differentiate it from the machine cut variety.

A special purpose knife is used to cut the soba: a Soka Kiri. Takahashi’s knife, above, is a beautiful example. Note the straightforward contour of the scales as they transition to the blade and graceful curves on the blade. If you look at the two spots of light reflection towards the left of the blade, you can see the secondary bevel where it is sharpened.  The knife is not over finished, or excessively polished in one area or another, but is well integrated, especially with the functional, lightly varnished (?) handle. [2]  I’m becoming more and more a fan of wood handles with little or no finish on them: although they get a dirty, stained or develop a patina quickly, the feel of the uncoated wood provides unparalleled tactile feedback and comfort. Any surface coating changes this, to a degree.  Obviously, different woods feel quite different,  from silky smooth swiss pear wood to a almost rough feeling burl. The handle on this knife knife is similar to a bearded axe; an old form, supposedly dating from the 6th century. This handle position allows a high degree of control of this hefty knife which weighs about two pounds and has a blade length of about 12 inches, since the placement is directly behind the blade. The weight of the knife does most of the work: the soba master places it and slides it downward in a diagonal. Slicing in a diagonal, like a guillotine, lowers the effective cutting angle of the blade, giving a cleaner cut. A clean cut preserves more of the food’s visual integrity and umami.

But as I was inexpertly slurping my soba, occasionally with the noodles slapping up onto my glasses, I wondered if these hand cut soba noodles tasted better because they were hand cut, or if it were due to other factors:  the broth, the fresh buckwheat, the slightly irregular size, the knife used, the cutting board,  etc….  Or is it because I naturally value the work of the hand more than that of a machine.  Was I subscribing to a cultish adulation of  handwork?  What I respect in David Pye’s work is his refusal fetishize handwork. [3]  Pye has a craftsman’s take on the philosophy of handwork that lead him to emphasize the rational, aesthetic and practical advantages over machine production. But Pye also has a great respect for well designed machine craft.  Soetsu Yanagi, who is Pye’s more romantic Japanese craft/philosopher counterpart, has a more dichotomous view, linking machine work – science – the head, in opposition to hand work – religion – the heart. “Moreover, the nature of machine work is such that its products are standardized and thus monotonous and cold, ill-fitted to serve as man’s companions in his daily life.” [4]  Some of the heart, in this case, is reflected in the small variation of noodle width and thickness. Yanagi has an entire chapter on the beauty of irregularity.

Sobakoh – Soba Master

So to return to my question; why does handout soba taste ‘better’ than machine cut, other factors aside? I think it does, although I haven’t done a rigorous, side by side blind taste test.  Is it only the subtle irregularities in size of the noodles (sabi?) that identify them as handmade, and therefore are perceived as better than a machine made noodle?  These variations in size are extremely small. If you watch the video of Takahashi cutting the soba, he works in a highly methodical, almost machinelike manner, moving the wood cutting guide (komaita) a small amount with each precise cut.  His foot positions steady his entire body and notice the way he holds the knife: it is not his arm the guides it downward, but his shoulder and upper torso.  Even his surroundings emphasize his machine like nature. He enclosed in his small soba room, like a motor encased in a machine, on display.  He is the first thing you see from the street as you walk into the restaurant, so you know these noodles are handmade.

Or could it actually be that this physical action of his hand, done with a careful movement by a skilled master who has trained in the tradition of the soba craft, that somehow affects, almost inexplicably, their taste in a way that no machine can replicate? Is this the taste of craft?

…………………

[1] Nozaki, Hiromitsu. Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodanasha, 2009), 131.  There is also a nice closeup showing hand and body position while cutting soba on page 130.

[2] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Bethel, CT: Cambium Press, 1995), see Chapter 9.

[3] Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship,  23-29.

[4] Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1978), 107.

[5] Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, 108.

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