A Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife?

Actual medieval bookbinding tools are almost nonexistent. Apart from a few finishing tools, there really aren’t many documented, extant examples. That’s why a knife that John Nove brought to my attention is extraordinary. Could it really be a medieval bookbinder’s knife? A note associated with this knife claimed it might be.

Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife? Private collection. Photo: John Nove.

At first glance it looks similar to a typical “gift set” carving knife given to newlyweds in the 20th century. The tip looks to be slightly serrated, or perhaps just extremely pitted. The handle has the tonality of antler, but it is actually a carved, lightweight wood according to John. This strikes me as odd: historically, the handles of most knives tend to be a dense exotic woods, bone, horn, or antler. The blade is extremely rusted, while the handle is relatively intact. Is this a red flag?

The ferrule is very odd, one piece of metal hammered around the blade tang hole. Photo John Nove.

Is it a knife that maybe belonged to a bookbinder or bibliophile, hence the very cool handle decoration? Or is it an assemblage of some older and newer parts? Or something else?

The handle is what makes this knife so special. These intricately carved books are convincingly realistic. To me, the books look Gothic, and possibly Germanic, given the overall morphology. The sewing supports appear to be double cords or split tawed thongs, both appropriate to a Medieval book. The pronounced endbands, with the cores lying on the spine are also consistent with this. The clasps look like split thongs, possibly there is a pin attachment? The very rounded spine with pronounced supports extending onto the face of the board is typically Gothic. The carved representation of panels is also typical, though a little odd with the carved triangles, though this might be a limitation of the size of the original and the carver. After all, it only about an inch wide.

The curved, almost spiral grip in the center of the handle is similar to Medieval carved columns I have seen in the Cloisters at the MET. The traces of red (paint ?) on the page edges is somewhat unusual, yellow or a blue would be more common, if in fact it is a German binding represented. The overall length of the knife is 9 inches, with 5 inches for the blade. The blade is quite flexible, with the back measuring only .012 inch.

The elaborate handle seems out of place with a functional tool used by a craftsman, but there are many examples of very elaborate Medieval tools with zoomorphic designs carved into them. The ferrule is also strange with its scalloped collar. John Nove wondered if the blade might have been stuck into an older handle. Book-themed ornamentation on a knife like this might indicate a 19th c. page opening knife? The size is right for that as well.

If this is a medieval bookbinder’s knife in the German tradition, are there modern styles we can compare it to? And how would it have been used? I’d guess that all knives were originally undifferentiated for different trades. Knife-makers would make their knives for a variety of purposes. When did the specific needs for specific trades start? Even today, shoemakers and bookbinders, in the English tradition, use a the same Barnsley paring knife, older examples having an image of a shoe stamped on them.

Top: My Henckel 8 inch Chef’s knife. Bottom: Modern German style bookbinder’s leather paring knife.

I’ve noticed the similarities between German style chef’s and bookbinder’s knifes for a while. The primary one is the taper of the blade from the back to the cutting edge, parallel to the length of the knife. It doesn’t make sense functionally to make a paring knife like this, so German binders wrap the handle with leather, cord or thread to hold it more comfortably. The thin metal around the cutting edge is quick to resharpen, though. There are also the three cutlery rivets on the handles; these are technically called scales on a full tang knife.

Bauer and Franke, Handbuch der Buchbinderei, 1903. Thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference

The text mentions that the Offenbacher shape is good for weaker leathers, and the Parisian shape is good for thicker leathers. For the leather to be held in the hand position depicted with the Parisian knife, the leather would have to be very thick, almost more of a tanned cowhide, rather than a typical bookbinding calf, sheep, or goat.

Detail p. 91. Zaehnsdorf, Joseph. The Art of Bookbinding. 2nd. ed. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890. <https://archive.org/details/artofbookbinding00zaehrich&gt;

The paring knife in Zaehnsdorf’s manual has a similar shape to the medieval knife and moddern chef’s knifes, as do the ones in Peter’s 1928 Braunwarth & Luthke catalog, below. Most seem to have a taper towards the edge of the blade on the left, as indicated by the thicker black line indicating the back of the blade.

Braunwarth and Lüthke catalog from 1928. Collection: Peter Verheyen

To return to the central question. Is this knife a medieval bookbinder’s knife? Without having any scientific analysis of the materials (XRF? FCIR? Carbon dating on the handle?), or more information on province, and examining it in person, I can’t say for sure.

But I can say it is an intriguing object, worthy of further research, preservation, and hopefully clarification in the future.

Laotian Kitchen Knife and Vietnamese Vegetable Peeler

veg knife

In Laos, at a food market outside Vientiane, I purchased this kitchen knife. I saw many people using knives similar to this. There are many crude forging and grinding marks on it, gradually tapering to a decent cutting edge. Much like the  hacksaw paring knife I wrote about previously, this knife is pure function with little effort expended on decoration or polishing.  The steel itself is a very respectable HRC 55-60. One interesting feature is the complex curve on the back of the blade, possibly to add rigidity to the tip, since the blade is fairly thin, between .048-.051″. Many kitchen knives I saw were shaped like this. Or it might be give the blade additional life as it is reground, since the tip may get reground or used more?  The blade is partially morticed into the steel ferrule, which makes it feel quite solid. The blade angle is slightly offset from the center axis of the handle, an indication it is designed to be used freehand, not on a cutting block.  The handle was turned on a lathe, there are marks from a tailstock center on the bottom, and it was quickly smoothed with a rasp. This gives the unfinished wood handle (some kind of dense hardwood) a very pleasing feel and grip. I really like the feel of unfinished wood for tool handles, though they do get dirty quite quickly.



I purchased this vegetable peeler in Vietnam, and believe it or not, this 12″ long version was the smallest of five sizes offered.  The name of the company, or man who made it is named “Hue Tuong”. Vegetable peelers (as well as  mandolins, scabbard planes, spill planes, and a few others) interest me because they reverse the standard way planes or spokeshaves are used— what is usually the waste is actually the useful product. The steel is similar to the knife above, HRC 55-60, but it looks like it is made from rolled stock. This knife is also offset from the central axis, like the Laotian knife above. The knife is made of two pieces, I suspect both to make the manufacture and resharpening easier. A rivet holds the two pieces together at the top, and by simply removing the handle it can be opened 180 degrees and resharpened. Very clever. This knife is sharpened to a finer grit than the one above. I’m still working on my technique when using it.

Now that I have these knives, I really should try some of the fancy fruit and vegetable carving, like this beautiful watermelon.



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