Sometimes a new tool comes along that causes a paradigm shift; the older ones are almost instantly obsolete. The Japanese screw punch is one such example. I can’t recall the last time I used or saw someone use another tool to make small holes in paper, vellum and leather. Yet the hole punch above, which a “J.J. THATCHER” thought enough of to mark his name on, works perfectly. Stylistically, we can see much more elaborate decoration than on the more modern Japanese screw punch. Functionally, it does not have the interchangeable bits or the automatic twist action that the Japanese screw punch has. This tool is extremely well made, comfortable to use, elegant, perhaps even a little decadent with the amount of hand finishing that went into it. Aren’t these the elements we want imbued in our hand-bound books? Can a tool help to do this? Can beautiful tools increase the users pleasure while working which then is reflected in the product?
Still Life With Bookbinding Tools
It seems somewhat incongruous to the nature of a tool to laud its aesthetics, since when we are using a tool it essentially disappears–it becomes embodied, an extension of our hand. Once we are proficient, we just use it, generally concentrating on what the tool is doing to the material being worked. It may even be a stretch to apply the usual notions of beauty and attraction when thinking about tools– you might pick up a pretty hammer when faced with a choice, but if you need to drive a nail, picking the right size hammer is paramount. When tools are waiting to be used, they are generally stored or arranged according to functional considerations, not displayed, except for some collections. But tools do have aesthetic qualities, ranging from a modern sleek functionality to a worn, well used patina of wear patterns and scratches–what I call their use value, their record of being in the world and being used. These marks and accretions are evidence from their time used unconsciously, which is perhaps why we find them beautiful. They are natural, real and becoming more and more rare in our disposable society.
Other non-book related photos are up on a different blog, shot with my new Olympus E-P2, which is a great tool, btw.
A Knife From The Hood
At first, I thought the above knife was a German style paring knife, but now I’m not so sure. German knives are almost always somewhat flexiable, and this one is very rigid. Notice the small recess on the handle, near the blade, perhaps worn by fingers gripping the handle over the decades. Even a light surface cleaning could destroy not only important use evidence, but the overall beauty of the knife. As I have said before, the over-cleaning and “restoration” of hand tools is perhaps the most significant ongoing loss of cultural property that commonly occurs. The blade is full tang and has a gradual taper in thickness towards the cutting edge. Judging from the scratch patterns in the top picture, the owner must have had a stressful encounter with his grinding wheel! But I find these marks interesting evidence of the history of the tool, as well as a visually refreshing antidote to the ubiquitous monotony of the highly regulated machine grind marks found on new tools. The handle is an unidentified light colored wood that has been stained and is still firmly attached to the tang. The edges of the handle is still quite sharp, and the various ways I have tried to hold it all are somewhat uncomfortable.
Matt Murphy found some information about Fred J. Birck: “From 1903-04 he worked at 93 Essex St. In 1905-06, Fred. J. Birck is listed as being a part of Birck & Zamminer Cutlery, which is located at 154 Essex St. In 1908-1912, Birck is listed at two seperate addresses, 132 Essex St. and 17 Cooper Sq. East. In 1912-1913, the primary address is changed to 17 Cooper Sq. E. In 1913-1914, the partnership must have been dissolved, because only Birck is listed, and the only address is 17 Cooper Sq. E. until 1925. Also, Mr. Birck made his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, as his address is often listed as 144 Hutton St. (Which still stands to this day.)”
So the knife is possibly from 1913-25. Aside from the beautiful, insanely deep makers mark, I was attracted to the fact that another knife-maker worked in the East Village of NYC, only about 5 blocks from where my studio is now. There is even an old bar, McSorley’s, established in 1854, still operating right around the corner from Birck’s 17 Cooper Sq. address. Perhaps Birck had a drink there. I’ll raise a glass to him next time I’m there.
Don Rash posted a similar looking knife on his blog, unfortunately no makers mark. I looked through Salaman’s Dictionary of Leather-working Tools c. 1700-1950 and couldn’t find any similar knives, and Salaman covers some pretty obscure leather-working trades ( ie. gut string maker, hydraulic pump-leather maker) but tends contain more English rather than American references.
Below is the German knife from Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinding, 6th Ed. 1903. It almost looks like the knife is shaded more heavily on the top edge, to make clear the blade tapers toward the other edge?