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!

Henry Hebert’s Five Essential Book Conservation Tools

Henry Hebert

Conservator for Special Collections, Duke University Libraries

Preservation Underground Blog


1. A decent laptop with an internet connection: Thinking about the tools I use every day, this one is at the top of the list, because there is so much work that goes into a successful conservation treatment before you even touch the object. There is the research: about the object, about the materials you will use, or about different treatment methods you could potentially employ (and maybe haven’t even done before). There is the communication: with your conservator colleagues, asking for their experiences working on similar objects, with curators to get more information about past and potential use by researchers or students, or sometimes even with the creator of the object. There is the documentation: the written condition report, the treatment proposal, and the lists of treatment procedures and materials you ended up using. In a pinch, you can even use the camera on the device to take photos before, during, and after your treatment.

Henry’s handmade elk bone folder.

2. A bone folder: If I could only have access to one folder, I would probably choose bone over Teflon for rigidity and quality of the edge. Out of the drawer of folders that I have, the one I gravitate toward most is a piece of elk bone which I shaped 10 or so years ago. It’s a little over 8″ long and mimics the shape of a butterknife. One end has a sharper edge that works well for scoring, while the other is wide and flat for compressing sections or consolidating a board corner.

The olfa silver snap blade knife.

3. Olfa 9mm stainless steel slide-lock knife: I probably use this knife the most, because I end up making so many enclosures and the snap-off blades allow for a quick refresh. You can also fully extend the blade to cut through thick ethafoam planks for custom supports. There are so many little design details on this Olfa that I love. The removable endcap serves as both a pocket clip and blade snapping tool. The blade case even includes a small compartment to store old blade fragments. (I get to bring a pack of blades, too… right?)

Customized  #2 Casselli microspatula.

4. Modified #2 Casselli microspatula: The 6 1/8″ Casselli micro-spatula is great for lifting. Two modifications have really improved the working properties of this tool for me: shaping the ends and making the center handle thicker. I’ve added a single bevel to the rounded end to make it more like a blade. The unmodified octagonal handle is fine for quick work, but really becomes tiresome on the pads of my index finger and thumb after lengthy use. I have wrapped the center of mine with Elastack (by Sutton Scientifics) to increase the circumference of the handle and make it more comfortable to hold.

Muji mechanical pencil.

5. Muji “Low Center Gravity” 0.5mm mechanical pencil: I often use a mechanical pencil to make small measurement marks on material that I am cutting or folding. Sometimes it is necessary to number loose pages to keep them in order during treatment, and a mechanical pencil with thin graphite is the best tool for the job. I’ve found this $9 mechanical pencil, with a weighted and knurled aluminum tip, is one of the most comfortable to use and great quality for the price.

There are a number of other tools which I very reluctantly pushed off the list, including: Staedtler Mars white vinyl erasers (because you always have to dry clean first, right?), spring dividers, a Starrett pin vise with insulated octagonal handle, and (of course) a straight edge of some kind would come in handy. I really like my 12″ rigid Starrett rule with both metric and imperial graduation, but I often find myself wishing it were longer.

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