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!

Heat Treated Tonkin Bamboo Hera Blanks for Sale

Tonkin Bamboo. Note the large areas of black power fibers. Compare this to the endgrain of a chopstick.

Hera are small Japanese tools useful for a variety of scraping, lifting, and delaminating tasks. They are common in paper conservation. Tonkin is a dense, flexible and strong type of bamboo that handmade fishing rods are made from. More about Tonkin.  Heat treating increases the elasticity of the bamboo.

Even so, hera with very thin and flexible tips can wear and can crack, so they need to be maintained by sanding, carving, reducing the width, or even shortening.  Once you have the skills to make a hera, they are easy to maintain. If you want to keep things simple, shape it with your Olfa knife, sand it with 220 grit, then finish it with 600 grit.  More tips on shaping bamboo.

These blanks are roughly 6 inches long, and 1/4 – 3/8 inch wide.  If you want to make two narrow hera, you could split a wider blank.  Just ask me for the widest one I have. Making your own tools to the exact size and shape you need is rewarding and satisfying.

Purchase heat treated Tonkin hera blanks here, only $10.00/ each!

Top, bottom, and side views of a typical blank.
A finished hera. This is not difficult to do, but takes a bit of time.

A Japanese Burnisher

This week I am guest blogging on the The Book and Paper Gathering, a site which delivers conservation information in a light-hearted, easy-to-digest manor.  A conservation magazine, rather than a peer reviewed journal. It is well worth spending some time reviewing their previous posts.

The Most Beautiful Tool in the World: A Japanese Burnisher

Exactly twice in my life I’ve seen a tool and immediately felt such a keen a desire to possess it that my secular observance of the eighth commandment was severely tested.

Drooling over Robert Minte’s collection of Japanese hera at the Bodelian Library in 2010 was the first time. They were so elegant, simple, beautiful — perfect tools, I thought. It was the longest flight of my life back to New York City, my fingers itching to make some for myself. Over time, I learned more about bamboo, shaping bamboo, and continue to keep making them today

The object of desire the second time was also a Japanese tool, though in this case a burnisher, and…  READ THE REST AT THE GATHERING