Tom Conroy’s Five Essential Bookbinding Tools

Tom Conroy asked me an intriguing question.  What are the five most essential bookbinding tools? And why?

I asked a number of bookbinders and conservators to weigh in, and will roll out their answers, one a day, for the next week or so. It is a deceptively intriguing question, as well as being an engrossing distraction. And possibly contentious!

Spoiler alert, if you want to think about this a bit without prejudice, scroll down no further!

Tom Conroy with his pride and joy: a Bertrand Frères Percussion Press. Note the aluminum foil to protect forearms from getting greased.

Tom Conroy

Bookbinder and Book Historian, Berkely, CA.

Bone folder, of course, first; and then I would say knife and straightedge. Spring dividers. Needle. Its a bit more complex than that, of course. My favorite folder is about six inches long, tapers gradually almost from the butt end, and is strongly curved (when “flat” on the bench the tip is raised by almost 5/8″), and is broadly useful for folding, rubbing down, casemaking, and covering; but it is a bit big for working headcaps, definitely too big or a lot of paper treatment and probing where I like a thin folder, and I avoid creasing with it since creasing wears tips so quickly; so actually, several folders are necessary. Well, the more the better, really. A knife and straightedge normally require a cutting board as well, and a knife requires sharpening equipment (disposable blades are never sharp enough) My preferred bench knife is a “small McKay” used by shoemakers and is perfect for use with a straightedge and for disbinding, generally useful, even for light paring, but it it is too short for slitting paper and too small for serious leather paring. Dividers: almost any will suffice, really bad ones are very rare (though I have seen them), and I can, with a strong grimace, imagine making do with just one pair. My preference, though, is 6″ Starrett “Fay” style, with the screw piercing almost-rectangular legs. Needles: now there’s a essay, good ones haven’t been made for at least half a century now, but some needle is indispensable. It’s hard to stop at five. My first thought, before I remembered needles, I had a paste brush on the list (at least 1-1/8″ diameter, usable for hot glue in desperation, but never for PVA); but then I recalled Bernard Middleton pasting up leather for rebacking by grabbing a handful out of the pot and scrubbing it in with the flat of his hand….I think he did it to shock the young folks, that workshop was full of French-style design binders and newly-minted program conservators, and while Bernard was as gentle and quiet as any man I have ever seen, once in a very great while he would show a touch of teasing, immediately hidden away again. I’d find it hard to do without awls (four main kinds in constant use for binding, and others for leatherworking and woodworking). Long tweezers and needle-nosed pliers would be hard to do without. But, on balance: bone folder, straightedge, knife, dividers, needle.



Interpreting a Plough: Observations From the Bookbinding Tool Expert Tom Conroy

Jenny Hille, a book conservator who is perhaps best known as the co-author of the invaluable practical manual “Endbands From East to West and How to Work Them“, sent me some images of a plough she owns, and wondered what I could tell her about it.

I contacted Tom Conroy, a bookbinder in Berkeley and bookbinding tool expert who is perhaps best known for his essential article on how books function, “The Movement of the Book Spine”, and his groundbreaking reference book  “Bookbinders Finishing Tool Makers: 1780 – 1965“, for some assistance.

Tom kindly shared what he knew about this plough, and he wanted to remind readers of this blog that his writing here is informal, unedited, and taken from email correspondence. All the lovely photos are by Jenny Hille.

Ploughs were traditionally used for cutting the edges of books, and seem to have started when book boards shifted from wood to paperboard boards, and textblocks from parchment to paper in the 15th century. Ploughs were a mainstay of binderies until the second quarter of the 19th century, when they were replaced by guillotines for most trade work. Some fine binders today still use them, since the resulting  book edge is much smoother than a guillotine, and they are more portable.

Top view of a the plough.

Tom writes:

I’d say English or just possibly American, last third to quarter of the 19th Century. Not French, not German.

Blade and handle end cheek. Note the cut-outs on the top of the cheeks.

The cheeks are a slightly unemphasized version of what I call a “snail’s-horn” plough, the common English form in the late 19th century and first third of the 20th century. Cut-outs on the top edge, front edge, and back edge create little hornlike protrusions that remind my fancy of a snail’s horns. The Hickok variant of this, the commonest variant in America, has one cut-out at each rounded corner and a rounded-over corner, creating an s-shape. After WWI the plough was pretty much out of use in trade binderies in both England and America, with as far as I can tell just two makers surviving: W.O. Hickok in Harrisburg, PA for American style ploughs, and N.J. Hill/Hampson Bettridge in England. The half-sized ploughs made by Dryad for school arts-and-crafts binding classes were not worth professional attention. By 1960 Hampson Bettridge had shifted from the snail’s-horn profile to simple rounded-over corners. I have no precise dating criteria for the changes, because (metal process-engraved) blocks made for use by the 1870s were re-used in subsequent catalogue editions until the 1930s, and were loaned to publishers for use in manuals.

Profile of the handle and wrought iron wing nut on the end cheek. The wing nut shape is strangely reminiscent of a strong man pose. The checks in the wood do suggest some age.

As Jeff points out, the big wing nut is a diagnostic point; but to me it suggests English-not-American even more strongly than age. On Hickok ploughs the blade-holding mechanism and other metal parts tend to be machinists’ work, while on English they tend to be blacksmith’s work. Not a difference of function (in fact the English style is functionally better than the more highly regulated American form) but one of style of finish. However, by the end of the 19th century most of the Hampson Bettridge presses I have seen have cast brass wing nuts, not wrought iron, though of similar less formal workmanship; so the wrought iron wing nut suggests earlier to some extent, as well as English.

One other diagnostic point is the use of round-section rather than square-section guide bars between the cheeks. This detail points rather toward America, not England; all Hickok ploughs I have seen have dowels as guide bars, whereas all full-size English ploughs have has square-section guide bars (the half-size Dryad plough, one of the commonest and least useful at this point, has round-section metal guide bars; but this was made from the 1920s onward for the use of middle-school binding classes, the market Dryad’s whole operation was set up for, and is little more than a toy; as are the late-period English ploughs copied from Dryad after the 1970s). The mixing of discordant diagnostic indicators is common on ploughs, which are usually highly individual; so ascription of date and place are usually a matter of balance, except in the most clear-cut Hickok and Hampson-Bettridge examples. Even there – well, I have a Hickok plough with a “bolt knife” (i.e. non-adjustable, very wide and long to allow for wear), and I know someone with a post-WWII round-cornered Hampson Bettridge with a bolt knife, though in general the bolt knife was out of use in England by the 1870s, and never spread at all to America.

French ploughs generally use one runner on the press, and the plough has one cheek with a central groove along its base to engage with the runner. German ploughs tend to have circular blades, and run next to a single runner on the press. It is clear that your plough is neither.

Signature stamped on the top of the guide cheek.

The signatures on ploughs are normally on the end grain of the cheeks, like those of wooden binding presses and those of wooden woodworkers’ planes. With just a name it is possible that you have an owner’s name, not a maker’s name; but I have never seen a binder’s name stamp of this kind, though they were common among woodworkers. Reason: many planes were a woodworker’s personal tools, whereas ploughs were shop-owned tools in a bindery. Stamped-in touchmarks don’t last well on flatgrain wood, so where they are used professionally they are always on the endgrain (front and back surfaces of a plough). If a stamped-in mark occurred on the side grain I would assume it to be an owner’s mark without compelling evidence to the contrary.

If the plough were American I would rather expect the signature to include a city name: binding tool makers were rather localized in London, but were spread out over many cities in the U.S. If you live fairly close to a good research library and want to try a check of the London Post Office Directories for likely years. I can’t find them on line yet, but they may be available in the pay-for-it genealogical sites. The LPO Directories were published every year, but most American libraries have no more than half-a-dozen strung out along the century 1850-1950.

I did a bit of digging online and found what looks like a fullish set of Post Office directories put up by the University of Sheffield. The navigation of the site is a horror, but I managed the push my way to the volume of Classified Business Directory for 1884, and further to the page listing “BOOKBINDERS’ PRESS (AND PLOUGH KNIFE MAKERS” despite a mysterious disguise under a Sheffield directory:


Merriam wasn’t listed in the classified London list for 1884, but it is still possible that he was listed in the general alphabetical directory.

What needs to be done is to check the general alphabetic volumes year-by-year for Merriam, from about 1860 to World War I.  If I were doing it I would start with a check every five years, and if I found him I would work backward and forward from that date. The whole process would be quick and straightforward with a run of hardcopy, but I’ll confess that I’m not up to it with the bad indexing. Still, I may have saved you a step or two.




Embossed mark on the end grain of the handle cheek.

Fast response to first new batch of photos: The “PD” mark in the end grain looks like an owner’s mark to me. This form of mark with the letters rising from a depressed background and a border of small vees to the background (a “serrated embossed mark”) is the classic form for woodworkers’ planes. There is a chapter on marks in Goodman’s British Planemakers from 1700; I have the posthumous 3rd edition which has become very rare and pricey, but I believe there is a 4th edition now. On planes, the embossed mark with just initials was used for both makers’ and owners’ marks and is very common. Since you could buy one cheaply from pretty much any blacksmith, I would bet it is an owner’s mark on a binding tool. All the marks I can remember previously seeing on binding tools were “incuse” marks (letters sunk into the tool) and were rarely just initials. A maker’s mark is advertising, so it needs the full name and, often, place, which demands an engraver’s skills. An embossed mark can be made by anyone by taking a standard set of letter stamps and punching the end of an iron rod, then filing the border close to the initials and filing the little triangles into the edge with a triangular file. Since an owner’s mark won’t be used all that often you don’t even have to harden it if you want to save money.

Top view with blade disassembled. Note the square attachment on the blade holder bolt which also fits into the keyway on the handle. Also note the common compression in the wood from the washer on this attachment.

The blade and mechanism is a classic “bolt knife,” the earlier and universal form in the 18th century. The “sliding knife” or “scotch knife” appeared early in the 19th century, but took many decades to completely replace the bolt knife, since the bolt knife was significantly cheaper. Crane’s Bookbinding for Amateurs has an 1870s or 1880s discussion of the two forms. On balance the bolt knife points toward an English origin and an earlier date; though, as I think I mentioned, I have a late Hickok “amateur” (small size) plough that is probably middle 20th century (small screw size) and know someone with a Hampson Bettridge bolt knife plough that is certainly post-WWII.

Bottom view of knife attachment. Larger bolt heads, like the above square, are generally earlier.

Back to Jenny’s photos, I notice that the butt end of the knife is not nearly as wide as the cut-out for it in the cheek; this suggests to me that it is the second knife for this plough, the first one having been sharpened down to nothing. I have seen bolt knives with five inches and more of blade, and I believe I have seen then with two inches or less remaining.

Not much to say here. The use of the bolt knife bolt (or of the analogous bolt for a sliding knife) to do double duty to make the cheek “follow” the screw in and out is usual for English presses, and frequent if not quite as common for American ploughs; it is found, with some variants that seem to come from lack of understanding the mechanism, on some French ploughs. The large diameter of the bolt is typical blacksmith-made English; machinist-made Hickok ploughs are usually thinner and lighter-weight.

$ $ $

I don’t know what ploughs would be worth now, since they are so rare. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was following binding equipment on eBay, and at that time you could get a new, real, plough from Frank Wiesner for around $500, suggesting a used price around $250; but the few that appeared on eBay didn’t sell for anything like that, and the market didn’t seem to distinguish between crap amateur-made ploughs and good professional ploughs. So few people know how to use them, or want them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one with an asking price of $80 or $500 or more, I wouldn’t be surprised if one lingered unsold at either price, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one sold very rapidly at either price. I just don’t know. I have a small collection of ploughs, including good English, Hickok, and French ploughs, and two or three good ones I made; but I never paid more than $25 for one.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one from 2013 where Tom discusses another plough.

An Unusual Bookbinder’s Roll for Dictionary Tabs

Bookbinder’s Roll. J. Marks maker mark.
There are 12 letters on the roll. Note the “A” has been repaired or replaced.

A few years ago, I picked up this roll, and I am still not completely sure what it was for.  I’m pretty sure is for tooling cut out leather thumb tabs, which would then be glued to the book.

It contains the letter sequence “A – C – E – G – I – L – N – P – R – T – W – Y” The makers mark is “J. MARKS”.  Tom Conroy’s Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers places this English company between 1868 – 1901. He also mentions there are no marks known, so this will be an entry for the revised and enlarged edition. No marks for J. Marks! Tom would love it, since he also wrote a book of humorous bookbinding verse. If you enjoy reading this blog, you will love both of his books.

The letters were hand cut on the double yoked wheel, which must have taken incredible skill so that they ended up essentially even in height.  The “A” was repaired or replaced at some point, and soldered into place. All the letters are quite worn.

The dealer I purchased this from cleaned it up and polished it, more than I would have liked. Cleaning is irreversible!

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