Tag Archives: tool use

Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?

Thinking About Making: You, Artifact and Tool


A work-in-progress diagram of the interactions that take place when performing a craft.

I’ve been thinking about using tools for a while now, starting in 2004 with a preliminary (and upon rereading inadequate) exploration in Vol. 1, No. 1 of The Bonefolder. Since then, the cultural literacy of tool use continues to decline. In fact, I often encounter people who think they can pick up any tool and it will work fine without any evaluation, prepping, sharpening, maintenance, etc.  If nothing else, thinking a bit more about tools before using them can lead to more successful craft outcomes.

This work-in-progress diagram summarizes some of my thinking. David Pye’s concepts of “workmanship of certainty” and “workmanship of risk” fit nicely into it; technique forms a continuum between you and the tool, not residing completely in one or the other. In paring leather, for example, using a schar-fix or Brockman paring machine involves relatively little technique from you, but resides mostly in the machine. Of course, you still have to know when to use it, and set it up and maintain it. Failure is often catastrophic, it usually works well or it doesn’t. This is the nature of the machine.

A middle ground between you and the tool might be the spokeshave.  Although a 151 spokeshave needs to be modified to work well, it is safer and quicker than using a French or Swiss knife to scrape the leather. It requires more skill to use than a paring machine, but accidents are usually small tears, or sometimes chatter, rarely catastrophic, can lead to uncomfortably small small pieces of leather.

The most risky way to pare leather overall is with a French or Swiss knife.  The locus of technique is almost entirely dependent on your skill.  It takes a steady hand and a lot of practice, but I have seen binders become suprisingly adept at it. Similar to the paring machine, failure can be catastrophic, like cutting a hole in the middle of the spine. All three of these methods of paring are not mutually exclusive, often they are all used by the same binder for various purposes at various times.

There is also room for conservation work in this diagram. Your intention on the artifact is much more limited due to ethical considerations about preserving existing information inherent in the artifact, there often has to be more creative thought put into material selection and tool use. If you are paring the leather on the original spine of a book that will be rebacked, there is little or no margin of error. A loss becomes a loss of information in the artifact. You can’t buy another one. Your tools have to work perfectly.

Materials also place limits on an original design. Often beginners want to experiment with something new, unique or unusual.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it is usually much more difficult than performing a craft activity in a more traditional manner. Unusual materials can require unusual tools.

One of the joys of craft is when the three elements in this diagram are so integrated that we think through the tool and into the artifact. It becomes embodied, a natural extension of our hands.  We often call this muscle memory, or getting a feel for something. Again to use a paring example, when you are competent, the leather pares down quite simply and easily without much conscious thought. When you first learn to pare leather, you need to conscious of how hard, soft, stretchy and thick the leather is, how sharp your knife is, the blade angle of the knife, the bevel angle of the knife, the angle you hold the knife at, where you start the cut, and the amount of leather you are cutting at one time.  This is a lot to keep track of.

I think many of us forget how much of an interplay there is between these three elements. It is important to remember that when things are not going right in any craft, it is not completely your fault, or the tool, or what you are making: it is usually an inter-relationship that can take some time to sort out. That’s one reason why we take classes to learn things.

To be continued….


Tools, Technique and Teachers

Can technique be embodied in a tool? Does the universal nature of hand tools enable a reasonably skilled practitioner to pick up and use an unfamiliar tool?  Is experience with tool use, or common sense, enough?  Or is it necessary to have external guide: a teacher, book or video?  How does the use of obsolete tools become rediscovered, like stone axes?  Can they ever be understood and used ‘correctly’ or in a historically accurate manner?

I investigate questions such as these in my research of 18th century French bookbinding, in part by making and using reproduction tools as pictured in Diderot’s Encyclopedié and Dudin’s L’Art du Relieur-doreur de Livres.  Since I am familiar with bookbinding tools, it is a matter of subtleties — very important subtleties! — but not massive unknowns.

I had a chance to think about these questions a bit more broadly when I purchased the tool pictured below at a flea market.

At the time I didn’t know what it was for, but it was cheap and appealingly well made.

At first I thought it might be a tool for cutting a groove in leather. The curved tine on the top is sharp (or should be) on both ends and is slightly adjustable in height.  This tool is strongly constructed; observe the thick bolster and tapered forged tang. Small details like the wedge shaped, chamfered scales make it comfortable to hold and indicate it was meant to be operated by a pulling motion. The length of the handle is about three inches, or nine centimeters, and I’m slightly embarrassed to use such a cliche, but it really does fit my hand perfectly. It is heavily used but completely functional — often the sign of a quality tool used by a professional.  Tools for the amateur market are more likely to be damaged by inexperienced users and poor quality construction.

Later, a bit of looking through Salaman’s Dictionary of Woodworking Tools revealed that this is timber scribe or log race, made to carve letters and numbers onto stakes, crates, barrels or other wooden objects. Surveyors used to use it to mark bearing trees.

After learning the name of this tool, and by extension its intended use, how to use it seemed obvious.  It can be used to carve straight lines just by using the cutting edge, and make curved ones by jabbing the point into the wood.   I had no real knowledge of this specific tool and hadn’t seen one being used. Is this a part of what a tool is — an object that contains information about its use?

There are nagging questions and doubts that the technique informed from the tool is not as elegant or efficient as possible. Tool use is only a part of the skill sets necessary for a craft. Maybe we do need teachers to demonstrate — or confirm our efforts — that we are using a tool the ‘right’ way. Craft skills are traditionally transmitted by close contact with skilled users, which seems to be one reason for the popularity of short term workshops, even though aspects of this contact can be captured in writing or video.

And as the tearout in the image below illustrates, we all need to be occasionally reminded  to sharpen our tools.

Finally, why the irresistible impulse to carve initials into wood?  Old school tagging?

Here are images of a timber scribe in use.