Tag Archives: tools

Whatsit #3

It has been almost a decade since my first two whatsit posts,  Whatsit #1 and #Whatsit #2. Number 2 was identified by Tom Conroy, #1 is still a bit of a mystery. For those unfamiliar with this colloquial American term, a “whatsit” is an unidentified object, short for “what is it”? The Mid-West Tool Collectors association often features a number of them in their quarterly publication, The Gristmill. You get a lot for your annual membership from them, including a reprint of a classic tool oriented book. The Early American Industries Association usually features a panel discussing a number of them in front of a live audience. Full bore geeky fun!

Recently a colleague has sent me images of a seriously odd, unidentified tool she found in her conservation lab.  She first thought it was some kind of cloth cutting tool, but it didn’t really work. This makes sense given the conically shaped brass end of it: a cloth cutter would have to have two steel blades. The shape of the handle indicates it is used by pushing forward, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

Here is a more detailed description of the business end. “The cone is not solid.  The brass sheet overlaps the wooden handle for about 1.25 in.  The cone is secured on the handle with two brass “pins” (visible in the photos, 1 pin on each side) onto the handle.  The blade-like part opens wider than is shown in the photo.  I can move it to a  90° angle with the cone.  When I open the blade fully and squint at the base of the blade, it looks as though the same pin(s) attaching the cone to the handle may also attach the blade to the handle.  Maybe it’s a single pin that runs all the way through.” She later mentioned the blade opens to almost 90 degrees.

The size of the brass end seems too large for bookbinding applications, my first guess is it is a type of gardening tool called a dibber or dibble.  Possibly the blade would aerate the soil or cut small roots??  It is odd how new the handle and brass cone looks when compared to the wear and discoloration on the blade.

But I’m not sure of any of this And why did it end up in an institutional book conservation lab? I’m stumped.

ADDED: Sept. 27, 2017. MYSTERY SOLVED!  John Nove, coment below, and in a personal email sent me the identification.  It is a  Humboldt Sharpener for Cork Borers.  Well done John! https://www.humboldtmfg.com/cork-borer-sharpener.html



The stamping reads ” MADE IN WEST GERMANY”

This is the other side. Even the blade pivot pin is made of brass, which suggests light duty use.

The Superrench

The Superrench. 4.75″ length. My collection.

In addition to an awesome name, the handle of this beautifully made drop forged open-end wrench tapers elegantly to match the size of the openings, from 7/16″ at one end to 3/8″ at the other. The overall length fits the width of a hand, without too much leverage. The raised lettering on the handle stands out against an easy to grip, unmodified surface. This contrasts nicely with the precision ground ends and deep die stamping containing the size and manufacturer’s name. This wrench is from the mid-1930’s, according to the history of the “Superrench”.  But why the quotes around the name?

Tools: Friend or Foe?

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 6.13.41 PM

Tools and Their Use. Related Training for HEP Electrical and Mechanical Apprentice. Department of Water Resources, ca. 1940-50. Source: http://www.water.ca.gov/apprenticetraining/position/Tools%20&%20Their%20Use.pdf







Cady Automatic Hand Micrometer




I would have to rank the Cady Automatic Hand Micrometer as one of the most beautiful and well made tools I own.  The E.J. Cady company is still in business, making this exact model which looks like it has not changed in design or construction since the 1950’s. It would not be out of place on the dashboard of a Bentley.

Like most people, I have a number of dial micrometers, or dial thickness gauges as they are sometimes called.  A deep throat Calati is perfect for measuring in the center of large sheets of paper. A super accurate Ames #2 (.0001″) with a 6oz. weight on top is great for obtaining standardized results with slightly compressible material, like leather. A portable, hand held Mitutoyo is small and lightweight, perfect for taking on the road.

Since I only use micrometers these a couple of times a year, the batteries in the digital ones always seemed to be dead. The digital versions are handy, though, if you use them a lot, or need to easily convert between English and Metric systems. The mechanically geared hand on the dial face has a definite nostalgic attraction for me, like the VU meters on a stereo amplifier.


Meet the Family. Left: Calati, Middle: Ames, Right: Mitutoyo


1967 Electric Scissors. With Headlight.




A 1967 Speed Snips electric Scissors.

When I first plugged it in, it only growled, but oiling the hinge and spring on the blades brought them snapping to life. They worked ok for cutting paper, I haven’t tried them cloth. Since the blades are so short, they need to be advanced somewhat slowly, so I’m not totally convinced they actually save that much time over a longer length “manual” scissors. But they do save some effort if accuracy is not paramount. It is surprisingly heavy.

Readers may also be interested in another electrified tool, a very rare West German electric bookbinders backing hammer, which I wrote about on 1 April 2011.


“…without Tools he is nothing, with Tools he is all”

tool using

Joseph W. Roe English and American Tool Builders New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916.

 This quote from Sartor Resartus gives me a great idea. Maybe I should buy more tools.

An Ugly Hunk

Image: Ref 1996.8.1

Any guesses what is pictured in the above image?

I’m really happy museums are collecting this kind of thing.

It is from the Maritime Heritage East, and it is a hunk of beeswax that sailors waxed their whipping cord with, much like traditional bookbinders do with sewing thread. Looking at this, I can see how someone pulled the thread through it, likely holding it in one hand between their thumb and forefinger and rotating it 90 degrees occasionally to prevent the thread from cutting through. In fact, the museum notes that Harold Scot, an orphan sailer, received this wax in 1933 when he was 16, and used it for the next 66 years. It is unusual to have this type of provenance concerning tools and craft materials.

So what? Why does this ugly hunk of beeswax matter? Because here we have a physical record of technique, seemingly frozen in time. We can interpret the technique from this object, and it is an interesting object because it is a material that acts like a tool. The thread is shaped the wax, somewhat like a potter’s rib shapes clay. It is difficult to know, from this isolated example, if this was a common technique or waxing thread, a local custom, or possibly novel.  It would be interesting to compare other examples of beeswax, possibly from other trades. Was this hand sized square of wax a common size?

We do know that using beeswax to prevent kinking and reducing abrasion of sewing thread was common in many trades, including bookbinding. Yet materials like this are not commonly passed on when a bindery is sold. The use of beeswax seems to be waning, because of concerns about acidity and the fact it is not really necessary if the needle is the right size, and the thread properly relaxed. In fact, the sewing thread of most early bindings I’ve examined does not seem to be waxed.

beeswax in holder

Image: <http://www.achildsdream.com/sewing-beeswax-in-holder/&gt;

A 20th century “innovation” in beeswax is the plastic holder pictured above, which is marketed to bookbinders and other sewing related crafts and even sold at Walmart. I suspect that one motive was to sell more tiny disks of beeswax, and the holder encourages waste because only part of the wax can be used. To be fair, the holder does keep the beeswax and the workers hands clean. But unless you are very careful, it is easy to abrade the thread on the sharp plastic edges, in contrast to the advertising claim that this device “strengthens” the thread. What does the holder, with its regulated placement of the thread imply about the marketing and deskilling technique in modern craft? Is the holder akin to training wheels?

Since the history of craft technique is generally unwritten, it is the responsibility of craft practitioners and conservators to interpret—or at least preserve and draw awareness—to these physical traces of past technique.