Category Archives: Tool Talk

With appreciation

Recently at the Center for the Book where I teach, the Studio Manager received a phone call from the family of a bookbinder who had passed on. Instead of selling her tools and materials, the family wanted to donate these precious items to a place where they would always be used and appreciated. As one of the Center’s many bookbinding instructors, I have a deep appreciation for this impulse. Any additional tools and materials available in the classroom save time for students, who are ever eager to dive into the next step in a project. It is a critical part of my job as an instructor to show students the correct use of these tools and equipment to ensure their longevity. This will also (I hope) widen the understanding of these tools so when the students see similar items out in the world, they will know how to properly use them.

As someone who has been involved in bookbinding for over 15 years now, I have seen the tools and materials of binderies change hands. Occasionally I have been the beneficiary, though more often not, but it’s always interesting to see what other binders save and what they use. There are always little home made or DIY jigs, guides, workarounds, and even whole pieces of equipment that people have fabricated to achieve the highly specialized goals we need to attain in our work. These are the unpaved footpaths of bookbinding. Often a secondhand piece of equipment is covered with notes or markings (usually on dried-out masking tape) based on the settings a repeat job has required. Sometimes I think I could write a whole separate blog on this topic alone.

For all these reasons, I have a strong need to be a good steward of the tools and equipment I use, and a need to use the highest quality materials I can find and afford. This principle affirms high quality work all around. But it also allows me to repay the debt of trust I owe to the people who have given, sold, or traded their items to me. Bookbinding is not possible, or at least not feasible, without highly specialized equipment that is generally no longer manufactured. With few exceptions, everything I use daily in my work is something handed down from the past.

One example is this wooden sewing frame. I did not look for one of these for my bindery for many years, not really needing one too much, or at least, not believing I did. But since I have had this one, I have found reasons to use it, and it has been amazing! When it first came into my possession, I immediately purchased 5 sewing keys for cord and 5 for tapes, to make sure it had the correct accessories. I know not everyone in bookbinding likes using sewing keys, but once I got used to them, I have never looked back.

wooden sewing frame

this bad boy

In the past, I have not often had a need for a sewing frame; sewing on external raised supports, or even sunk cords, is not something I do too often professionally, so I have never pursued finding one. Even when sewing multiples, I have often used a simple hobby-frame I acquired while in bookbinding school, and that’s worked well.

However, by hook or by crook, this beautiful old sewing frame seemed determined to find its way to me, and I must admit it has cracked the doubting facade of even this stubborn bookbinder. I found an excuse to give it a whirl, and while it has its challenges, it has a strong draw. I have to be careful in using it, and navigate around its highly charactered nature. But I wanted to share some pictures of it to give you an idea of how important it is (to me, anyway) to preserve and respect the tools of the past.

a little beausage on the bar

Just a little beausage to remind me I’m not the only one who really uses stuff! I’m not even this bad.

Another item is the giant press and plough which takes up the bulk of space in my tiny bindery. It was passed on to me from a bookbinder who had stopped practicing, but had learned from Bob Futernick in years past. Bob, a bookbinder and woodworker both, made the tub for the press. A press this large is highly susceptible to damage without a proper tub, and this tub is proper! When this came into my possession, I knew right away it needed a plough to go with it. As luck would have it, a student had emailed me some months prior to let me know she had one that she was looking to sell. At the time I thought in the back of my mind, “Good luck! That plough is humongous; you’re not likely to find someone with the right size press for it.” Well…

Wooden press and tub

This side gets the most use

Press, plough and tub

Press, plough and tub

Traditional joinery by Bob Futernick

Traditional joinery by Bob Futernick (a bookbinder!)

Another set of items for which I will be forever grateful is from fellow bookbinder Margaret Johnson. She has been a great friend and mentor to me. She sold many of her tools and equipment when she decided to stop binding at 92 years of age. Always concerned with the future of her favorite craft, she generously donated the proceeds from the sale to the Jane Aaron Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarships to Hand Bookbinders of California workshops. There were many odds and ends left over, and those she offered to me in exchange for wrapping up some of the bookbinding projects she couldn’t finish.

Bone folders and brushes are what it's all about

Bone folders and brushes are what it’s all about

I was honored to have this opportunity. It’s a rare thing when you get to do work for another bookbinder. I always do my best work of course, but it’s got to have more meaning when you know the recipient will recognize the things you did to make the work shine.

13 Clocks (before treatment)

13 Clocks (before treatment)

Margaret had peeled the decorated pastedown from the board

Margaret had peeled the decorated pastedown from the board

13 Clocks after treatment

13 Clocks after treatment

I was able to save and remount the original pastedowns that Margaret had peeled

I was able to save and remount the original pastedowns that Margaret had peeled

One small piece of news this month somewhat related to the topic of Appreciation: bookbinding supplier Colophon Book Arts has recently changed hands. This is a big piece of news to me, since I’ve been making a point of purchasing from this small, dyed-in-the-water (the former owner was a marbler) bookbinding supplier for years. I’ve been very happy with her choice of stock, and her way of doing business. I thank Nancy Morains for her many years of service to the bookbinding community, and wish her well! The new owner is also someone very active in the bookbinding community, and although the business is moving quite far away from me to Indiana, I look forward to continuing to order from Colophon. You can see some pictures of the move here on her Instagram.


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Filed under Around, About, and Through, Classes I've taught, Tool Talk

Cleaning rusty dividers

One of the things that keeps me interested in bookbinding is how it encompasses so many different fields. Before working in bookbinding for too long, I quickly realized I needed to learn a little about woodworking, metalworking, tool and die making, fabrics and textiles, graphic arts and typography, materials science, and so on. These days (at least, for the past century or so), if you want to do a good job at bookbinding, you need to be able to service your own tools. One frequent question/complaint I hear from my students is about dividers. What are they? Is this a dividers? How about this? Well… those may be listed as dividers, but they’re not exactly what you’re looking for. Using a dividers is, to me, one of the more important steps in one’s development as a hand bookbinder. A good set of dividers can make your work more accurate and efficient. It’s important to get the best tool you can afford, and certainly a decent pair of dividers is affordable; you just may have to do some hunting. I have a considerable amount of brand loyalty in this area, and Starrett is the only kind of dividers I like. Though they can be expensive to purchase brand new, it is relatively easy to find Starrett dividers at flea markets and on ebay. The down side is they will often have a considerable amount of rust.

Removing the rust is a quick and easy way to make your new find your own. All you need is a little citric acid, some metal polishing compound, and a light machine oil such as 3 in 1.

I have seen bookbinders perform experiments in removing rust with Coca-cola (which contains citric acid), but I don’t usually have that around. I do keep some citric acid (available in natural foods stores in the preserving/canning section) on hand for making jam, to balance the acidity of low-acid fruits in order to properly set the pectin. After doing a little web scouting on the topic I turned up this Wikipedia article on pickling metal which I found fascinating, and made me feel a little more confident in removing rust this way. One thing to note is that even though citric acid is safe to ingest, it is still an acid, and how strongly you mix it determines its safety to use. I used about 1 teaspoon for a 9×9″ square pan filled to about 2-3cm deep with tap water.

Visible rust starting to create pits in the metal; citric acid available at natural foods store

Before: visible rust starting to create pits in the metal; citric acid available at natural foods store

After only an hour, much of the rust has lifted off

After only an hour, much of the rust has lifted off

After soaking another hour in the citric acid, then wiping down with a metal polish, rubbing with a light machine oil, then drying off.

After soaking another hour in the citric acid, then polishing any pitted areas with a metal polishing compound such as jeweler’s rouge, rubbing with a light machine oil, and finally wiping dry.

It is a really satisfying feeling to clean up an old tool like this. Using a light acid bath instead of scratching away at the metal with a steel wool or brillo pad is much better, in my opinion: the acid removes the rust only, not the unaffected neighboring metal surfaces. The acid bath also removes rust easily from threaded parts of the tool and other hard to reach areas. Just be sure to dry the tool completely afterward and don’t hold back with the oil. Let the tool stand with the oil on it for at least a few hours at warm room temperature to let it seep in, then wipe it completely clean with a soft cloth. The dividers pictured above now works smoothly and is ready for adventure.


Filed under Tool Talk

New addition to Book Island

Most of you reading this blog know how much I love bookbinding equipment. One of the special things about this profession is all the extremely specialized tools and machinery we have at our disposal, when we can find it! And usually it seems to take care of itself, once you learn to use it properly. Acquiring a piece of old bookbinding equipment is like receiving a postcard from a simpler time– remove a little rust and a little tape goo, plug it in, and there you have it: a perfectly designed labor saver with steel and cast iron parts machined precisely to thousandths of an inch. Well, finally, it is my time to receive such a gift from the past. This very day with the help of my friends I un-shrinkwrapped a lovely, cherry-red Kensol. It is not (yet) as nice as some I’ve used, better than many others, but at last it is mine. Enjoy some pictures of the new baby and some other examples of titling I’ve done lately.

Bright red paint makes it heat up faster!

Bright red paint makes it heat up faster!


Setting brass type for heat stamping

First strike a little deep. so I make some height adjustments to the table

First strike a little deep. so I make some height adjustments to the table

Now we're starting to have some fun

Now we’re starting to have some fun

Dos-a-dos (back-to-back in two parts, but bound together) Student Portfolio

Dos-a-dos (back-to-back in two parts, but bound together) Student Portfolio. The only font available that seemed appropriate was too small and narrow for this large field, so I used large spacers between each letter to make the words take up more space. The result is a modern, minimal appearance that complemented the student’s content nicely.

These were done with two dies, one in English and the other in Russian. Scarcely 4 mm tall, they had to line up exactly with each other, yet they were upside down from each other.

These were done with two dies, one in English and the other in Russian. Scarcely 4 mm tall, they had to line up exactly with each other, yet they were upside down from each other.

Leather labels: one stamped with type, the other with decorative leaves (done by hand)

Leather labels: one stamped with type, the other with decorative leaves (done by hand)


Type was hand-set and stamped on a Kwikprint; all other decoration done with hand tools


Filed under Bookbinding techniques, My projects, Tool Talk

This is my job.

Yesterday and today, I have been working on a special project: making lifting knives for my Intro to Book RepairĀ  students. I have to make seven of them, which is twice as many knives as I have ever made at once, and seven times as many as I have ever made of one type. It takes a long time to make even one good knife by hand, so it’s a fair job for me. I began by visiting Noisebridge, a local hacker space which also happens to have a wood shop, to use their bench grinder to grind the high-carbon Sheffield steel blanks down to the right shape. A few of the young computer guys would come in and chat with me from time to time about what I was doing, and I got a lot of raised eyebrows. It turned out one of the guys who keeps up the wood shop is from Madison, so we got to talk about how much we miss a good cheese curd. Two other dudes came in to use the router in order to make a slit drum, and there was a lady making phoenix stencils and painting and sanding pieces of wood. Meanwhile, outside the wood shop, Noisebridge is having its weekly 10 minutes of fame event, where people share what they like to do. The place is packed! I heart SF.

The blanks having been shaped, I progressed to the actual sharpening process. We learned to make our own knives when I was at North Bennet Street School, as I have mentioned in this blog before. Although that process was painful, frustrating, and time-consuming, filled with lots of whining, crying, and the sharing of disturbing nightmares among my fellow students (Mark, I’m so sorry we put you through all that!), now I feel totally confident when dealing with anything knife-related, from small hand tools to board shears and guillotines. Since then and now, I have had a lot of time to think about steel, its uses, types, and qualities, and observe the tools I see in the field. I can appreciate the extreme hardness of the steel we use for our bookbinding tools. I have experienced tools that hold their edges and tools that don’t.

In any case, now I use a combination of Jeff Peachey’s sharpening system, a dry system which uses disposable sheets of progressively-smaller grit microabrasive papers, and my good old Japanese water stones from school.

The 6000 grit water stone with nigura stone in the foreground. Finishing strop is to the right, and three knife blanks at the back (with my own lifting knife in its sheath on top).

The 6000 grit water stone with nigura stone in the foreground. Finishing strop is to the right, and three knife blanks at the back (with my own lifting knife in its sheath on top).

Although the adhesive-backed papers are really easy to use, and much cleaner than the water stones, I used the water stones to create the edges on my seven students’ lifting knives.

From left to right: a Hewit paring knife I use as a blank; two right-handed lifting knives after being sharpened on a Peachey slab of 80-micron sandpaper, left-handed knife after same.

From left to right: a Hewit paring knife I use as a blank; two right-handed lifting knives after being sharpened on a Peachey slab of 80-micron sandpaper, left-handed knife after same.

The cleanup is worth it when you make multiple knives, and I try in general to stay away from disposable stuff unless the convenience really makes a difference. Well, the water stones really came through for me today, and though the knives are all a little irregularly- shaped, I am really happy with the bevel angle and the fact that they’re all sharp enough to shave. Ready for a class full of eager future book conservators!

It's shaving! You can see here the hair on the bevel. Game on, bookbinders!

It’s shaving! You can see here the hair on the bevel. Game on, bookbinders!


Filed under Classes I've taught, Tool Talk

New toys… I mean, new tools! …For new toils.

Though I have heard for a long time and from many bookbinders that knives made by Jeff Peachey are sharp and hold their edge well, I have never had the opportunity to test them out myself. As I am a graduate of the North Bennet Street School‘s bookbinding department, I and all my colleagues made our own knives for conservation and leather paring. We valiantly (and at times less than valiantly) struggled with it, grinding and honing the traditional way with steel blanks and Japanese water stones. I have used these knives since 2002 when I made them, and they form a cornerstone of my practice as a bookbinder, almost more important than my bone folders!

Leather paring knives allow you to reduce the thickness of the leather you use to cover a book, which in turn allows for complex and subtle shaping of the movable parts of the book you are making. Lifting knives, used in conservation, allow you to separate the covering materials of an old book in such a way that when you put them back together after the structure has been appropriately strengthened, the fissure is inconspicuous. Thus, a good set of knives is essential to the livelihood of a skilled craftsperson, and when they’re hand made, knives express even more deeply the expertise and respect with which one practices one’s craft.

Some of the first results from the new Peachey knife

Right away I can tell I will enjoy using Jeff’s A2 English leather paring knife. The shaft has a contoured shape and is rounded on the edges, which will make it easier to hold through hours of leather paring. The English leather paring knife is different than the rounded French knife I have been using– with the French knife I can pare on either side of a cut edge of a piece of leather, whilst the English knife is limited to paring on the left side. However, possibly because of the straight edge of the English knife, it seems to be easier to cut a broader bevel on the leather, and thus pare large swaths thinly enough to create leather labels and onlays of .1-.2mm thickness easily. I typically use a Brockman for this kind of work, but it’s nice to know there’s another way. The long bevel would also be useful for the long edges of the new leather introduced in leather rebacks, where a very gradual change in thickness of new leather is desirable underneath a layer of old leather.

The A2 steel is quite a bit thicker, and thus heavier than the knives I’m used to. That makes it more tiring on the hand, but I can tell the difference in how it holds its edge during paring. It did need to be stropped once while I edge pared six edges each about 30 cm long, but the leather was fairly stiff, so I thought the knife performed well. This will be a great addition to my happy family of bookbinding knives.

From top to bottom: Leather corner cutting knife, lifting knife, small lifting/ board corner cutting knife, Peachey English leather paring knife, round French leather paring knife, dull cobbler's knife (sharpened for paper slitting). They are kept on a magnet so they are close at hand, yet out of harm's way, and the edges never abrade against a sheath.

This week I will be making a very large full leather cover for a collection of heirloom photos and ephemera for a local family, so I will have the opportunity to become thoroughly acquainted with my new tool! I look forward to it. If you are interested in looking at some of the other very thoughtfully designed tools Jeff Peachey produces, or would like to read his blog, I have linked to his website on the sidebar to the right.

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Filed under Tool Talk