Category Archives: 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.

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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!

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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)

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

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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 Repair  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!

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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