Two lovely old ladies who used to do bookbinding as a hobby decided to give me what tools and materials they had left (thanks!). Among these was a french paring knife which, although quite plain, caught my attention. Realizing my paring knives have amounted to 6 with this later addition I decided to make the knife post I’ve been thinking about for some time!
Juliayn Coleman testing a Peachey knife
Firstly dear (non crafting) readers, allow me to explain why all craftsmen get fascinated with trade tools. It’s because they are our most prized possessions. As years come and go a craftsman might set up shop in a dozen different locations, he will work with materials of quality and others that are horrible, he’ll try countless techniques in his effort to evolve and become better. However, in the long course of an artisan’s life the point of reference, the one thing that stays more or less the same, will always be the tools of the trade. Tools are the extension of his hand, the means by which skill is transformed into something tangible day after day, until they become understood and loved. As the craftsman gets older so do his tools which, through continuous use, mastering and modifying, come to store and express his experience. He knows how each of them behaves, what it needs to stay in good shape, in which task it performs best. In a sense they are not just tools, they are companions…
This romanticized, but I believe true to its core, explanation should give you a good idea about why we usually make such a fuss about our tools! Just read what Sarah of Big jump press did to some poor bystanders when her eye spotted an old divider! We’re 100% with you Sarah, no regrets!
So, what the heck is paring and why is it so important that binders have to own so many different knives for it?
Paring is when a leather is thinned down by slicing away strips, as shown in the picture on the right by Jana Pullman. That can happen for various reasons, one of the most common in bookbinding being the gradual thinning of the margins on the cover piece to make the turn-ins smoother. Paring is a world on its own and one of the many skills a binder must master to produce fine work.
Paring can be done with the help of mechanical devices like the Scharf-fix or the Brockman which I happily own. These have a razor blade that can be set in various angles and when the leather is pulled beneath it long skivers are shaved off thus reducing its thickness. It is a fast and efficient way of paring but it still needs a great amount of control and there are certain issues/restrictions in its use.
Paring with a knife offers a tremendous amount of control leading to much more satisfying results. The leather doesn’t get outstretched and lose shape as is the case some times with paring machines. With careful and steady handling of the knife it is less likely to tear or slice through the leather. Also, a paring machine doesn’t adjust to changes in the behavior of the leather. Some parts may have bumps or imperfections, be stretchier or stiffer, very hard or very soft but you can only pull it through. With the knife you have the ability of adjusting pressure, angle and depth constantly during paring action. And last but not least there are parts that you simply can’t pare using a paring machine, like the spine for a french binding.
It is not difficult to understand why paring with a knife has stayed the same for so many centuries. However all these benefits come at a price; mastering how to knife-pare takes time and it is not the easiest thing in bookbinding. I remember it took me one year and a lot of wasted leathers to start producing decent results, at least according to my standards. I’ve reached a good level since then but paring is one of those things that you never stop learning. And there’s always a rewarding sense of accomplishment to be felt after a leather has been properly and smoothly pared (by the way, I’ve been told that all these sound creepy and psychotic when out of context…!). I now pare with knives in 90% of the cases and use the Brockman complimentary or when I need to make leather joints, labels or onlays.
Where can we read more?
-To be able to pare with a knife one needs to be familiar with its needs and uses. Creating a sharp edge and maintaining it is of paramount importance and requires skill on its own. Jeff Peachey is renowned for his paring knives and his knowledge on their treatment. He gives ample information on how to sharpen your knife effectively and keep it so by stropping.
- Jana Pullman, well known binder and instructor at the Center of Book Arts in Minnesota, writes about paring and knives here. “Besides, you can never have too many knives”, well said indeed!
-MHR of Bookbinder’s chronicle, always skilled and knowledgeable, also has a nice post regarding paring. Check the comments as well! Here’s a picture of her custom knives made from traditional Japanese steel. Want!
- Juliayn Coleman of Book Island gets some steel in shape for her students in this post.
- Roger Grech of Papercut Bindery gives a step by step description of the paring process in his post here.
-E. Lundahl of V for books shares in this post the details of making a DIY paring knife. Love the melt brass detail, gives the knife personality!
Last but not least, in a first ever and exclusive appearance, the ensemble of DK’s paring knives!
From left to right;
1) English knife from Hewit and the first I ever had. Very affordable and performs quite well, I keep it a bit less sharp and use it as “heavy duty” nowadays.
2-3) An english and french knife from Schemdt. Some bookbinders had lend me two Schemdt knives in the past and I thought to order a pair for myself. First of all I must mention that I ordered two english knives apart from the french (one for a bookbinding friend) and they arrived with a very crude bevel, basic stock removal (it was evident from the marks) in angled fashion. That meant I had to go to a grinder shop, pay and indicate the angle I needed. Then there was a lot of hand sharpening needed to be done at the bindery. All these were a lot of trouble, more than I expect when I order such a tool, especially since its not a matter of modification but simply making it fit for work. In any case it performs well although it tends to lose sharpness a bit easily. I use it for regular work.
4) It is always very useful to be able to create basic tools for your craft and bookbinding is no exception to that rule. Almost a year ago I came by a piece of industrial saw steel, which was of good quality according to 2 people I trust, and decided to give it a go. Not dissapointed! The result was an extremely sharp blade that keeps its edge and has exactly the dimensions I prefer. Its only downside is it being a bit temperamental when it comes to sharpening. I use it mainly for fine work.
5) The french knife I was given recently. It bears no maker’s mark. I had never worked with this type of paring knife before (the mix of straight and curved edge). I gave it just a slight resharpening and stropping and was astonished at how well it pared. I feel I’m gonna love working this type of edge and can’t wait to see its performance after a serious sharpening.
6) A leatherworking knife that I have used extensively in bookbinding as well. Used to be my substitute for a french knife and did its job excellently albeit its double bevel. The great width of the blade made its use uncomfortable at times but it made up for it by allowing to pare for much longer by using different parts of the curve until stropping or resharpening was needed.
That’s all folks, cheers!