Jeff Peachey On the Fine Art of Knife Sharpening

Bookbinder, conservator, and toolmaker, with a dash of the mad inventor in him, Jeff Peachey is certainly a man of many talents.  I first heard of him from fellow bookbinder Jeff Altepeter, whom as a proud owner of many a Peachey knife, had nothing but the highest praise for the quality of his tools.  Consequently, it was with great excitement that I finally met the man in person and bought one of his knives at the Guild of Book Workers Centennial Celebration. After several months now of using a Peachey French knife, I can now count myself as one of the scores of Jeff Peachey fans throughout the bookbinding world.  It was thus a pleasant surprise to find out that he would be teaching a workshop on knife sharpening at none other than the North Bennet Street School where I am currently a student.

In addition to knife sharpening, Jeff also demonstrated the use of his newly improved board slotting machine the Thursday night before the workshop.  He began the evening with a review of the history of board slotting and an explanation of the benefits of board slotting.  These benefits can be broken down as follows:  1) improved operability, 2) strong adhesion on three sides, 3) the hinge is in the center of the board, and 4) the chance of damaging the pastedown is lessened.  He also explored the different kinds of slotting structures with accompanying drawings and schemata.  Finally, we all went down to the basement to view a demonstration of the Peachey slotting machine and a description of its uses and improvements.

The next morning, nine of us gathered in NBSS’ workshop space to begin our knife-sharpening spree. Jeff introduced the workshop with a forty-five minute talk on the basics of knife sharpening and an explanation of the grit systems, sizes, and uses.  He proceeded to then give us a tour of the machines we would be using in order to make and sharpen our blades.  Jeff brought four of his own machines for us to work with, a buffer for general shaping of the blade and rough sanding down of the edges, a 1×42 Vertical Belt Sander, a 4×36 Belt Sander usually intended for wood, and a Grizzley a.k.a. the poor man’s Tormek.   It was with these machines and subsequent micron grits that we were to make and sharpen our knives.  The tour of the machines was then followed by a detailed demonstration of the sharpening process.

To start the demonstration, Jeff spoke to the primary sharpening problems that plague bookbinders. According to Jeff, the solution to these problems can be easily remembered with the aid of the following mnemonic device: BITS, as in B for Burr, I for I wouldn’t round the bevel, if I were you, T for Thirteen degrees, and S for Scratches in the Metal.  To clarify the above, the burr is important in that you need to feel it before moving on to a finer grit.  I is rather obvious but T stands for the ideal degree the bevel should be for leather paring.  Finally, S or scratches in the metal refers to the necessity of ensuring that the scratch pattern creating by sanding extends to the cutting edge—slight changes in the direction of sharpening help to clarify the scratch patterns of each new grit.  If followed, these tips should take care of 99% of sharpening problems.

After addressing sharpening problems, Jeff began his actual demonstration of how to make a knife from blanks (in this case, Starret Red Stripe hacksaw blades).  In his own words, sharpening is “difficult to write down, explain, and is mainly subconscious.  It is usually taught by demonstration, practice and analysis of results.”  Indeed, the majority of the workshop was dedicated to practicing what was demonstrated and learning through doing.  That said, the steps he demonstrated are as follows:

  1. Use the buffing machine to take off teeth and paint from the blank.
  2. Because the blanks are dished out, use the sanding belt to flatten the back of the blade after buffing. You only need to worry about flattening about 1/18 of an inch in.
  3. Once the back is flattened, use sanding belt to create the bevel.  Jeff uses 40 or 60 US grit for this task.  For the purposes of leather paring, the bevel should be at 13°.  Hold the knife parallel to the jig and sharpen.  Before moving on, make sure that you can see and feel the burr and that it extends all the way across the blade edge.
  4. After working the burr back and forth, change to the 150 US grit and continue.  Remember that the coarse grits take the most time and that the angle on the bevel should be checked continuously.
  5. Once done with the 150 US grit and the machines, it’s time to move on to hand sharpening.  Jeff uses microfinishing film to hand sharpen his tools.  Generally, he starts with an 80 micron grit.  Using water, begin sharpening.  Start with the flat side and go the entire length of the microfinish film.  Be sure to hold the knife flat and parallel to the surface in order not to dish it out.  Check that the burr extends all the way across and that the scratches are parallel (bearing in mind the BITS tips!)
  6. Once satisfied, flip the knife over and test for the angle by shifting the bevel up and down and feeling for 13°.  As above, check for the burr and that the scratches are parallel before moving on to the next grit.
  7. Continue to do the same procedure are described above for the remaining grits.  Jeff’s progression of grits for the microfinishing film is 80, then 40, then 15 and finally 5 microns.
  8. The last step is to hone the blade. This is done by stropping both sides of the knife.  Stropping should be perpendicular to the cutting edge of the blade.  Jeff prefers to use green honing compound on horse butt strops.

As stated previously, once the demonstration was over, the rest of the workshop was devoted to the practice of knife sharpening.  It was incredibly exciting to be able to make our own knives and to realize how easy it really was to do so given the right equipment and direction.  As Jeff says, “sharpening is common sense, everybody can do it.”  And given the results of the workshop I attended, this is entirely true.  My thanks to Jeff Peachey for his patience and passion in conveying the finer points of knife sharpening!

Submitted by Alegria Barclay

Parchment Making with Jesse Meyer

Parchment Making with Jesse Meyer
A Field Trip to the Richard E. Meyer & Sons Tannery in Montgomery, NY
September 19-20, 2003
Jesse Meyer sanding vellum

A weekend at the Meyer Tannery by the River Walker in Montgomery, New York, working surrounded by sunny forests, was an instructive and enjoyable experience – even if the workshop itself was reminiscent of hometown Brooklyn with its rancid smells and crashing machinery. The participants brought an interesting variety of backgrounds in book-making to the workshop, but all were curious to try their hand at a new craft.

Our instructor, Jesse Meyer, has taken the helm of his family’s 150 year old tannery, and is trying to find a new relevance for the trade as demand decreases for leather for piano padding, business ledgers and bowling shoes. Now Jesse is making parchment for calligraphers and bookbinders, as well as continuing to help his father Carl produce a stunning range of leather. It takes a person with great insight and patience to bow to the demands of a family business, and adapt their skills within an industry, particularly in an era when most people plot their lives under the illusion that they choose their own careers. Those of us who work with books owe Jesse a debt of gratitude for continuing to provide the materials we need.

Tools play a large part in the appeal of the book arts to any initiate.  Jesse introduced us to a new range: the 90-year-old wooden drying drum (soon to be replaced with a fiberglass model); the ‘scudding knife’ which removes hair follicles; the deflesher; and a ‘staking machine’ which softens dried cow skin from its initial surfboard rigidity.

Jesse explained how to differentiate between goat, deer, calf, and sheepskin by texture and the arrangement of hair follicles. We were shown how the life, and death, of an animal may affect the character of the finished vellum. We were alerted to possible variations between skins in pigmentation, greasiness, and scarring, and how to work around these. And we discovered for ourselves universal problems, such as ‘kidney spots’ – transparent marks on the stretched vellum caused by looser skin over the pelvis and vertebrae.

Over the weekend we followed the progress of our chosen goatskin, from trimming the ears and tails off salted (yet maggoty) raw skins to rolling up a smooth, richly colored piece of vellum to take home. The finished article was earned by dehairing the skins in sodium sulphide and lime, scudding remaining hair follicles away with a knife, standing back and watching Jesse operate the sinister defleshing machine, immersing the skins in vats of dye and finally stretching them on a drying rack.

We also had the opportunity to prepare parchment from ‘slunk’ (foetal calfskin). A wet skin of peculiarly amphibian texture is pulled taut across a frame until it becomes translucent in the late summer sunlight.  It is worked with the curved blade of a kale chopper to stretch and refine it, and then sanded to a still finer texture. We learnt that the process can be repeated to produce a very fine parchment, although only one of us had the energy to start the enterprise over again to achieve this. We began to appreciate how much work is invested in the production of these materials.

As well as learning the history and techniques of parchment preparation, working with the skins at this initial stage is to be highly recommended to anyone who is interested in using leather or parchment. The workshop was a great introduction to assessing the quality of materials, and what is required for specific purposes, e.g. the different ways of preparing parchment for binding, calligraphy, and printing, each of which requires a finer surface. It was invaluable to go back to the rawest stage of the raw materials, and an unforgettable experience to work in this rare trade.

Many thanks are due to Jesse Meyer for his time and expertise, and to Barry Spence for organizing the workshop.

Submitted by Nancy Campbell, Woodside Press

A Weekend with Christopher Clarkson

The New England Chapter was treated to a full weekend with a lecture and workshop by Christopher Clarkson in July 2002.

On Friday evening a crowd gathered at the Harvard Law Library for a fascinating lecture on Mr. Clarkson’s experience working on The Kennicott Bible. The staff of the library generously hosted a small exhibit as a warm up to the lecture. There was something for everyone included in the talk and extensive slide presentation. Mr. Clarkson discussed aspects of the parchment, text and illuminations as well as the construction of the box binding and some of the conservation problems he encountered.  The following is Clarkson’s brief description of the bible:

The Kennicott Bible was made at Corunna in north-west Spain for Isaac de Braga- It was written by a famous scribe named Moses ibn Zabara, who completed the work in 1476. The illuminations were executed by Joseph ibn Hayyim, almost certainly a kinsman of Abraham ibn Hayyim, who had composed a treatise on illumination around the 1460’s. The manuscript has an extremely rare, highly decorated and contemporary Hispano-Moresque box-binding.

Mr. Clarkson spent the rest of the weekend with a lucky group of participants in his workshop on “end bands,  end of spine bands, and head bands.” The group thoroughly explored this topic through slide presentations, display models, photographs, diagrams, and the creation of some of their own models.

Several of the workshop participants compiled the following list of “the top 12 things” they learned:

General Principles:

1. End bands are very important structural elements of a binding, and care should be taken to design them to greatest effect.

2. Paste and adhesives are only temporary; make sure that the structural elements of a binding are physically connected so when the adhesives fail, there is something holding the system together (ie, thread, trenails, lacing)

3. Pack the sewing structure in a separate step after the whole book is sewn, not during sewing. This enables you to assess the opening and page flow correctly.

Specific Tips:

1. For end banding, use thread one size smaller than sewing thread.

2. In order to fill in gaps at the tail when sections are uneven heights, use partial cores cut to the shape of the gap, then wind a figure 8 around the partial core during the foundational end band sewing. May include it as part of an end-of-spine-band.

3. Every time you change the direction of the winding thread (reverse stitch) or do something that cinches the thread, you have an opportunity to regulate the tension of the end band sewing; you don’t have to be knotting it in order to adjust the tension.

4. Twist the winding thread every time you wrap so it looks even across the width of the end band; as the thread is used more and more, it gets untwisted and looks ragged if you don’t do this.

5. Linking the tie downs to the sewing structure at the kettle station on the inside of the gathering…tightens up and consolidates the entire structure, but requires access to the inside of the gathering during the foundational end band sewing.

6. A properly tensioned end band should ride along the inside of the spine fold, not aligned with the back of the text block spine. Back tie downs (ie, tie down coming from the back of the core, not the front) ensure the proper tension and position. The result encourages a graceful curve in the cap (or, it leaves room for a thicker cap if you want to retain the strength of the leather in that vulnerable area).

7. At end of foundational sewing, the tail can be knotted around the tie downs at the kettle stitch to make the kettle more pronounced and to even out uneven tie down exit points.

8. The secondary end band sewing also has a structural function–it acts like packing to control the opening and flow of the pages.

9. Lacing of end band cores: the angle should be planned to keep the spine round. Make a dummy to test the correct angle.

Barry Spence observes Chris Clarkson