Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bookbinding 101 - Paring Leather



I had a few beers and a camera in front of me, so I decided to make a video of paring leather. My blade is so dull, that you can see I had to use a bit more force than necessary. It usually pares like a butter. Anyway, as you see, I'm not using a traditional European paring knife. I use Japanese craft steel because of its remarkable flexibility in control that I can have. It's a Kiridashi knife called Musashi-no-koku Kisaku (武蔵国住喜作) It sort of looks like one of those "Bonsai" knives, but it's thinner, and the angle of the blade is not steep - thus it's ideal for paring leather. Unfortunately, you can only get this directly from Japan. Over the years, apprentices at my bindery have longed for this steel, but only one of them was lucky enough to get it. There are different sizes of this particular steel, and if needed, you can special order left handed ones as well. // Oh, by the way, this Youtube video is unlisted, so only people who come to my blog can watch it. hahaha~
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So, here's a picture of one of my lithograph stones (litho stone) for paring leather. I use the back side of what's shown on this picture in order to protect the engravings. Check my response comment below to one of my dearest followers, Teo, regarding stones for parting leather.

NOTE: I misspelled "Scharf-fix" on the response.. It's not Sharfix

By the way, about Adams Chewing Gum company. The story goes that the Adams family company was so successful that they were one of the first people to install an elevator in their house. And while the family was on vacation, the servants were so intrigued about the new device that they all kept riding on it for fun. But one day, while they were on it, the elevator got broken, and they were trapped inside. The Adams came back to see all the servants dead in the elevator. I was told that the story, The Addams Family was made, inspired by this actual horror story

22 comments:

  1. I have been looking for a video on how to pare leather since forever! Thanks so much for making one. Your blade does seem to cut like butter to me (by the way, a video on how you sharpen it would also be awesome!)

    I have a few questions, hope you don't mind :) What kind of leather were you paring? It looked quite stiff and nice to work with, but what to do when the leather is more flexible and kind of tends to fold under the blade? Or that one is not really preferred for bookbinding?

    Another question is about the surface you are paring on. It looks like you do it directly on the wood board of the table? I saw a few videos (there are really very few out there on this topic) but everyone was recommending a perfectly straight surface like of glass or marble. Or does that depends on the type of leather you work with?

    Sorry for the long comment(proportional with my curiosity)... thanks so much!!

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    1. I don't mind answering any questions, so don't worry. The leather featured on the video is goat kidskin. It pares fine, but often it's not because of its stiffness. Thing is, the more expensive the leather is, the easier it pares, and often the expensive ones are very soft. To me, soft leather is easier to pare though it's often stretchy. As long as the leather is not thicker than 1mm, you can use it for binding books, no matter how stiff or soft it is. For leather like morocco which is usually soft and flexible, it just a matter of technique as to how well it pares. If the leather is too flexible to pare, you might want to use a Sharfix, or similar device to pare it, and finish it off by hand at the end. I don't use those devices as I don't have problem paring any leather by hand, but my Master use Sharfix often because he's always working on multiple books at a time and it saves him time. If you decide to pare flexible leather by hand, and it gives you troubles, stretch it out as you pare it. Because the edge gets "wobbly" when your blade tries to go through it, it becomes hard to pare smoothly. So, just flatten it as you pare - bend the "wobbly" edge outwards accordingly, or pare in sections instead of one stroke at a time. You see, my video of paring leather doesn't have any instruction nor different methods of paring. - It's just me paring leather in rush. So the video isn't really useful, thus I didn't post it on Youtube. I will have to remake the video in the future though.

      Bookbinders use a litho-stone for paring leather or binding books in general. The lithograph stone, which is basically a block of hard clay, is made to "re-use". - as you know, lithographers create motifs on the surface and print them. And when its edition is finished, they sand off the surface, and create new art on it. Bookbinders use the stone because its softness doesn't break the blade when cutting something on it, and it can be resurfaced by sanding. And after sanding, the surface becomes extremely smooth and shiny without much effort. And if you chip the edge by mistake, you can always easily fix it by sanding as well. On the contrary, if you use marble stone, for example, first of all, it's expensive. Secondly, though it's a relatively soft stone, it's more difficult to sand and put a shiny, smooth surface if you ever scratch it or chip it. And, it's hard enough to damage your blade. Considering that, you now know the glass isn't appropriate. - if you ever chip it or damage the edge, not only it's dangerous, but you won't be able to fix it unless you bring it to a glass cutter shop and spend fortune. As well, you’ll knick your knife edge.

      There must be litho-stone manufactures still in business somewhere in the world, (considering there are still lithographers out there.) but I haven't heard of one. Normally, you can find a used stone on the market. Check E-bay or something. Someone must be selling old used litho-stone that they acquired after printing factory was closed long ago. Looks like my personal litho-stone was used to print labels for Adams Family Chewing Gum company a century ago. I got this stone a decade ago from an alcoholic used-to-be-a-bookbinder, needing immediate money for his drinking habit. So I only paid $80 for this.(!! Lucky me!!) But a litho-stone in the market now a days isn't cheap. So be ready to pay at least a couple of hundred of dollars plus shipping, which will definitely be expensive. The stone's HEAVY.

      Anyway, until you come across a litho stone, you can used carrara marble, or some soft stone, as long as it has a perfectly smooth surface. (DON'T USE GLASS) You can get those cheap, or maybe free from a factory/company which handles stones for interior/furniture. They should have scrap stone that they don't need. Just be careful not to damage your blade when paring, vise versa, not to damage the stone when paring.

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    2. Hi, MHR.

      Thank you for sharing all these information. It's a wonderful blog!

      I wanted to ask you something about litho stones. If I buy on, how do I prepare it for paring leather? Is there any method of how to polish/sanding it? I saw a video of preparing lithographic stones for printing, and he uses some powder some rounded device and two lime stones to polish it. (http://youtu.be/JHw5_1Hopsc) Is it different for paring? Hope you can help me.

      Many thanks,
      ITM.

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    3. Hi ITM,

      If the surface of your stone is so messed up that it really needs refurbishing, stick a piece of sand paper on a wood block with double-sided sticky tape, and sand the surface. You will get a nice, smooth surface just by sanding it with sand papers. Simple. Make sure you wear a mask and vacuum machine ready because it gets dusty. ;-)

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  2. Thank you so much for this valuable information. At this point I don't really afford getting my leather from bookbinding suppliers so I choose it mostly based on its finish and color rather than the requirements it must have for bookbinding. I also tend to choose soft leather because it works well with raised elements like ornaments or raised bands on the spine. But I definitely need more practice with paring it. I admit I was using a piece of glass because it was handy but I do have a marble stone, I just need to take it out on the worktable and get to work. As for a litho-stone... indeed that's quite expensive so I'd better meet my own alcoholic used-to-be-a-bookbinder in need of money sometime soon!

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  3. Your stone is beautiful and truly a piece of history! Thanks for posting a photo, now it shows up very clearly in this light. So interesting to read about the Adam's and the sad story of their servants. I had no idea that reality has inspired the movie.

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  4. Awesome demo of paring leather! I'm an amateur book binder and have been doing research on different leathers. I've been looking at goat leather and the pricing seems to be very wide in range. I've seen 5/square ft up to 45/square ft. Obviously there are differences in quality, grain, dying, tanning, etc. What are thoughts on a reasonable price per foot of goat and calfskin for binding?

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    1. Hello Will,

      Well, it's actually a tricky question because what's "reasonable" in terms of the price and quality of materials is really up to the binder. If your "standard" as a bookbinder strictly considers "the fine binding must be created by using the best and finest materials", $45/sq. ft. must be reasonable, but as we, our bindery deal with all kinds of clients, each of whose need, background and budget are different, we have to have both expensive and less expensive leather available. The bottom line is, it basically doesn't really matter whether you use $5/sq. ft. leather or $45/sq. ft. leather as long as the binding is executed well at the end of the day. This, needless to say, also means, if you don't execute the binding well, it doesn't matter if you use pricey materials or not.

      Regarding the quality of leather, aside from the obvious differences in the texture, grain or the thickness, etc., there is a difference in "workability" between leather for fine binding and whatever leather is available in the market. Leather labeled for bookbinding is normally expensive, but is very easy to work with and creates the superb executions and the end product is very satisfying, while other non-labeled cheaper leather in the market might take a bit more effort to create the desirable binding perfectly, in my opinion.

      So, anyway, to answer your question, my thoughts on what's reasonable in terms of leather price is "it all depends on how much the client is willing to pay for it!" :-)

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  5. Hi!

    I signed onto this thing because two of my favorite artists are in one thread: MHR and Teo. The work of both of you has been inspirational and helped me find the way to the book arts with MHR's videos/blog and Teo's work in her Etsy store. So before I flood you with more compliments (which I guess can't be all that bad) thanks again!

    And you can check here for litho stones:
    http://www.conradmachine.com/navbar/used_printmaking_presses/used_litho_stones.html

    Do you need one? Yes, of course....

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    1. Hello Vince,

      Oh, thank you for your kind words.. You are making me blush!

      Isn't Teo great!? She's such an artist indeed!

      And thank you very much for the link. Very useful. In fact, I've forwarded it to one of our current apprentice who's at the stage of exercising the steel. He's been using one of our carrara marbles for his training and has been wishing to own a litho stone. (By the way, we - both my master and I, let NO ONE touch our lithos, because they might chip the edges if they haven't mastered paring.)

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  6. Hi Ms. ,
    I'am an Vietnamese amateur bookbinder . I 'am intersted in making miniature binding . Is there any other method to pare the leather for them ( i haven't made any mini-leather-bind before )
    and which kind of leather is ideal for them . Hope you can help me !

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    1. Hello Mr.!

      Some binders would use a spokeshave, but I'm not one of them. Or you can use a device called Scharf-fix, which isn't so cheap. (I think it would cost a few hundred dollars?) Why don't you use a paring knife? It isn't so expensive (if you aren't picky..) and it's quick and lets you have a total control. :-) Anyway, miniature books are fun! Good luck.

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    2. Ah, and the leather? I don't know what kind of leather is available in your country and how the grade and quality they are, but I think any leather should be fine. Just try whatever is available to you and see which result you like the best. Trial and error! And you are the binder, so you decide!

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  7. Hi Ms, Thanks for your advices . But it's a pity that i won't bind any book in a long time . I have to study and try to get good marks , then my parents will let me bind in the next summer . But by the way thanks you .

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  8. This is a great post and video. Thanks for sharing. I have a question about leather treatment when paring: I am a new bookbinder working with a Scharfix to pare and good quality goat skin. It pares fine (with the occasional nick, but that must be a hazard of working with an uneven grain in leather!) but afterwards the skin has stretched a little in places, making it difficult to get a very neat bind. Can you tell me if there is a specific way to treat leather after paring to bring it back into shape? Or am I just applying too much pressure when paring?

    Thanks again!

    David

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    1. Hi David,

      Ah,, you are using a Scharfix to pare the edges? I think some binders do that, but I've never used it to pare the edges. (I only use it to make skiver labels because it actually saves me time.) However I can see the leather would stretch unnecessarily because you are pulling the leather hard during the operation. Well, first of all, it's easier to pare the edges by a knife and this shouldn't stretch the leather as bad, so I'd recommend you to at least try to pare by a knife. (Paring knives would have been a lot cheaper than the device, Yo!) Secondly, even if the leather stretches while paring (whether or not by a knife or Scharfix), it shouldn't really matter after it's glued to the boards, unless it's so stretched that the surface is harmed or something. If that's what you are experiencing, you shouldn't use Scharfix. While paring, leather stretches no matter what, especially for the edges close to the sides of the animal. So, if your end product isn't satisfactory because of the stretch created by paring, I'm guessing you are doing something incorrectly when gluing it to the boards. When gluing, you must stretch the leather to some degrees in order to make the surface as tight and smooth as possible, so that any inconsistencies on the leather would straighten out after all. That's what I meant by "even if the leather stretches while paring whether or not by a knife or Scharfix, it shouldn't really matter".

      Let me know if this wasn't the answer you were after. I'd be happy to help. ;-)
      M.

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  9. Hello MHR,

    How do you sharpen your paring knife? (sandpaper? grindstone? strop?)
    What is the best way?

    Many thanks,
    ITM.

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    1. You can use water stones of different grades - fine to rough. Or the easiest and fastest way is to use sand papers - fine to rough. ;-)

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  10. Hello MHR,
    I do hope your still around. I have just started to learn bookbinding. I'm in my mid 50's and have to say that I'm hooked on bookbinding. I wish that I had taken it up earlier. Like so many others, I love your video's, the fact that they are silent makes them so peaceful, and easier to pick up on technique. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

    S.V
    Australia

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    1. Thanks S.V! I'm sill around, and my health is getting better. So I do hope to have time to make videos on bookbinding again in the near future.

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