My Story of Bookbinding Knives
My short story regarding my experience with bookbinding knives, paring leather and sharpening.
An absolutely excellent video of sharpening a French-style paring knife by Arthur Green: https://youtu.be/6_0stmbB6Cg
The supreme scholar of bookbinding knives and sharpening knowledge Jeff Peachey: https://jeffpeachey.com/tag/how-to-sharpen-bookbinding-knives/
Making Paring Knives for Bookbinding from West Dean College: https://www.westdean.org.uk/study/school-of-conservation/blog/books-and-library-materials/making-paring-knives-for-bookbinding
See a true master in practice, specializing in leather mosaics – Gilber Saint-Jean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqyJiwWMvF8
Knives are another set of invaluable tools that greatly help in your bookbinding projects, especially when you’re covering a book in leather. You can use almost any sharp knife to cut a piece of paper or leather but specialized paring knives are what are usually used to thin your piece in key places to properly mold itself in the various folds and creases that a book structure has.
Leather paring and handling the knives for the job are one of those techniques that really take some time to develop. You can read about them, you can see others do it but will only get the hang of it until you try and try and try and maybe ruin some nice pieces of leather in the meantime.
Mainly for this reason, don’t consider this video as an instruction to the technique but rather an introduction or a story from my particular point of view. As always, listen to the people with the most experience and preferably masters near you that can actually show you first hand how things are done.
As with many other processes in bookbinding, I didn’t have this opportunity so I delved in on my own, without any proper idea what I was looking for or what I was doing. Given this, my first knives were purchased from a local cobbler’s supplier, where I also got my first pieces of leather. They had these strange curved knives, called in Bulgaria cobbler knives. They have an edge only on one side and came in a left or right handed variation.
I purchased two for about 4 EUR and began my awkward paring trials when I came home with them. I honed the blades on two grades of sandpaper, which grit I don’t remember currently. It was a strange novice period in which I used these knives to pare the corners of my leather pieces but due to their curve, they only work if you pare towards you, rather than outwards. I never saw anyone else do this and was starting to consider I was doing something wrong. Another indicator was the quality of the steel of these knives. The base is no more than 1.5 mm thick and the edge was getting dull with startling speed. It was a process of constant resharpening that was getting on my nerves.
I haven’t thrown them away tho, neither do they sit unused. I’ve reshaped the edge on one of them to be beveled on both sides and I use it for cutting leather, paper and boards. The other is still with the original edge and I use it only on some very specific jobs that require a strange direction of paring.
One day, I was feeling brave and ordered a more expensive, English style paring knife from abroad. The edge at an angle but straight. It’s much thicker, higher quality steel than my previous other ones and with a steeper edge because of it. It was very sharp when it came but then it dawned on me that I couldn’t possible do the blasphemy of sharpening it on my dirty old sandpapers. I’ll get to the sharpening details in just a bit.
Firstly, the English paring knife is great for thinning out straight outer pieces. When properly sharpened it can make your leather ends thin as air but without careful technique, they’ll cut right through it and ruin your piece. I found it difficult to get to some hard to reach spots or to thin out larger surfaces that are not so close to the end of the leather piece.
For this reason, some months after I got myself a French-style paring knife as well. You’ll see this with or without a handle but the main characteristic is the curved edge of the blade sitting on top of the knife, rather than on the side. This particular shape enables working in many directions and is suitable for left or right-handed people all the same. The peculiar blade lets you pare some tight spots and you’ll have an easier time thinning out a whole piece from the inside, rather just the outer boundaries. Though, keep in mind it’s slow and careful work.
Now back to honing! I found it necessary to buy myself a proper Japanese water stone, so I ordered a two-sided stone with one side being 1000 grit for shaping the edge and the other 6000 grit for polishing the blade and making it razor sharp. Some use a much smoother surface of 10000 grit but for now 6000 is quite enough for me. When purchasing whetstones for your knives, make sure to read up on the differences of each brand as sometimes the 6000 grit of one stone is not the same as the 6000 grit of another from a different manufacturer. Be sure to ask your supplier for more details on the differences of their stones.
As the finer grits of these stones are quite soft, it’s a good idea to get yourself a flattening stone as well and maybe a stone holder for a good grip when honing.
In the video you can see me often adding water to the surface of the stone but it’s also been soaking for at least 10-15 minutes in water beforehand. Without proper soaking you risk damaging your stone or your knife. I usually use a towel to help absorb the excess water flying about on the table as well as a ordinary sponge go clean the surface of the stone if it gets too covered in traces of the metal. When honing very sharp blades, keep in mind that even the smallest bumps may affect the quality of your edge, so keep the surface clean and smooth.
The end phase of the honing is usually stropping on the inside of a nice thick leather, usually horse or cow. I use a piece of vegetable tanned calf I have here and don’t have a commercial, professional strop, neither do I use honing pastes at the moment. It still works for me, for now at least.
Now, some people elevate knife care and sharpening to a science and even an art. I’ll leave them to be a wellspring of knowledge and I’ll abstain from giving too much advice on the subject and making this video a how-to guide. That’s not because of some ill intent from my part but rather that I have a more intuitive approach and set my angles on feel, rather than a set rule. In the end my knives are sharp and comfortable to work with, at least for me and I get the performance I’m looking for. I’ll leave in the description some guides I’ve read in the past that might be of help to you as well.
That’s the whole problem with these type of knives and learning how to work with them – the fact that they’re tools with a high amount of individual character. I’ve heard many people say that even if razor sharp, they have a hard time using another binder’s knives. This works both ways and is the number one reason why you should sharpen your blades yourself. I am in tune with the particular angle of the edges, the level of sharpness, the weight and style of my grip. In the end, it works as an extension of your hand and you project your awareness on the tip of the edge, rather than the tip of your fingers. It’s one of those almost magical capabilities of the human body and mind to produce such an effect.
The ability to sharpen and use paring knives is in the absolute sense of the word – first-hand knowledge. It can’t be learned through text or word, only from your own first hand practice.
As with every sharp object, be sure to be absolutely careful when handling them, keep them away from small children, animals or even visitors of your workshops – unsuspecting of what they’re holding. Even a small bump on the edge penetrates the skin, so have your and other’s safety a top priority.
Wishing you good health and best of luck with your bookbinding projects!