Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 116
February 1998

Reports: A Workshop on the Forming and Design of Bone Folders

Given by Tim Ely at Planetary Collage, 1306 NW Hoyt, No. 407, Portland, Oregon 97209

A workshop on the forming and design of bone folders was held at Planetary Collage in Portland, Oregon in November of 1997. Five students worked through a Saturday afternoon to fabricate a tool of exquisite composition.

It all began some weeks earlier in one of my bookbinding classes with a question - "Where did you get that cool bone folder?" The answer was that I had made it and so interest was born among my students.

It is a very difficult subject to scale into a short session but the decision was made to introduce the process of forming the bone tools in an afternoon workshop and enlarge it, if necessary, as the information and interest dictated.

I started by cooking lamb shanks as a source for a fine collection of bones, as well as a good Sunday dinner. The pulling bones of draft horses have long been the traditional source. I find leg bones equal to the task. My father loves lamb and so, with fresh rosemary and Don Guyot's unbelievable garlic, I was able to satisfy some culinary demands and begin to get some raw material for tools. The shanks were baked, the bones cooked later into soup and finally cleaned in boiling salt water with a small amount of vinegar, then left to dry for two weeks.

In my work with books, bones have figured in as subject matter, pigment, clasps, tools and glue. I began the workshop by showing off my as yet uncounted collection of bones and bone folders. (It filled some 30 square feet of table space.) My current folders are made along the lines of custom skinning knives. The blades are distinct from the handles even though it is all one piece. With judicious sawing and drilling, elegant tools can be fashioned. Since I do not relish homely tools, I prefer to find a form that is pleasing to both hand and eye. All the tools have, for me, a specific function: slitting, burnishing, creasing, pressing, liftingŠ. There are folders made by comrades-in-books, notably Jo Burgess and Daniel Flanagan, street fighters made by Jim Croft, net mending tools from Indonesia, ivory folders from piano salvage as well as bone calendars and book covers made from what we would call short rib bones. This small study was an introduction to the end results of the forming processes.

Next, I covered the use of the various saws, drills, polishers, scribes and files. Besides the bones I had supplied, two students brought antler material. These were patiently cut and shaped to make very unique forms. In order to become familiar with the shaping tools and processes, the students worked mostly with large, round- ended, pre-made folders from which to customize a tool to fit their needs. One design direction was to sharpen one edge at the pointed end for slitting paper, then cut the rounded end at an acute angle so that concentrations of pressure could be brought into play for those areas in a box tray where it is difficult to get the covering to stick. This flat angle allows the area to be pressed rather than rubbed.

After the tools were satisfactorily shaped, they were polished to a fine luster before we all became scrimshanders. Using tools usually reserved for drawing through an etching ground on a metal plate, the students created personal images on the smooth material. Bone doesn't work as well as ivory or tooth but, if the polish is good, the scribed lines will not fracture and the applied black goes on as a rich color. For delineating the designs we used various material ranging from Gamblin etching ink, and shoe polish to well-pigmented India Ink.

There was some question about soaking the bones in motor oil or salad oil to help keep adhesive residue from building up. This process will change the color much the way tea will darken your teeth. These oils don't dry, ever, so you can be left with a working tool that will likely feel sticky. I have successfully immersed folders in linseed oil overnight, which does dry, then cleaned them under hot water with a mild abrasive pad to removed the scum layer. The linseed oxidized over a few months, changed the folder color a bit, but over all did little or nothing to enhance the working properties. I prefer white bone and I clean and polish my tools so adhesive doesn't build up.

The folders will take on colors nicely, so they can be dyed with coffee or tea or simply wrapped it in a piece of wet, dyed goat skin and the color will transfer. My 'Flanagan' folder has taken on a pink patina from the red leather sheath it lives in.

When the work was completed, the polished bone folders found their way into the tool kits of five binders.

The workshop will be repeated in February 1998.