… corners, clasps (and other interesting metal parts of a book)!
A guest post by Dawn Hoffmann
What makes these little (and some not so tiny) metal parts so intriguing? Why were they put on these books and who might have made them? How did the artisans get the materials and tools to make them? What kinds of metal are the pieces made of? How did they design the pieces and why did they do it this way in the first place?
These questions and many more are what I am attempting to find clues about, by doing archaeology on a minuscule scale! Looking closely at a catch, for instance, you might detect clues of how firstly the sheet metal was formed and then what kinds of tools carved, scratched, and manipulated the surfaces into a design and bent it into shape.
One of the things I noticed was that spirals or scrolls changed through time periods. Along the way, various types of spirals were mathematically proven, and perhaps the designs of these proofs permeated ornamental design thinking as well. Another shape that was modified through the years was the heart shape. I found it easier to find the “sweet spot” where to look to find more authentic shapes for the time, when I thought about fashion outlines of the time, such as in 18th century women’s stays and in 16th century men’s bloomer pantaloons.
An obvious development was the increasingly detailed and realistic depiction of plant motifs, as well as the particular flowers used in designs. Tulip mania is very evident even in book furniture! As botanical illustration got more detailed and accurate to “life” depiction, the designs of floral ornament were less simplistic/general and more specifically recognizable plant forms and specific flowers.
One of the questions I got from other readers most strongly was that they “did not know that artists measured things.” I needed to look at the pieces closely with an eye for those tiny variants in proportion, as especially on the small scale of the book furniture a small difference in line can make a huge stylistic difference.
To look closely at these objects, I used optivisors (and a jeweler’s loupe) and magnifying glasses as well as a really good lamp (not a usual thing in the Folger’s Reading Room!). Another big part of my observations was to draw scale drawings and take measurements of all sorts of aspects of the parts, so that they could be replicated. By practicing the making of these pieces, I could learn even more of how they were made and what techniques and tools were and still are most effective ways of making book furniture.
The Folger staff was kind to let me use a very modified carbon fiber caliper to use for accurate measurement—I made all edges safe (not sharp, and carved off the clip on the back) and had a very specific use/practice when making measurements. This was a very welcome adjustment to the process as a paper ruler just was not accurate enough on such a scale to get close enough measurements. When the piece you are talking about is less than 1/2 inch wide and 1 inch long, 1/16th of an inch makes a huge change in correctness of scale! When trying to keep track of stylistic changes over the decades and centuries (from preceding the early modern period through the 19th century) these little bits of accuracy pay off.
Another thing that I did was take a long hard look at each metal surface from different angles. This necessitated sitting on short stools and looking at the books from straight onto the side of the book while it lay on the table. When you are drawing something you need to have the same point of reference the whole time you are capturing the image. Many books were heavy or so fragile I had to keep them on the table only and not use book wedges, so I had to move myself instead of the book.
Sometimes, in order to figure out how to draw or wrap my head around what I was seeing, I even resorted to using the lanyard of my name tag to experiment with different ways of forming a chain stitch that I found on one of the filigree pieces!
If a piece is being studied in a library environment, it puts many workshop practices on hold. For instance, how do you draw perfect circles without a compass (not allowed due to the sharp point)? Answer: you get good at freehand drawing circles with a lot of practice! Also, how do you measure the thickness of a piece on a fragile surface with out scratching anything? You make a “feeler” gauge out of strips of index card type of paper, and pre-measure stacks of those and write an index/chart with the gauge and measurements made in the workshop by measuring stacks of these papers.
Many times, I would make a sampler on a piece of metal to bring in (again, with the generous permission of the Folger staff—pieces of metal aren’t usually allowed in the Reading Room!) to carefully compare my attempts of a technique or stamping or engraving with the original pieces.
The Folger collection has so many styles of furniture to study! Some examples pictured below illustrate a variety of techniques used to decorate and form the pieces.
Brass was used with a variety of effects:
And sometimes there were twists (literally!):
Silver was also a favorite metal. All four of the tulip designs shown above are done in silver. Here are some other examples of silverwork:
And sometimes silver clasps and/or corners just aren’t enough. Sometimes the whole binding was done in silver filigree!
And we cannot get away without mentioning a beautiful book with part of its chain still attached:
This is just a small sampling! I encourage you to look at the LUNA bindings images and poke around those pages to see what you can discover that way! (Rabbit hole warning…and let me know what you find!)
Another aspect to notice are periods of manufacture or making. There are older pieces such as this:
and (relatively) newer pieces:
The types of finish on the surfaces can vary from high finish such as the silver piece above, to a dull surface on brass that was taken out of an annealing fire, worked directly, and left as it came off the bench with no further finish except the decorative punching and engraving:
Sometimes you can see very definite markings from the manufacture of the sheet material that the clasps or parts were made of. Pre-rolling mill era sheet metal was made by hammering out an ingot (by hand) and then scraping the resulting flat surface to even it out. This was generally done all one direction for a first pass and then another at 90 degrees to the first scraped direction to smooth the surface. Many times this was also left as the finish surface too, so it can show up on the piece you are looking at. The back side of this clasp shows this very clearly:
My project is to understand better how the techniques, tools, and methods were used to make these little pieces. That means making some very specific tooling to mimic the ones that left their mark on the originals. So far, I have made some very tiny punches of grapes, fleur-des-lis, and a flower as well as numerous specific chisels, round circle punches, and other generic sorts of tools to accommodate making the clasps and corners.
On the right side of the image above are my “apprentice pieces,” the engraved stamps I made myself, and on the left are commercially ordered stamps using my drawings of the original impressions. And here is the book clasp that was made with the original stamps:
I made the “apprentice pieces” to see if these indeed looked like the originals. One of the stamps was so tiny (the flower is only 4mm!), it was hard to get the engraving tool deep enough to get more than a shallow impression, hence the ordering a professionally made laser cut stamp, just to see the difference! I do plan to re-cut the stamps again by sharpening my gravers and making smaller scale points on them to make better ones; I am hoping that I can go deeper with my cuts to make a heavier impression.
Trying to recreate the clasp below was a particular challenge: the lines were so fine that after a few uses one of the “teeth” or lines broke off of my stamp. So this is also a way to learn possible ways of tool making that were used in the past (or not!).
The varied engraving styles I encountered also require experimentation! I have sampled a wide variety of graver points and various sharpening methods to mimic the appearance of the various engraved pieces I found in the Folger collection. Depending on the era, the style of engraving changed as well as the type of designs cut. This is influenced by the support of the piece and the way the engraver holds the piece to be engraved. See, for instance, this detail from the Copley portrait of Paul Revere, showing the sandbag and engraving tools on his bench: the tools would have been held using the bag as a support and weight to push against.
Many depictions of workshops from previous times have tools and methods in common with “modern” workshops, as many processes are still done the same way. But modern engravers have it so much easier in some ways, with their modern engraver’s ball vise (pictured on the right in the image below), and microscopes!
Currently, I am practicing my hand at push engraving with optivisor (10x power) on a wood block and sandbag, so that I may do some justice to the Bishops’ Bible. I plan to make a replica of that magnificent book to find out what it took to make the whole thing from start to finish!
Each corner of the binding on the Bishops’ Bible was engraved by a different person in a workshop setting—you can see this like different handwriting on each engraver’s style and design and methods of execution! I am trying to see if I can replicate those engraving “handwritings”… but that is the topic for another blog post!
If there are questions anyone has about this subject, I would like to know, since that would help me know what needs explaining or more exploration! On my own again, I am still doing research into mining practices and metallurgy. Also, to find more clues to many of the questions that arise, I am studying images of workshops of the past from prints and paintings, metal artifacts and ornamentation, pattern design and the influence of cultural aesthetics, and the tools and techniques used in the period to achieve these decorative effects. I am also reading the writings/treatises of artists and engineers, investigating period encyclopedias, and looking into the history of guilds and workshop/manufacturing practices. Metal deposits and methods of extraction and refining changed as scientific understanding and practical matters rubbed up against the economic factors that drove the engines of trade routes and commerce—all of these are important to my research as well.
Perhaps what is most interesting to me, though, is that so much has not changed! For instance, the workbench and the use of stumps, many of my gravers look like the ones pictured above, and the stakes and hammers look strikingly (pun intended) like the ones in earlier images and drawings. There is such beauty of materials, and there are so many intriguing things that continue to be made all over this planet!
I appreciate the time with the fellowship at the library to gather my notes and start this process. The road is winding and the travel along it is interesting and I have met many interesting helpful people along the way. Thank you to all of you who helped me in so many ways.
Dawn Hoffmann is an artist/craftsperson based in rural western Maryland, a maker of things in all sorts of materials, but primarily in metal and paper. She has made everything from large scale brass musical instruments, copper sinks, and silver punch bowls to small scale things like book clasps, engraving, and chasing. She has also delved into book binding and related arts. Her project as a Folger Fellow looks at the intersection of books and metalworking, with the working title “Hooked on Book furniture; clasps, corners and center medallions; materials and techniques used in the past and how to recreate them in the present.”