Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bookbinding 101: Tools for Tearing or Cutting Paper

When we first started making books we used a non-serated butter knife to cut paper. Seriously. Fold the paper where you want it torn/cut, and run a non-serrated butter knife inside the fold, slicing with a gentle circular sawing motion, like opening a letter with a letter opener. In fact, you could use a letter opener. This creates a nice soft edge to each page, which looks nice when a block of pages are sewn together, and helps hide the fact that your pages are not all perfectly square and lined up to each other.

Methods of cutting paper that create clean crisp cuts look a bit more uneven when all the pages are put together, because you just can't make them all perfect, and the crisp, hard edges kind of stick out. However, if you prefer, there are ways to get a flat, even surface to the edges of your text blocks after you make them, which we'll discuss briefly below.

Back when a butter knife was our way of cutting paper, Karleigh was looking for sources of paper for making pages, 1000 sheets measuring 25" x 38" (63.5 x 96.52 cm). While talking with a paper salesman on the phone, they were waiting for his pricing information to load on his computer. Here's their actual phone conversation while they were waiting:

Salesman: We usually deliver to large companies. You say you're out of your home?
Karleigh: Yes, I sell handmade books online and I just work from my home.
Salesman: What do you use to cut down all that paper?
Karleigh: I cut it at my kitchen table with a butter knife.
Salesman: (after a pause) I'll have to call you back since I don't have the prices right on hand.

He never called back. It wasn't until later that she realized how silly the butter knife response sounded.

flexible deckled and straight edge tear bar
While a butter knife is a cheap, or free way to get started, at some point you may want to look into getting a steal tear bar.

We have two kinds, both of which we can tear five sheets of 80 lb text weight paper at a time. One is from Logan Graphic Products, has both a deckled edge and a straight edge, and is flexible. Ours is 36", but they come in at least two other sizes, 12" and 18". Some have a "bold" deckle and others a "fine" deckle. Ours is bold. The deckled edge was designed by tracing the actual natural deckled edge of a sheet of watercolor paper, so it is a much more organic design than some of the other brand of deckled edge rulers we've seen.

heavy straight edge tear bar
The other tear bar we have is from Pacific Arc. It is a heavy, barely flexible, flat bar, with one straight edge. It's our workhorse. We find its lower flexibility is nicer to tear against than the more flexible Logan Graphic bar. Ours is 36", but they come in 18", 24", 30", 42", and 48". We'd likely prefer 30", since the papers we tear are at widest 25", and so we lug the extra 6" of weight around unnecessarily. 

We think the deckled edge looks good, but it's also harder to tear. Tearing against the straight edge gives a nice soft look of its own, and that's what we usually use.
torn with straight edge tear bar
torn with deckled edge tear bar

handle bar cork on back
When we bought them, both our tear bars slipped pretty easily unless putting a lot of force against them to hold them down. This made it easy to mess up a tear, and when tearing hundreds of pages it's extra hard on the hold-down-muscles. We modified both our tear bars by adhering a strip of handle bar cork on the bottom, placing it on the edge we don't tear with. For the deckled edge bar, this made the straight edge unusable for tearing, since the cork lifts the straight edge off the surface of the paper. But, that's due to our placing the cork right on the edge. If you place it away from the edge, you could flip the bar over and still tear against the straight edge with the cork side facing up, but of course, you'll miss out on the no slip benefit of the cork tape.
handle bar cork makes
tear bars no slip

You may also use any one of a variety of paper cutters, which, unlike a butter knife or tear bar, leaves a hard edge. Some like the look, some don't, but the edges of the final text block may be made smooth with a commercial paper cutter, a block plane, plough, or even a sander.

Anything to add to the discussion? Please leave a comment.


Anonymous said...

Hello Karleigh

Do you use a plough?

By the way, your blog is awesome and books you make are just incredibly beautiful! I learn bookbinding myself and your work inspires me a lot.
Thank you!


Karleigh Jae said...

Hi Izabela, thank you so much for your kind words.

We don't use a plough, but had been trying to think of the name when writing the last part of the post. Thanks for the vocabulary reminder :) We've added the tool suggestion to the post. But, we actually prefer the rough edge look of the pages. We've added some photos showing two text blocks, one torn with the deckled edge, the other with a straight edge.

Veterok. said...

Interesting post! I have been using a gilding knife or a regular bookbinder's wooden handled knife from Schmedt. This is pretty much everything I need for tearing paper, because I tend to trim the edges with a guillotine or a plough.

Lizzie said...

I like the paper to have straight edges for some books, but hand-torn edges certainly can add to the appeal and "feel" of a book.
I have a knife with a long wooden handle and a very long, flat, stiff blade, which is really sharp. No idea what it was for originally - some sort of chef's knife I suppose - but it's fabulous for tearing edges. It sat in a drawer for years, after my husband "inherited" it from his dad (who used it for cutting fish!!). I appropriated it and have kept it in my studio ever since - a wonderful thing to have found! I also have a letter opener, which can be handy for little books, and sometimes a metal ruler can be useful - I have a 20" and a 40" ruler, both of which are quite thin, but strong and stiff. These produce more "deckled" type edges and you have to crease well before tearing, or else you get rips and wobbles that you hadn't really planned for! The "real" paper tearers look good - I hadn't seen them before and I'll look for them now, as I might find the deckle one useful. Thank you!

I loved your story about the conversation with the paper salesman - so funny - whatever must he have said to his colleagues...

Lizzie said...

Oh, incidentally, I meant to mention that, when making cut edges (rather than torn ones), I much prefer to use my guillotine cutter (by "Purple Cows"), which has a non-sharpened edge. It is designed so it doesn't cut you, if you put your finger in - you'd get a big bruise though! But because of the way it works, although it makes clean cuts, they are not as "hard" as those made with a blade cutter. I just like it!

whimsyway said...

I've used a butter knife. :) Another good one is an icing palette knife. I use a bone folder or a clip point knife most of the time. The bone folder gives a very soft edge. I've wanted to try the deckle edge tear bar, but suspected it would be difficult to use.

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Unknown said...

This is really an interesting topic. Congratulations to the writer. I'm sure a lot of readers having fun reading your post. Hoping to read more post from you in the future. Thank you and God bless!


Unknown said...

Where did you buy your Pacifc Arc Straight edge tear bar? I cant seem to find any with numbers anymore.