Some thoughts on finishing tools

I have recently sold some finishing tools to a young bookbinder in Edinburgh. They were quite old, so he will join the line of binders who have used them, over more than 100 years – certainly four or five binders; possibly a dozen. Coincidentally I have recently acquired quite a lot of tools, all from a retired binder (but I don’t know his/her name) which include four with the same binder’s name stamped on them – Henry Harley. It is certainly the binder’s name, as a separate stamp has the maker’s name, Clark, on three of the tools. These two names fit as regards dates – Henry Harley is recorded as a bookbinder in London (by Packer*) for the years 1876 – 1891 and Thomas and William Clark are listed (in Conroy**) as bookbinders’ toolmakers in London from 1877 to 1901.

Binder’s names on finishing tools are quite rare – I have handled several hundred tools over the past 40 years and have only come across Zaehnsdorf and Fazakerley, both large binderies who no doubt felt that tools might ‘disappear’ if they were not stamped. But there were many other large binderies who clearly did not feel it was necessary.

It was also the case that finishing tools were often – indeed, usually – owned by the finisher himself (in those days it was always, regrettably ‘himself’) rather than the firm he worked for. The vast majority of bookbinders, then as now, were individual craftsmen (and occasionally craftswomen, though it seems that most women recorded as being in charge of a bindery were actually the widows of deceased binders). A master bookbinder would commonly take on one or two apprentices, one of whom might continue the business when his master retired, or died, and take over the equipment of the bindery, including the finishing tools.

Of the four names tools three are unusual designs: only the fleur-de-lis is a standard pattern, and that is the only one not made by Clark. Furthermore, the three Clark tools are also stamped “3” on the shank. Why Henry Harley needed that stamp as well as his name is a mystery, as numbers stamped on tools are usually a maker’s pattern number, always in my experience a French or German toolmaker. Here are three different and rather odd designs all stamped “3”. Strange!

Finally, could there be a connection with the firm of bookbinders near Adelaide, Australia trading as William Harley & Son?

*Maurice Packer, Bookbinders of Victorian London, British Library 1991

**Tom Conroy, Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers 1780 – 1966, Oak Knoll Press 2002

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