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The Bonefolder, A Bookbinder’s Best Friend

As a bookbinder, my toolbox boasts an array of alluring implements. The sharp precision of the cutting knife, the rhythmic click of the awl, the satisfying heft of the book press – each tool sings its hymn of craft. Yet, none inspires such quiet veneration as the unassuming bonefolder. It's a humble little marvel, often relegated to the shadows of flashier instruments, but its contribution to the symphony of bookbinding is both indispensable and profound.

This article is an ode to the bonefolder, an intimate exploration of its history, uses, variations, and care. To the seasoned binder, it may be a familiar companion, but I hope to illuminate its depths, sharing insights garnered from my practice and the wisdom of fellow bibliophiles. For the curious outsider, I aspire to unveil the magic concealed within this modest tool, beckoning you into the captivating world of bookbinding.


The Ancient Echoes in the Bonefolder

The unassuming bonefolder, in its journey through time, boasts not just a lineage, but a rich tapestry of cultural threads. Its story whispers of scribes hunched over papyrus scrolls in sun-drenched Egypt, of skilled artisans in ancient China coaxing folds into delicate silk scrolls, and of European monastic workshops echoing with the click-clack of bone against parchment.


From Desert Sands to Imperial Workshops:

In the cradle of civilization, along the banks of the Nile, early bone folders emerged, carved from polished animal bones. These companions of the "librarii ferramentum," the Roman tools of the scribe, bore witness to the birth of alphabets and the inscription of history on papyrus scrolls. Their gentle touch smoothed the fragile material, ensuring clean folds and the preservation of knowledge through millennia.


Eastward Across the Silk Road:

As cultural winds carried knowledge eastward, the bonefolder found a new home in the workshops of Imperial China. Here, skilled artisans wielded its smooth surface to tame delicate silk scrolls, shaping them into vessels for calligraphy and intricate paintings. Bamboo, a readily available alternative, lent its elegance to the craft, reflecting the unique aesthetic sensibilities of the East.


Medieval Manuscripts and Monastic Scribes:

With the rise of European monasteries, the bonefolder became a silent partner in the creation of illuminated manuscripts. Skilled scribes, tucked away in candlelit scriptoria, relied on its gentle pressure to fold vellum and parchment into precise pages. They coaxed intricate folds into liturgical texts, and burnished leather bindings to a warm, inviting glow, leaving behind a legacy of beauty and devotion.

Image of Bonefolders

Across Continents and Eras:

Beyond these prominent threads, the tapestry of the bonefolder's history extends far and wide. Islamic bookbinders in the Levant utilized polished ivory, its smooth surface echoing the intricate geometric patterns woven into their masterpieces. In Mesoamerica, long before European contact, Aztec codices bore witness to the use of polished wood tools, instruments of a distinct cultural heritage.


Each culture imbued the bonefolder with its unique character, adapting its form and function to the materials and techniques at hand. Its story isn't merely one of evolution but of a dialogue between civilizations, a testament to the universal human need to shape, preserve, and share knowledge.


Beyond Borders: Bonefolders in a Global Tapestry


While our journey through the bonefolder's story has focused primarily on Western traditions, its melody resonates far beyond these shores. Let's embark on a cultural odyssey, exploring how this humble tool weaves its magic into diverse bookbinding traditions across the globe:


Africa: In the vibrant tapestry of African bookbinding, the bonefolder takes on distinct forms and purposes. Among the Maasai people, smooth animal horns serve as elegant folding tools, their natural curves echoing the fluidity of nomadic life. In Ethiopia, carved wooden spatulas, often adorned with intricate geometric patterns, become multi-faceted companions, smoothing leather, creasing parchment, and even adding decorative flourishes. The bonefolder, in these contexts, transcends its utilitarian function, becoming a symbol of cultural heritage and artistic expression.


Asia: Eastward, the bonefolder's melody takes on a delicate whisper in the refined world of Japanese bookbinding. Here, bone and bamboo spatulas, known as "honebari," dance with exquisite precision, guiding fragile washi paper into intricate fan-shaped books and meticulously bound scrolls. In China, polished ivory folders, once a mark of imperial patronage, give way to the ubiquitous bamboo "benchi," its smooth surface coaxing silk scrolls into elegant forms. Each region whispers its unique tune, showcasing the bonefolder's adaptability and enduring role in preserving knowledge and artistry.


Beyond Continents: Our global symphony isn't complete without venturing beyond traditional bookbinding. In Mesoamerica, before European contact, polished wood tools, reminiscent of Aztec codices, smoothed and folded amatl bark paper, creating vibrant records of their culture. In Islamic bookbinding traditions, ivory and horn folders, often intricately carved with geometric patterns, adorn workshops, their smooth surfaces contributing to the meticulous creation of exquisite leather-bound masterpieces. This global tapestry reveals the bonefolder as a universal tool, transcending cultures and eras, united by its common purpose: to shape, preserve, and share knowledge.


By embracing this broader perspective, we appreciate the bonefolder not just as a tool, but as a bridge connecting diverse cultures and artistic expressions. It becomes a testament to the universal human need to craft, preserve, and share stories, a silent symphony weaving together the threads of history and creativity across continents and eras.


A Multifaceted Muse: The Many Roles of the Bonefolder in Exquisite Detail


The bonefolder, beyond its unassuming appearance, is a veritable chameleon of the bookbinding world. Its smooth surface and gentle touch lend themselves to a symphony of tasks, each adding its note to the harmonious creation of a book.


Let's delve deeper into its multifaceted artistry:


Folding with Finesse:

From Papyrus to Parchment: In ancient Egypt, bonefolders coaxed precise folds into delicate papyrus scrolls, ensuring the smooth unfurling of sacred texts and historical records. Roman scribes, their inheritors, echoed this technique, their "librarii ferramentum" guiding folds in parchment manuscripts that documented the rise and fall of empires.


Paper Precision: The invention of paper in China revolutionized bookmaking, and with it, the role of the bonefolder. Skilled artisans used it to fold thin sheets with remarkable accuracy, creating intricate fan-shaped books and delicate paperbound volumes that continue to captivate collectors today.


Modern Marvels: The bonefolder remains a mainstay in contemporary paper crafts. Origami artists rely on its gentle pressure to coax paper into mesmerizing geometric shapes, while mapmakers utilize it to fold large-scale charts with unwavering precision. The art of marbling, with its swirling patterns of color, wouldn't be possible without the bonefolder's ability to gently manipulate dampened paper.


Scoring for Success:

Medieval Manuscripts: In the workshops of medieval monasteries, the bonefolder's sharp edge scored parchment and vellum before folding, ensuring clean lines and preventing unsightly cracks. This technique, honed over centuries, can still be seen in the majestic, illuminated manuscripts that grace museum shelves.


Beyond Books: The art of scoring extends beyond traditional bookbinding. Printmakers use it to fold delicate etching papers with minimal damage, while conservators rely on it to gently crease fragile historical documents before encapsulation. Even in the modern world of paper engineering, scoring with a bonefolder plays a crucial role in creating intricate pop-up books and interactive paper sculptures.


Image of Bonefolders
Bonefolders Available at Talas

Burnishing to Brilliance:

Leather's Allure: Perhaps the most celebrated role of the bonefolder is its ability to burnish leather. The smooth surface compresses fibers, creating a warm, lustrous finish that elevates the material from mere covering to a work of art. From the opulent bindings of Renaissance Europe to the rustic charm of American Arts and Crafts movement volumes, the bonefolder's burnishing touch has graced countless leather masterpieces.


Beyond Bovine Beauty: While leather remains the classic canvas for burnishing, the bonefolder's magic extends to other materials. Silk bookbindings in traditional Chinese styles benefit from its gentle polishing, while modern conservators use it to burnish delicate parchment and vellum documents, restoring their lost sheen.


Smoothing the Way:

Adhesive Artistry: From delicate gold leaf application to intricate mosaic inlays, the bonefolder acts as a meticulous assistant. Its smooth surface helps smooth out adhesives, eliminate bubbles, and ensure seamless application, ensuring intricate embellishments adhere flawlessly to the book's surface.


Beyond the Bindery: This role isn't confined to bookbinding. Furniture makers use bonefolders to smooth leather upholstery, while conservators rely on it to gently press down fragile paper fragments during restoration. Even in the world of fine art, the bonefolder finds its niche, smoothing oil paintings and canvas creases, preserving the artist's vision for generations to come.


Supporting with Strength:

A Steadfast Ally: Throughout the bookbinding process, the bonefolder serves as a versatile support tool. It holds pages open for precise sewing, flattens warped boards, and applies gentle pressure during various stages of construction. Its unassuming form belies its remarkable strength, a sturdy partner in the creation of every book.


Masters of the Craft: Artisans of the Bone, Each Stroke a Signature


The humble bonefolder, in the hands of skilled artisans, transcends its utilitarian purpose to become a canvas for artistic expression. Each craftsman imbues the tool with their unique style, technique, and aesthetic, resulting in a spectrum of bonefolders as diverse as the books they help create.


Nigel Blackwell: Bone's Enduring Song:

Nestled in the heart of England, Nigel Blackwell's workshop echoes with the ancient rhythms of bone craftsmanship. Inspired by centuries of tradition, he sculpts bonefolders from ethically sourced materials, each imbued with warmth and character. His signature lies in the subtle curves and organic shapes, reminiscent of the natural world, that dance under the artist's touch. Blackwell's bonefolders are whispered testaments to the enduring song of bone, resonating with history and whispering promises of future creations.


Christopher Shaw: A Symphony of Form and Function:

Across the English Channel, Christopher Shaw's workshop in Wales hums with a different tune. His bonefolders are meticulously crafted, each stroke precise and intentional. They boast clean lines, geometric shapes, and an undeniable air of modern sensibility. Shaw's artistry lies in his masterful balance of form and function. His bonefolders are not merely tools, but miniature sculptures, each a testament to the precision and beauty achievable with bone.


Michel Gaspard: Where Bone Meets Exotica:

In the sun-drenched south of France, Michel Gaspard takes Bone on a journey of exotic encounters. His workshop is a treasure trove of rare woods and bones, each whispering tales of distant lands. Gaspard's bonefolders are a fusion of earthy elegance and cosmopolitan flair. He marries polished bone with ebony from Africa, cocobolo from South America, and olive wood from the Mediterranean, resulting in tools that are as much works of art as they are instruments of the trade. Owning a Gaspard bonefolder is to hold a piece of the world in your hand, a miniature masterpiece whispering of faraway shores.


Andreas Krell: Precision Engineered for Perfection:

Across the border in Germany, Andreas Krell's workshop hums with the quiet hum of precision engineering. His bonefolders are the epitome of German efficiency, meticulously crafted for ultimate functionality. Krell utilizes bone alongside innovative materials like Delrin and titanium, creating tools that are as smooth as they are sturdy. His signature lies in the subtle details: perfectly balanced weight, ergonomic curves, and an almost invisible polish that glides effortlessly across paper and leather. A Krell bonefolder is an ode to functionality, a whisper of perfection in every stroke.


These are just a glimpse into the diverse world of bonefolder artisans. Each craftsman brings their unique voice to the table, shaping bone into tools that reflect their skills, sensibilities, and cultural heritage. Owning a bonefolder crafted by a master is not just acquiring a tool, but embracing a piece of their artistic journey, a silent conversation between generations of binders and the enduring magic of bone.


Beyond Bone: A Feast of Folding Tools for Every Binder's Palette


While bone remains the undisputed champion of the bindery, a captivating array of alternative materials beckons adventurous bookbinders to explore new textures and techniques. Each material brings its unique personality to the folding party, influencing how it dances with paper, whispers to cloth, and caresses leather. Let's dive into this smorgasbord of options:


Teflon: The Frictionless Whisperer:

Imagine gliding across the smoothest ice rink, your blade tracing delicate folds on whisper-thin Japanese paper. That's the magic of Teflon. Its near-frictionless surface makes it a dream come true for working with fragile papers, marbled sheets, and intricate inlay work. It won't snag or tear, allowing for precise folds without damaging delicate fibers. However, its lack of burnishing potential means you'll need alternative tools for polishing leather to a luminous glow.


Image of a Teflon folder
Teflon Folder

Delrin: The Sturdy Stalwart:

For those who crave heft and stability, Delrin, a durable polymer, steps onto the stage. Its robust nature tackles thick papers, heavy boards, and demanding tasks with unwavering confidence. Unlike Teflon, its slightly textured surface lends itself to gentle burnishing on leather, adding a subtle sheen without risking over-polishing. However, its rigidity requires a lighter touch on delicate papers compared to the buttery glide of Teflon.


Metals: Precision with a Chill:

Metal folders, often crafted from stainless steel or brass, bring a touch of industrial elegance to the bindery. Their smooth surfaces offer predictable glide on various materials, while their weight provides reassuring heft for precise folds. Metal excels at burnishing leather, its coolness preventing overheating and ensuring a controlled, lustrous finish. However, be mindful of potential scratches on delicate papers – a gentle touch is key.


Wood: Nature's Warm Embrace:

For those who seek a connection to the natural world, wood whispers its earthy charm. Exotic hardwoods like ebony and cocobolo offer exceptional durability and visual appeal, their unique grains adding a touch of rustic elegance to the bindery. While wood works well for burnishing leather, its textured surface requires caution with delicate papers. Lighter woods like maple or cherry provide a gentler touch but may lack the heft and durability of their denser counterparts.


Understanding the Dance:

Choosing the right folder material is like picking your dance partner – it's all about compatibility. Here's a quick guide to how each material interacts with different bookbinding materials:



·         Teflon: Ideal for fragile papers, marbled sheets, and intricate inlay work.

·         Delrin: Suitable for thicker papers and demanding tasks, but requires a light touch on delicate sheets.

·         Metal: Predictable glide but be mindful of potential scratches.

·         Wood: Lighter woods like maple or cherry work well, but adjust pressure for delicate papers.



·         Teflon: Smooth glide facilitates precise folds and avoids snags.

·         Delrin: Can be used for folding and light burnishing, but consider a bonefolder for optimal results.

·         Metal: Offers good control and burnishing potential.

·         Wood: Most wood types work well with cloth, depending on the desired level of burnishing.



·         Teflon: Not suitable for burnishing, but works well for folding.

·         Delrin: Offers gentle burnishing, ideal for a subtle sheen.

·         Metal: Excellent for burnishing, but use caution to avoid over-polishing.

·         Wood: Most wood types work well, with denser woods like ebony creating a higher shine.


Ultimately, the best folder material is the one that resonates with your personal style and project demands. Experiment, embrace the diversity, and find the perfect partner to guide your folds, whisper comfort to your leather, and leave its signature on your bookbinding journey.


Caring for Your Companion: The Ritual of Oiling

The humble bonefolder, like any treasured tool, thrives with tender care. And the most sacred ritual in its life? The act of oiling. It's a dance of nourishment, a whisper of appreciation, a way to keep your faithful companion supple, smooth, and ready to guide countless folds over its lifetime.

The Symphony of Oils:

There's no single melody in the symphony of bonefolder oils. Each binder, like a skilled composer, can choose their preferred notes.


Popular choices include:

Mineral Oil: The classic, the go-to maestro. Gentle, odorless, and readily available, it penetrates the bone, preventing dryness and cracks.


Beeswax: Warm, fragrant, and with a touch of natural polish, beeswax adds a subtle sheen and protects against moisture. Its slightly tacky surface offers a little extra grip for some binders.


Walnut Oil: A nutty nuance for the adventurous. Walnut oil nourishes the bone and leaves a soft, silky finish, ideal for those who prefer a lighter touch.


Jojoba Oil: For the eco-conscious maestro, jojoba oil, a plant-based wonder, mimics the bone's natural oils, nourishing without leaving a greasy residue.


The Dance of Application:

Less is more in the waltz of oiling. A mere whisper suffices.


Follow these steps:

Cleanse: Gently wipe your bonefolder with a soft, damp cloth to remove any dirt or dust.


Anoint: Dip a lint-free cloth in a small amount of your chosen oil, then dab it onto the bonefolder's surface. Spread the oil evenly but avoid saturating it.


Buff: Buff the bonefolder with a clean, dry cloth to remove any excess oil and polish the surface to a soft sheen.


Frequency of the Ritual:

There's no rigid metronome dictating the rhythm of oiling. Frequency depends on usage and climate. As a general guide:


Regular Use: Once a week for heavy usage, every two weeks for moderate use.


Seasonal Shift: A touch more oil during dry winters, a light application during humid summers.


Listening to Your Bone: The bone itself whispers the need. If it feels dry or rough, it's time for a nourishing dance.


Forbidden Notes:

Avoid harsh chemicals, vegetable oils, and anything greasy. They can damage the bone, leaving it slippery or discolored. Remember, less is more, and gentle care is the key to a long and harmonious relationship with your bonefolder.


Beyond the Oil:

Oiling is not the only act of love. Store your bonefolder in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight and harsh temperature changes. Give it an occasional polish with a soft cloth to remove any build-up of dirt or adhesive residue. And most importantly, use it with care and appreciation. Let every fold be a testament to your skill and respect for this timeless tool.


By embracing the ritual of oiling, you not only prolong the life of your bonefolder but also deepen your connection with this humble yet essential companion. May its smooth surface guide your hand in creating timeless masterpieces, each fold a whisper of care, each book a testament to the enduring dance between binder and tool.


Bonefolder TLC: Mending Common Maladies and Keeping Your Tool Thriving

Like any faithful companion, your bonefolder deserves your attentive care. Here's a toolkit of practical tips to keep it smooth, sturdy, and singing its folding symphony for years to come:


Preventing Pesky Problems:

Hydration Hero: Regular oiling is your bonefolder's secret weapon. Choose natural oils like mineral, beeswax, walnut, or jojoba – a little goes a long way! Apply a thin layer with a lint-free cloth, buffing it to a soft sheen. Frequency depends on usage and climate, but once a week for heavy use and every two weeks for moderate use is a good rule of thumb. Listen to your bone – if it feels dry or rough, it's thirsting for a nourishing rubdown.


Temperature Tantrums: Avoid extreme temperatures and humidity changes. Direct sunlight can warp your bonefolder, while sudden temperature drops can lead to cracks. Store it in a cool, dry place, like a drawer or craft box, away from radiators or drafts.


Cleaning Cadence: Don't let debris dull your shine! After each use, gently wipe your bonefolder with a soft, damp cloth to remove any dirt or adhesive residue. Harsh chemicals are a big no-no – stick to water or a mild soap solution if needed. Be sure to dry it thoroughly afterward.


Troubleshooting Toolbox:

Crack Calamity: If your bonefolder develops a small crack, don't panic! A dab of superglue applied carefully along the crack, followed by light clamping for a few hours, can often bring it back to life. For larger cracks, consulting a professional woodworker or bonefolder maker might be the best remedy.


Scratchy Scoundrel: Minor scratches can be buffed out with a soft cloth and a tiny dab of fine-grit sandpaper (around 600 grit). Be gentle and work with the grain of the bone. For deeper scratches, consider seeking professional help for sanding and refinishing.


Warped Woes: Heat and moisture can sometimes warp your bonefolder. Don't despair! Try gently placing it on a flat surface with weights on top (books work well) and leave it undisturbed for a day or two. The bone may naturally re-straighten with patience. If not, consulting a bonefolder maker for possible heat-reforming might be necessary.


Remember: Prevention is always better than cure. Regular oiling, proper storage, and gentle cleaning go a long way in keeping your bonefolder healthy. Listen to its whispers – a little TLC goes a long way in ensuring this humble tool remains your loyal partner in countless bookbinding adventures.


Bonus Tip: If you're crafting your bonefolder, invest in high-quality bone or wood and choose a comfortable shape and size that fits your hand perfectly. A personalized bonefolder becomes an extension of yourself, a treasured part of your bookbinding journey.


By following these tips and listening to your bonefolder's needs, you can ensure it thrives for years to come, its smooth surface guiding you in creating countless bookmaking masterpieces.


In Harmony with Nature: Crafting a Sustainable Bonefolder Journey

In the symphony of bookbinding, a harmonious note is resonating louder than ever before the call for sustainability. As we celebrate the timeless craft and cherish our beloved bonefolders, it's crucial to consider the environmental impact of our tools and practices. Here, we explore ways to embrace sustainability, ensuring our folding companions sing in harmony with nature:


Embracing Ethical Alternatives:

Animal-free Avenues: While traditional bonefolders hold a charm and history undeniable, ethical concerns around animal products are growing.


Explore sustainable alternatives like:

Eco-conscious Woods: Choose ethically sourced hardwoods like FSC-certified ebony or cocobolo for beauty and durability. Consider lighter woods like maple or cherry for a gentler touch.


Plant-based Powerhouses: Bamboo, a fast-growing and renewable resource, offers a smooth and sturdy surface. Delrin, a durable polymer, is another eco-friendly option.


Upcycled Gems: Give new life to vintage tools or salvaged wood, adding a unique story to your craft.


Responsible Sourcing: When choosing a bonefolder, seek information about the source of the material. Opt for ethically sourced bone from byproducts like waste materials or sustainable ranching practices.


Caring for Your Companion with Eco-Consciousness:

Natural Oils: Ditch harsh chemicals! Mineral oil, beeswax, walnut oil, and jojoba oil are all natural oil options that nourish your bonefolder without harming the environment.


DIY Buffing Power: Skip synthetic pads and opt for natural alternatives like soft linen cloths or beeswax-infused buffs for gentle polishing.


Storage with Sensitivity: Avoid plastic sleeves or airtight containers for storage. Choose breathable cotton bags or natural wood boxes to prevent moisture buildup and promote long-lasting beauty.


Beyond the Bonefolder:

Paper with a Conscience: Choose acid-free, recycled, or FSC-certified paper for your bookbinding projects. This minimizes your environmental footprint while supporting sustainable forestry practices.


Adhesives with an Eco-Edge: Opt for water-based, archival-quality adhesives that are kinder to the environment and your health.


Mindful Mending: Before discarding a damaged bonefolder, explore repair options like gluing cracks or sanding scratches. Prolonging the life of your tool through mindful mending reduces waste and adds to its unique story.


A Symphony of Sustainability:

By embracing these eco-conscious practices, we can ensure that our love for bookbinding doesn't come at the cost of the environment. Each sustainable choice, from material selection to mindful care, adds a harmonious note to the grand symphony of crafting. Together, we can create a future where the whispers of turning pages blend seamlessly with the rustling of leaves in a sustainable forest, ensuring that future generations can inherit both the art of bookbinding and the beauty of our planet.


The bonefolder is a whisper in the symphony of bookbinding, a humble tool that amplifies the magic of every fold, every burnish, every meticulous stitch. It may seem unassuming, yet within its smooth surface lies a history etched in ancient scrolls and medieval manuscripts, a legacy carried forward by modern artisans and passionate crafters.


So, the next time you reach for your bonefolder, remember the lineage it carries, the diverse hands that have shaped its form, and the stories it has helped create. It is more than just a tool; it is a silent partner, a testament to human ingenuity and our enduring love for the written word. With each gentle stroke, you become part of its story, adding your verse to the timeless poem of bookbinding.


Embrace the whisper of the bonefolder, appreciate its quiet artistry, and let it guide your hands in crafting narratives that will echo through generations. For in the dance of paper, leather, and thread, the humble bonefolder becomes an instrument of beauty, a silent collaborator in the creation of worlds both real and imagined.

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