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Lessons and learning



Hello everyone.

I've enjoyed the thread on learning strategies and opportunities these
past few days.  At the risk of sending something slightly tangental, but
hopefully appropriate, here is an essay I wrote some little while ago
about tools.  I know that there are others out there who share these
thoughts...perhaps we can extend the discussion this direction?

James T. Downey / Legacy Bookbindery
jdowney@mail.coin.missouri.edu

                      Tools.
                              James T. Downey

               I was first entranced by bookbinding because of the
          tools, I think, and the joy that came from watching my teacher
          work with them.
               I have many tools, from the large guillotine which
          stands in the corner patiently, to the small lifting knives that I
          have made from an old hacksaw blade, the edge carefully
          beveled and rounded so that it will separate paper or leather
          from board without cutting or tearing.  I keep most of my
          small hand tools in an old optician's cabinet, the thirteen
          drawers each no more than a couple of inches thick and about
          eight inches square.  The drawers are labelled, hand lettering
          over little slivers of marbled paper, each held carefully in a little
          brass plaque, though I almost never have to look for the label to
          know where the tool I need is.  My hand reaches out, opens the
          drawer, almost automatically.
               This sometimes surprises me, because by and large I am
          a clumsy man.   But in my shop I can achieve a level of grace
          that could make an athlete envious.  It is extremely rare for me
          to hurt myself at the shop, even though I am regularly working
          with scalpels sharp enough for surgery.  Mostly, this is because
          I'm  concentrating on what I'm doing.  But partly, I think, it is
          because of my love of the tools themselves, and the respect with
          which I handle them.
               This isn't a respect borne of fear for their sharpness.  It
          is something more...something that is almost spiritual.  When
          you use a tool, it tends to take on the shaping of the use, and of
          the user.  It will conform to your hand, wear in such a way that
          it actually becomes more suited to the task, until in some ways
          it is easier to use the tool correctly than to use it incorrectly.
               I think that this is why old tools, well made and well
          loved tools, are so valuable.  When you take them to hand, you
          can feel the right way to use them.  Some of the time that went
          into shaping that tool, training it for use, can be shared from
          one craftsman to the next.  So long as the tool is loved, cared
          for, and properly used, it continues to accumulate knowledge,
          storing the wisdom of the hands that use it.
               Recently I have acquired some tools designed for
          applying gold leaf to leather, a technique considered by many to
          be the height of the bookbinder's art.  I wasn't properly trained
          in gold tooling.  This was my own fault; I had not taken full
          advantage of the time that I had with my mentor, diverting my
          attention to other matters, not knowing (as he did not know)
          that he had cancer which would take him from this life when
          he still was young at heart and had much to teach.  After he was
          gone, the love and affection I had for this man made me greatly
          regret my limited vision.  I had poorly used the time I had with
          him, missed the opportunities he offered me.  It was a hard
          lesson to learn.
               So all I have is a rudimentary knowledge of gold
          tooling.  But I have these tools.  I got them from another
          bookbinder, a man who retired some twenty years ago.  He had
          heard of me, and contacted me to see if I was interested in
          buying his leather tools.  It is noteworthy that he didn't
          actually offer to sell them to me until he came to my shop, met
          me, and saw what I did.  I think I passed some sort of test,
          because he quoted me a price for those tools which was just
          enough to be sure I was serious about wanting them, but still
          well below what he may have gotten for them elsewhere.  He
          told me that he didn't know how old the tools were...he had
          bought them used from a retired bookbinder himself, when he
          was a young man.  I suspect that at least a couple of them are
          quite old.
               So these tools have passed into the hands of another
          generation.  It will take me some time of training myself,
          perhaps getting some guidance from other bookbinders who are
          familiar with this aspect of our craft, before I will begin to
          understand all of the lessons that the tools have to offer.  But
          the tools are patient, and I have a lifetime to learn.


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