Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

It may seem odd to start a (mostly) bookbinding blog post with an image of a vegetable peeler, but there is a reason.

Peter Verheyen recently wrote a post titled Bookbinding and Adapting to Life Changes in which he describes alterations he has made to both his work area and his work to accommodate changes in his physical abilities. I was going to write something in response last week, but that post headed off in a different direction, so I am only getting back to the topic now.

I used to be a weaver, which is a physically demanding occupation. I was stronger than many people as a result of my daily exertions and had better than average grip strength. Then I developed rheumatoid arthritis.

Quite suddenly I was severely limited. For a period of several years, it was a good day if I could dress myself in less than 15 minutes, and prepare at least one meal. I could not close my hand far enough to use the vegetable peeler pictured at the beginning of this post. Fortunately, ‘ergonomic’ peelers existed.

The fat handle was far easier for me to hold.

I could no longer manage a basic can opener.

This kind was easier to hold but still difficult to use due to reduced finger strength and the pain resulting from rotary motions with the hand and wrist.

I was grateful that there were a sufficient number of ‘lazy’ people in the world to result in relatively low prices for electric can openers.

I am on a good medication now, so my hands (and various other bits of me) are much more functional. However, repetitive actions can still lead to further joint damage. Even if you are young and healthy, repetitive actions can lead to joint damage. This applies to any activity including book binding. It is important to find the best tool for the job: a tool which permits you to do the work with the least stress on your body.

I won’t even show you a picture of a so-called ‘student’ bookbinding awl, the one with the slim plastic or wooden handle. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone use one for more than five minutes. For many people this awl from Talas would be fine.

I prefer the English style.

David has made me several, which provide an even larger palm grip. Here’s one.

The fatter shaft on the handle means it is easier to grip with my fingers, and the shorter overall height makes it easier to place and hold steady.

This is my standard bone folder. (It comes from J W Hewit and Sons, though I bought it in Toronto at a librarians’ congress.)

It has become evident that it is not adequate (read ‘puts too much stress on my wrist and hand’) for all the creasing of heavy paper that I have undertaken recently.This folder from Jeff Peachey would be better.

However, my new folder from Bonefolder.com is even bigger and easier to hold. I have also added a temporary foam wrapping to see if making the diameter of the grip even larger would be an improvement.

It has also occurred to me that it might be possible to use the folder vertically, holding it in a fist grip and pressing folds with the butt end. I will have to test it. That working position should put less stress on my wrist.

If I were adhering book cloth or paper to large surfaces I would get another of Jeff Peachey’s tools: the rectangular baren.

You can even use it two-handed.

On my rheumatologist’s advice, I will now be wearing this when doing jobs that might put prolonged stress on my wrist.

Since my left ankle has been cranky recently, I will also be wearing an ankle support if I have to stand for an extended period. So elegant! (I will also be wearing shoes that provide decent support.)

I have always been inclined to work straight through all of a step in making an edition or a wall piece: fold all the signatures for 24 copies or all 299 parts of a panel. Although it is possible for me to do this, it is not a good idea. I am currently in the process of punching more than 6,800 holes in the parts for one wall piece. I am trying to limit myself to doing batches of 300 or so, then taking a break to do something different with my hands. And I’m wearing the wrist support.

My advice for the young bookbinder (or anyone else planning to make their living with their hands): use the tools that will put the least stress on your hands. Try to cycle between tasks through the day so that you don’t over-stress one set of joints. Both those things should help your hands last longer. For those of us who already have some physical limitations: use the tools that will put the least stress on your hands. Try to cycle between tasks through the day so that you don’t over-stress one set of joints or exhaust one set of muscles. Both those things should help your hands last longer.

In other book news:

There are still a few days left to view PHOTOGRAPHY + BOOKS at Art Institute Chicago. You can read more about it here.

In knitting news:

It was finally warm enough (sort of) for outdoor photography, so here are some full views of recently completed knitting.

The shawl.

The bolero, front.

The bolero, back.

About Byopia Press

I have been working in the book arts field for more than twenty years, and operating Byopia Press with my husband David since the late 1990s. I began producing artist's books and altered books in 2004.
This entry was posted in book arts, bookbinding, knitting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

  1. judy hoffman says:

    Cathryn this is all excellent advice. I’m starting to get random pains in my hands and will have to try some of those tools. The fist grip is recommended for jewelers for control and as a good “neutral” position. I assume that’s what you mean – you hold the tool as if to stab. I like to rest my forearm on the edge of the work bench for small, detailed up and down movements. That’s especially good for drilling with a flex shaft. But it would also be good for punching holes. And of course the wrist and forearm align in a natural way. In general I don’t think about these things until I have a problem. Guess it’s time to get more aware. (-:

    I have probably said this before but I love seeing your knitting. I make very slow progress on knitting projects and am inspired by yours. The shawl and bolero are gorgeous! Are you on Ravelry? I lurk there, but haven’t posted a project.


    • Byopia Press says:

      Yes, the grip is the stabbing one. Bracing the arm is also good. The wrist strap helps my hand stay in the correct position which it no longer does automatically due to joint damage from the RA.
      I also lurk on Ravelry, but don’t post anything. As for the speed of knitting, I knit for about three hours in the evening. I now knit very loosely, so it is mostly easier to invent my own patterns as I am usually unable to match the gauge in a standard knitting pattern even if I go down two needle sizes. Somehow the stitches across count never coincides with the row count given! ; ]


  2. Mary Romanuck says:

    Not again… this time it is bolero envy!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. wendyfe says:

    An amazing post, Cathryn. I need to take ALL of that advice and will go through the recommendations one by one. Have recently been plagued by so many aches and pains and am working with a physio to remedy as many as possible…but your post is not only helpful in a practical way, it also inspires. And I have to say I was deeply moved to read Peter’s post – I had no idea. I am inspired by both of you, Thank you so much for sharing this. I hope you will post your blog link to the Book Arts list

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeff Peachey says:

    Thanks for your observations and advice. Thinking back to some of the production quantities in the nineteenth century — sewing 2,000 and more signatures a day by hand, for example — one wonders if it is a new problem or are we as a culture becoming feebler?


    • Byopia Press says:

      People used to be crippled by the work, but this was considered unimportant as there were more workers who could easily be trained for simple tasks like sewing. (Sewing was also most often done by females, rendering their societal value even less.)
      The other factor is that people, especially those likely to be doing jobs which would injure them over time, often didn’t live long enough to suffer some of the long term consequences of their occupations.
      I don’t know that modern humans are feebler intrinsically. Perhaps we are just less likely to grow up doing strenuous physical labour, and more likely to be successful in finding employment that does not require it. Not much call for carrying 90 pound packs on portages these days. ; ]


  5. Jeff Peachey says:

    I forgot to mention that possibly the most basic tool, the workbench and our posture at it, often is overlooked.


  6. Susanne C Scott says:

    Your bolero is beautiful – one of your creations? I have a terrible time with gauge and knitting! I am collecting “tool advice” – for knitting, sewing, assemblage, whatever manner of art I work in. Thank you.


    • Byopia Press says:

      Thanks! Yes, my own invention. The only way I have ever produced an accurate sample for gauge in knitting is by producing a significant portion of a garment like a whole front. ; ]


  7. FANTASTIC post Cathryn, thank you for sharing of yourself and your “hacks.” This has been a great discussion, here in your post, the comments, and on Book_Arts-L. Never stop!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. momo says:

    Cathryn, your post is helpful. For people affected by rheumatoid arthritis, many of our binding tasks just hurt wrists, fingers, ankles, you name it, it hurts. Your approach and generosity in sharing helpful hints help today and in future. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.


  9. Excellent post AND advice!


  10. Jan says:

    Having worked in a print shop in the finishing department for years, i find my hands are starting to give me sass and attitude so when i’m making books or painting i’m more conscious about what works….also having worked jobs where i stand for 8 hours a day gives my knee an excuse to put in its two cents. always love reading your posts…i come away with nuggets of inspiration!


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