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Bookbinding 101: Tools for Tearing or Cutting Paper

IMG_1541 butter knife.JPG

Butter Knife (non-serrated)

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 probably 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 (like with scissors or a hobby knife) look a bit more uneven when all the pages are put together. This is 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. We wanted to order in increments of 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.

While a butter knife is a cheap, or free way to get started, at some point you may want to look into getting a steel tear bar.

Tear Bars

Flexible tear bar, with both a deckled and straight edge

Flexible tear bar, with both a deckled and straight edge

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

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 cutting 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 also have a 30", which we thought might be better for tearing our 25" wide paper, thinking it would be easier to not have to lug the extra 6" of weight around unnecessarily. But, for us, we find the extra length of the 36" just seems to handle better than the 30".

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 straight edge tear bar

torn with deckled edge tear bar

torn with deckled edge tear bar

Making rulers non-slip

handle bar cork on back

handle bar cork on back

handle bar cork makes tear bars no slip

handle bar cork makes
tear bars no slip

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. So we adhered a strip of handle bar cork on the bottom of the tear bars, 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 (upside down) 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.

Other paper cutting tools: 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 planeplough, or even a sander.