Course review: ‘Making and Sharpening Knives: A Rational Approach’ – Jeff Peachey’s sharpening workshop at Oxford Conservation Consortium

Earlier this month, the Oxford Conservation Consortium was pleased to host a 2 day knife sharpening workshop for 8 Conservators from the Consortium, the Bodleian Library and the Wellcome Institute. The 2 day course was led by Jeff Peachey, a book conservator and inventor of conservation tools and machines from New York City. Jeff will be familiar to some of you as the creator and manufacturer of the Peachey Boardslotting machine, as well as for the excellent knives and edge tools he makes for conservation practice.

Jeff demonstrating

The aims of the course were to provide an intensive introduction into making and keeping an edge tool sharp without the use of jigs, and to demystify the sharpening process by addressing the misinformation that surrounds this subject. All participants were provided with a starter kit of several sheetsof 3M microfinishing film in various grades, a ½” high speed steel hacksaw blade blank on which to practice their technique, a horse butt strop and a very comprehensive information booklet. Participants were canvassed in advance to determine which of their own knives they were most interested in working on in addition to the small ½” hacksaw blade. Spokeshave bodies and blades, curved blades such as French paring knives and 1” lifting knives were found to be the areas where people needed most experience of sharpening.

Jeff taking us through the procedure

The course began with a brief theoretical discussion from Jeff on the principles of achieving a sharp edge on both straight and curved knives, as well as the pros and cons of the various sharpening systems available to the conservator. Jeff went on to practically demonstrate his sharpening technique on a ½” hacksaw blank. This involved rough shaping the blade on a diamond stone and then flattening the back of the knife and creating the edge by working through the various grades of 3M finishing papers. These were self adhesive and were stuck down onto a sheet of plate glass to provide a level sharpening surface. During the demonstration Jeff stressed 4 key areas essential to success. These were the importance of the creation of a burr and a blade angle of 13°, which he suggests is the most suitable for paring leather, the dangers of rounding the bevel and the usefulness of scratches on the blade created by the coarser grades to show when sufficient sharpening with a particular grade of paper has been achieved. The final process was stropping the blade. Jeff advised us to adhere a piece of reverse calfskin to the back of the horse butt strop to make a 2 sided strop, using the horse butt first and then finishing the blade with a few sweeps across the calfskin.

Shaping the spokeshave body

During the course, most participants created a small lifting knife and protective sheath and modified their own spokeshave knives and bodies. The spokeshave bodies required considerable work with files to reduce the body to the correct angle and the bed to the correct opening width but the end results were certainly worth the effort. Jeff showed a technique for increasing the contact between the blade and the spokeshave body by applying a layer of epoxy resin covered with a layer of paper. The blade was then clamped into place and allowed to dry, imprinting the profile of the blade position on the spokeshave body. This technique filled in any unevenness in the bed of the spokeshave and in so doing would minimise vibration of the blade when in use. Jeff also discussed the various profiles of spokeshave blade that can be used, suggesting a straight blade where the corners have been slightly rounded to prevent the parings from catching to be the most useful.

Finally, Jeff demonstrated his technique of sharpening curved blades. A sharp edge was achieved by moving the blade in sections across the finishing surface and then smoothing the edge, working through the grades of paper as with a straight blade. Here it seemed that the most difficult aspect was maintaining the bevel angle of 13° and it was important to constantly check that this was being achieved.


All participants came away with a useful set of knives, resplendent in their calfskin sheaths, and an increased level of confidence in their abilities to sharpen and maintain their edge tools. Jeff’s ability to communicate his subject was excellent and the course aims of demystifying the sharpening process were certainly achieved. The Oxford Conservation Consortium is very grateful to the Wellcome Institute for providing funding for this course to take place.

Victoria Stevens, September 2010

Jeffrey S. Peachey is the owner of a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books, and the maker of conservation tools and machines. He is a Professional Associate in the American Institute for Conservation and Chair Emeritas of Conservators In Private Practice (2008-9). For more than 20 years, he has specialized in the conservation of books and paper artifacts for institutions and individuals. A consultant to major libraries and university collections in the New York City region and nationally, he has been the recipient of numerous grants to support his work. A well-known teacher, Peachey also provides conservation-focused guidance to students in art, archives, and bookbinding programs.  He is also the inventor of the Peachey Board Slotting Machine.

The Oxford Conservation Consortium offers a comprehensive collections care service to 11 college members and the National Trust. It was established in 1990 by Nancy Bell and currently employs 6 conservators with Jane Eagan as Head of Conservation. Working from a purpose built studio provided by Merton College but based in Magdalen College, the Consortium aims to provide an innovative and informed approach to conservation treatment as well as preservation advice and activities to our members and their library and archive collections.

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