The most beautiful tool in the world: a Japanese burnisher

Exactly twice in my life I have seen a tool and immediately felt such a keen desire to possess it that my secular observance of the eighth commandment was severely taxed. Examining Robert Minte’s collection of Japanese hera at the Bodelian Library in 2010 was the first test. They were so elegant, simple and beautiful – perfect tools, I thought. It was the longest flight of my life back to New York, with my fingers itching to make some for myself. Over time, I learned more about shaping bamboo, and bamboo itself, and I continue to enjoy making them.

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Fig. 1 Tonkin bamboo hera. They all vary, but this is the general shape I like.

The second time, the object of desire was also a Japanese tool – in this case a burnisher. I do not know much about the history of burnishers, but apparently scroll mounters made and used them. They would also make their own hera, as well as other personal and specialized tools. Is there a certain kind of beauty only found in user-made tools?

The first example of a burnisher in the West comes from Dutch paper conservators in the 1980s. Not only is this particular tool exceedingly elegant, but it is also cute: the curves of a Brancusi sculpture combined with the adorableness of a miniature toy iron. Although the tool that I copied is made entirely from wood, a colleague mentioned that they sometimes had bone or nylon soles.

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Fig. 2 Side view of the Japanese burnisher. Private collection.

A fair amount of guesswork goes into making a tool based on just a couple of images. The weight, balance, rigidity, finish on the wood, and so on, are unknown. But with tools like a hera or this burnisher, there is leeway. Although we often talk about a tool fitting our hand, in reality our hands adapt quite easily to a wide variety of handle shapes. Of course, there are strong personal differences and preferences, as well as very uncomfortable handles! A key aspect of a well-designed tool and handle is that they allow us to hold the tool in a variety of ways. A chef’s knife is a good example. Even though it has a handle, it is often held by grasping blade, bolster and handle at the same time, for chopping or accurate slicing.

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Fig. 3 Side view of the Japanese style burnisher I made. Plum wood with a bison-bone sole. Overall length 150mm.

There are three distinct ways to hold this deceptively simple burnisher. The most obvious is to grasp the small handle and use it like a tiny tacking iron. There is plenty of finger clearance, but using it like this can strain the wrist or hand if a lot of pressure is needed. More pressure can be safely applied by grasping the triangular head with two fingers. This is an ergonomic hand position, since the entire hand can direct pressure downward through the fingers. A third method is to grasp the head with your thumb and knuckle, and slightly lift up on the handle with your other fingers, use your knuckle opposite your thumb, and press down with your index finger. This hand position generates the most pressure with the least hand strain.

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Fig. 4 Usual method of holding the burnisher

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Fig. 5 Finger position for applying more pressure. This can be useful for paper mends.

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Fig. 6 Using thumb and knuckle for maximum pressure. The fingers can also lift the handle to get even more pressure.

I have been using this burnisher when making drop spine boxes and to adhere tissue repairs. It slows me down a little to have to put down my usual Delrin® folder, and then pick up this tool. That said, if you are doing a lot of repetitive work, changing hand positions is healthy. The small surface area of the sole makes it a little difficult to control if you are trying to follow a long repair, hidden under Reemay® and blotter. I have also used this burnisher when adhering, which requires extensive burnishing. I am sure there are many other uses. Overall, it seems easier and more ergonomic to hold than a bone folder.

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Fig. 7 Diagram of the Japanese-style burnishing tool I made. These dimensions are meant as a guide, not the law. Make it your own.

Making this burnisher is not complex if you have some experience working wood, but it does take a fair amount of time. First, I roughed it out on a bandsaw. Then I refined the shape with a Swedish carving hatchet and some carving knives. Finally, I sanded the wood in an 80, 150, 220 US grit progression, applied a bison-bone sole with epoxy, and then finished the wood with Watco Danish Oil finish, which wonderfully darkened it. The degree of camber on the sole affects how much pressure it can generate. A more rounded sole concentrates the pressure, a flatter one disperses it over a wider area. I am not sure if a straight or rounded heel is preferable.

While I am quite happy with this tool, the next iteration will be larger, and it will have a Delrin® sole. The head will be sized to comfortably grasp with one hand, so that I can use my other hand on the handle to apply even more pressure. I envision this useful for drop-spine box tray lining, for example, since the walls make access awkward. It should also prove useful for larger paper repairs.

Book conservation can be very repetitive and sometimes quite boring. Swapping out regularly used tools with something new can be good for repetitive stresses on your hands and can also alleviate the ennui a bit. Using a beautiful tool, or even pausing to look at it while working, can be refreshing and can positively impact the final product.

Jeffrey S. Peachey is an independent book conservator and toolmaker based in New York City. For more than 25 years, he has specialized in the conservation of books for institutions and individuals. He is a Professional Associate in the American Institute for Conservation, has taught book conservation workshops internationally, and was recently awarded fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (Italy) and Rochester Institute of Technology’s Cary Collection (New York). He is also Visiting Instructor for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium of Buffalo State University, New York University, and the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. His most recent publication is “Ausbund 1564: The History and Conservation of an Anabaptist Icon.”

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