04 January 2010

Tools of the Trade: Quoins and Weights

Some of the smaller tools for bookbinding and printing are things we don't always think about. They're not as exciting or as romantic as century-old presses or handcrafted wooden sewing frames (topics for future posts, I think), and they're not as often in our hands as bone folders or etching needles. But they are dead useful just the same.


Pronounced "coins," these little devices are what printers use to lock type in a chase, or cuts on the press bed. Quoins come in a wide variety of types, but I've mostly got one. Later, when I'm back in the printshop, I'll photograph some of the other types.

As you can see from the photograph, this type of quoin is made of two separate pieces that fit together. When you use a key (or, in my case, a big screwdriver) you twist them past each other, making them expand in width and put pressure on the furniture (those wood blocks that fill in the extra space between the type and the chase).

I've collected several different brands of this basic type. Each press maker usually also made their own quoins, and in the photograph you can see cast iron versions from Kelsey, Challenge, Warnock and Hempel (I don't know if Warnock or Hempel made presses, but Kelsey and Challenge did). Most of them use friction to stay in place, which is remarkably effective, but the Warnock quoin has a little spring-loaded nub on the inside of each half that pops into dimples on opposing half.

You may have noticed that one of these things is not like the others. It's a bar quoin, in which the parts are joined together. Despite the complexity of construction, it still works the same way. Stick a key in the hole and twist, and the quoin expands (alas, a screwdriver doesn't work on this type, so I've not used it). The advantage of this type is that it only expands in width, and doesn't slide sideways.


Even less glamourous than quoins are weights, but good weights are essential in a bookbinding shop. They range from bricks wrapped in brown paper, to lead or iron blocks covered in davy board, to specially machined brass.

I'm a little poor in weights at the moment (I've been eyeing the bricks in the garden, but I think I'll have to find a replacement for them before BillyZ will let me have them). I have a couple of very nice chunks of scrap lead that came from a batch of type donated to the Dawson Printshop last year and were rescued from the trash by printmaker and Dawson alumnus Chris Dunnett. We spent an afternoon covering them in davey board (and Chris covered his in bookcloth, too), but then I left them in Joe's studio. Eventually, I'll bring them home.

Here in my own space, I've only got two actual weights. One I just made today. I had a handful of linotype slugs that came locked into the chase of my parlour press when I bought it. Since you can't take linotype apart and reuse the letters, I've just had it sitting around taking up space. Today I finally cut some scrap card and glued it on all six sides of the stack. For fun, I used a scrap piece from the old Dawson packaging on top.

My other weight is an old flat iron that belonged to my grandmother. She had several in her collection. When she passed away last year, Mum asked me what of hers I wanted. I asked for her rock and shell collections, because it was my grandmother who first encouraged me to collect rocks (and my rock tumbler used to be hers, too). Alas, my nephew had already claimed the rocks, but I did get the shells. And I asked for her flat irons. I remember them always decorating her kitchen, which is where we always sat for Sunday tea. I don't know what happened to the rest of them, but Mum managed to snag me one, plus one of the trivets. The iron I have has a lovely smooth wooden handle.

I'm glad to have the things of Gramma's that I have. And not only does the flat iron remind me of her when I look at it, but it's useful, too.

Photo credits, from top to bottom (all by Niko):
  • Chase with a cut and furniture. Normally, you'd use at least two quoins--one to apply vertical pressure and one for horizontal. A second quoin is shown apart.
  • My collection of quoins. I really love the two-piece cast iron ones, and will keep adding to my collection. I suspect the Warnock one might be brass rather than iron, but I'm hesitant to take a file to it to find out.
  • A weight I made from old lines of linotype and scrap card.
  • My grandmother's flat iron, now a book weight in my studio.


Anonymous said...

It is already far not exception

Carol said...

Nice post, Niko, I love all that furniture you've collected. I have a few old irons that I use as weights, I must take photos and blog about them. Thanks for reminding me. Carol

Niko said...

Thanks! I'd love to see what tools you and others are using. Even though most of us use variations on the same tools, the little individual differences and personal quirks are fascinating.