Making Bone Folders from an Antler

By Bronwen Glover

Last winter, a few of us from the books department decided to go for a little hike one weekend and found ourselves walking through some woodland about half an hour from the college. One of the group came across an antler, which she wasn't too keen on keeping, so I thought I'd take it back to college and have a go at making some custom bone folders. Bone folders are a tool frequently used by bookbinders and book conservators to aid in crisp folding, for scoring, burnishing, smoothing and many other purposes. They come in many shapes and sizes and are generally very useful things to have a variety of.

The antler we found looked like it had been around for a few years. It was well chewed by rodents and had a nice layer of green growing on one side. I took it back to college and gave it a good wash in some warm soapy water, which removed most of the soil, but not much of the green. It would all be sanded off in time though so I let it dry and had a think about how to go about turning it into bone folders.

I had a chat with Jon Privett, the head of the metals conservation programme, about the possibility of cutting up the antler using some of the power tools that the bookies just don't seem to have. He was enthusiastic about my project and happy to help, so I dropped by Metals with my antler. Jon quickly buzzed the antler into various sized pieces, much more efficiently than with the hand saw that I was considering using myself.

When the antler was cut open, we found that the solid useable bone was actually quite thin. Much of the inside of the antler was an open matrix of bone that would have to be cut away.

Jon showed me various methods for smoothing and shaping the bone using some of the tools available in the Metals department. Much of the rough shaping work was done using rasps and files, then a little bench top belt sander and a buffer. A smooth finish is key for bone folders to prevent any unwanted marking on the paper being creased or scored.

Back in the Books department we tried a few different methods to shape the tools. We found that rasps and files were still the most useful for general shaping. A lot of the smoothing and fine work was done using sandpaper manually. We also had a small drill with various attachments that were useful for speedier smoothing and shaping.

In the end, the bone folders we created are not as large and sturdy as the classic bone folder that every book conservator has in their kit. They are much thinner and more flexible. More likely they will be used for finer work, possibly for making crisp corners inside clamshell boxes, or shaping headcaps on leather bindings. I'm sure we will put them to use somehow and it's always nice to have a tool you've made yourself. It was a fun experience and we've always got our eyes out to see what else we can find to create our own traditional tools or book furnishings.