The Lister List

Bone Folders

A Posting to Origami-L

on 30th January Joseph Wu, writing about the subject of bone folders threw down the gauntlet by writing "Perhaps our resident researcher, David Lister, could do some research on this topic?"

I'm flattered by Joseph's faith in my infallibility, but really this is outside my general field of research, which happens to be paperfolding. I can do little more than a Google assault and put forward some ideas.

First, I find that the general name for this simple implement is, indeed "Bone folder". Not that it folds bones, but it is often made of bone and although itself it does not fold, it is used in the process of folding. It is clearly a widely used implement, not only by paperfolders but also in other crafts where pressure is required to make a crease in any kind of sheet material as sharp as possible. Nor is it a folder in the sense of those card folders kept in filing cabinets to keep together papers on specific topics.

Most bone folders are what I imagined, namely quite small slips of flat bone from four to six inches long and finely polished. They are usually made from the bones of cows or deer or even elks. However, the horns of animals are also used. Cheaper varieties are now made from plastic, such as Teflon. As Joseph emphasises, it is important that the folder should not leave a dirty or coloured streak on the paper or other material being folded.

Paper may seem to us to be the usual material to be folded, but other foldable materials include cloth, leather, and, I should imagine, parchment or vellum or even some sorts of plastic sheeting. But I doubt if papyrus would be amenable to the process.

This is conjecture on my part, but I imagine that a glazed porcelain spoon (like those used by the Chinese and Japanese) would also serve as a bone folder. A silver dessert spoon would suffice, except that silver is notorious for leaving black marks. (Silver is used sometimes used instead of pencil for drawing - "silverpoint"). Silver is also a soft metal and would no doubt bend under too much pressure - don’t use your heirloom silver for this purpose. I have suggested that a gold spoon would not leave a mark, but I have been told that it too would mark the paper. Other possibilities are hard wood – perhaps polished ebony or lignum vitae would be ideal - and solid moulded glass. But it seems that a bone folder made from any kind of material if used with sufficient pressure can leave a mark or would leave the paper looking shiny. One suggestion for avoiding marks is to use a thin card between the bone folder and the material to be folded.

Another suggestion for flattening folded paper is to use some sort of press, such as a small printing press. (I am reminded that when I was in the RAF I used to sleep on my trousers at night to sharpen the creases – an old military trick!)

As has previously been suspected, one of the main uses (and perhaps the original use) for bone folders is in bookbinding. A book printed in sections, and each section is printed on a large sheet that is then folded up into divisions of the required page-size (one fold: folio: two folds, quarto, four folds, octavo, six folds duodecimo etc.). The sections are then cut or guillotined to free the pages where they must open, leaving one folded side to be stitched and then bound with the other sections into the spine of the book. This crease has to be made as sharp as possible, so that it will sit as closely as possible to the other sections of the book and while machinery now does the job for modern books, it formerly had to be done by hand and still has to be for hand bookbinding. This was not a job which could be done using a thumbnail and a more massive implement is necessary which will allow as much pressure as possible to be applied to the fold.

As might be expected, some people make bone folders the subject of their collections and such collections are valuable for the light they throw on the kinds of bone folders that have been used in the past. Look at for a taste of what there is. Some of the examples are typical bone slips, but others are substantial tools with a flat section at one end and a rounded section at the other that would fit snugly into the palm of the hand: surely a joy to use.

There is even a Bone Folders' Guild which was formed in February, 2001 in Madison Wisconsin. Their web site is at

But the main question asked is when and where bone folders (of whatever kind or manufacture) first originated.

I don't suppose anyone knows, but it may reasonably be conjectured that it was in connection with bookbinding.

The early books were rolled-up scrolls, but codexes (or codices) were already being introduced in classical times. The Dead Sea Scrolls, were, indeed scrolls, but the Nag Hammadi documents, (which have thrown a huge light on the gnostic religions) were discovered about the same time in Egypt, and these are codices not scrolls. So bookbinding of some sort must have been practised in classical times. Nevertheless, the key to modern bookbinding, is the technique by which the separate sections of the book are stitched together as they are in most books today. Stitched binding apparently originated in China. Accordion books (in which the separate pages are folded together in a zig-zag) preceded codices in China and they are still occasionally used in Japan. In the BOS library there is an accordion book of formal folding from Japan (alas, in fragile condition).

Little was known about early Chinese bookbinding and until recently it was thought to originate in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE). Then attention was drawn to large collections Chinese books which had been found in many scattered sites in the Dunhuang region of central China. Unfortunately the discoveries were made by diverse groups from different nations and the manuscripts are now divided between several countries, particularly, China, France, Great Britain and Germany. An International Dunhuang Project based at the British Library has been formed to coordinate the study of all the collections and to study the unexpected light they throw on an earlier period of Chinese civilisation.

The website of the Dunhuang Project is at

A most interesting specialised section about Chinese book manufacture and the different kinds of binding used is at Try, as well.

The codices from the Dunhuang project date from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, (618 to 907 CE.) Incidentally, this is the first reference so far found of any paperfolding of any kind in China, although it in no way resembles what we know as recreational Origami. I owe it to Dorothy Engleman for drawing my attention to this early example of folding. Nor was Japanese bookbinding very far behind that of China.

One of the methods of binding Chinese and Japanese books, used a stitched technique, which is essentially what is used in the majority of books today (I exclude books bound using so-called "perfect binding", which are not sewn and which, in my experience, are far from perfect), is it not possible that they used bone folders or something like them to sharpen the creases of their books? I don't know, but it's an idea!

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

31st January, 2005
Amended and corrected 5th February, 2005

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