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'CAST IN BRASS: The Story of ABS Hand Tools'
by Trevor Lloyd

Stewart Field

• For a pictorial guide to the ABS manufacturing process, click here

Stewart Field left school in 1962, aged 16, and went to work for Bristol University as a laboratory technician, beginning his career by cleaning the blackboards in the lecture theatres and ending up manufacturing all the instruments and apparatus for the Low Temperatures Research Group which did fundamental research into solid state physics. In an apocryphal story, one of the physics lecturers is purported to have said, "Oh, Stewart, yes - taught me everything I know".

It was because of his ability to solve problems and see solutions for things that eluded other people, that in 1981 he was recommended to a student of bookbinding at Brunel Technical College who was looking for someone to reproduce an old finishing tool. Stewart immediately knew that not only could he make a reproduction of that tool, which was badly worn, but he could improve on it greatly, and make the tool as good as new.

Stewart had for some time been manufacturing jewellery using an ultrasonic drill which he had bought in an auction some time before, and had worked out a way to use this drill to inlay very complex shapes of different coloured agate into each other. He knew that by adapting this process, and combining it with casting using the lost wax technique (which he was already familiar with) he would have the basis for producing high quality tools. Stewart had no knowledge of finishing tools, or of their history, so he was not hampered by knowing the difficulties that tool makers had had in the past when casting tools. He was, as it were, starting with a clean slate.

His first tool was successful but, he admits, could have been a little more sophisticated. That said, right from the start the shanks were threaded into the handles (which means they never come loose!), something that is not seen on any other tools. Stewart went on to make a few more tools and, later in 1981, he met both Brian Edwards and Alan Armstrong. With Brian’s knowledge of the binding world, and Alan’s expertise in the book world, they formed ABS Supplies and, within a short space of time, they had moulds made for about 90 designs. Then in 1982 the first catalogue was produced. This was a great success and, combined with a trip to a trade fair in Belgium where they made many contacts, ensured that ABS became very busy.

Many more designs were added over the next year, and a second catalogue was produced. As well as all that work, Stewart also had to contend with making a constant supply of 'special' tools; all the initial moulds being cut by hand on his pantograph. He also added pallets, and fillet wheels (building a special press tool for making the forks), to the catalogue.

In 1984 Stewart had full control of ABS and despite being overun with work, he erred on the side of caution, and remained full time at Bristol University, producing all the artwork, moulds, tools etc. in his 'spare time'.

Many long hours cutting moulds in the basement spurred Stewart on to think of a way to automate the first stage of the procedure, so he designed and built a machine which would cut moulds by scanning a drawing mounted onto a rotating disc; inspired by a machine the Royal Mint uses to mill coining dies. However, this was just at the time computers were coming to the fore, so before the mark one machine was up and running, Stewart decided to build another type of engraver that was computer driven. It was a great success; the time to cut a mould by hand was around two hours, now Stewart could set the engraver running and (he says, jokingly, go down the pub) and it would complete it’s task in around forty-five minutes. This was ready for the release of catalogue 6 in 1995. The next few years were very busy for ABS.

Stewart had a bad year in 1996, his mother became very ill and, as she lived at home with him, he had the responsibility of looking after her. She died later in the year, and before Stewart had had a chance to get over her death, he was diagnosed with a tumour on his tongue. He was told the result of the biopsy on Tuesday, and by Sunday he was in hospital for what turned out to be the first of three extensive sessions of surgery, during which time neither he nor anyone else was very optimistic about his future. However, five years later Stewart can do virtually everything he wants to.

In 1999 he retired from Bristol University after 36 years, and now concentrates on ABS, a couple of other related projects and, whenever he can, travelling in Europe. His eighth catalogue was published in January 2003, and features some 500 tools, many of which are recent additions.

Stewart is a remarkable man. His ability to anticipate problems, and the apparent ease with which he solves them, is inspiring. Many years ago when I was discussing making some large special tools he said to me, "But surely you need these to be domed, so you can get more pressure in the centre?". He was, of course, absolutely right, but I had not asked him about doming the tools as I assumed it would not be possible to cast them in that shape. When I left, he said he would think about it, and as soon as I had got home he phoned to say that he had solved the problem and that he could easily dome a tool to a 148mm radius. When I was talking to him about this article I asked him what his motivation was; "Easy," he said, "solving problems". Long may he continue to do that!

© Trevor Lloyd 2002

An edited version of this article was originally published in
Vol. 16 of BOOKBINDER, the Journal of the Society of Bookbinders

For a pictorial guide to the tool manufacturing process, click here

Anyone wishing to contact Stewart can do so at:

ABS Supplies
36 Kingsdown Parade

+44 (0)1179 427 456

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