Brian Conn

Notes on Japanese Screw Punch

It’s always seemed to me, unreasonably, that the most obscure knowledge must be the most valuable. If that’s so, then I am about to impart to you the most valuable knowledge in the world.

This has to do with a tool called a Japanese push drill or Japanese screw punch, a great invention for drilling holes of various sizes in paper, cloth, leather, whatever. I’ve used this tool in making Birkensnakes 2–4, and I calculate that my personal screw punch has drilled about 17,000 holes. The advantages of the screw punch are that 1) it can easily drill a hole anywhere — in contrast to a traditional hole punch, which is made to put holes only at the edge of the paper; and 2) it removes a nice clean circle of material — unlike an awl, which can also make a hole anywhere, but does so by bursting through the material, leaving a ragged edge and a bump on the surface.

One thing you’re likely to want to do with a screw punch is drill holes through the spine of a folded text block, for sewing. Unfortunately, this is a little bit difficult. The screw punch is best at drilling through materials laid flat on a flat surface; but if you flatten out your text block and then drill, you’ll usually make a crooked hole that comes out beside the spine instead of going straight through and coming out the center. So you get some wood or book board and put together a V-shaped trough for the text block to sit in while you punch it, folded enough that you can go straight through the spine by drilling straight down but open enough that you can still get in there with the drill.

This sort of works, but the drill bit tends to bind if you have a thick stack of paper, and the head sometimes leaves little smudges or indentations around the hole. Worst, though, is that the trough wears away directly under the spine where the drill keeps pushing into it, leaving the line of the spine unsupported. If this goes on long enough, things get messy and the drill starts bursting instead of drilling through the paper, like an awl. But it took a little while to put together that trough and you don’t want to do it again, so you keep going, making these sort of crummy, ragged holes.

The solution, perhaps unsurprisingly, involves duct tape, which you can use to line the trough and support the spine. Now here is the real key: do not push the duct tape all the way down into the V. Instead, stretch it across the trough, making a hammock or sling for the spine to sit in.

Wrong way to arrange duct tape Right way to arrange duct tape

When you set your text block on top of it, the duct tape makes enough of a V that you drill straight through, but sits flat enough that the screw punch works perfectly. No binding, no smudges, endless clean perfect holes. The tape takes a long time to fall apart, and when it finally does it’s easy to just put on another piece. Try this once and you will never go back.

Somewhere in the world there is someone who needs this information — I needed it myself for a couple of years — and if that person finds this page then the Internet has not been in vain.