Raymond W. Perry was a Lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design when he wrote Block Printing Craft, which was published in 1938. It’s a pretty comprehensive book that I’ve been browsing and his instructions on making a gouge from an old umbrella caught my eye.
With a file, cut a section 3 1/2 inches long from an old umbrella rib. A file is used for cutting, as tinners' snips would squeeze the rib together at the point of cutting. Point one end with a file and drive this end into a short handle. A small hole should be started in the handle to avoid splitting the wood. Care should be taken to have the steel perfectly straight and secure in the handle. The black enamel on the rib may be removed with fine sandpaper. Shape the cutting end with a fine file and then sharpen on a stone. If convenient, have the steel tempered, although it is not necessary. An umbrella rib makes a most satisfactory tool and it can be made in fifteen minutes. (Perry 83).
But, really, could you? Would it carve and could you do it in 15 minutes? I decided to give it a try and grabbed an old umbrella I’d been meaning to retire.
Umbrella ribs are the long, thin metal pieces that extend out and provide the umbrella’s structure. I started the process by snipping one of the metal ribs with a wire cutter and cut it to size with a hacksaw. The end was a little jagged so I filed it down and started sharpening it with a wet stone.
The next, and toughest, challenge was finding an appropriate handle. I thought I might give a cork a try but couldn’t find one. After trying a few other options with no success I tried jury rigging one of my Speedball linoleum cutter handles. I cut my umbrella rib segment down to the length of a Speedball interchangeable blade, inserted it into the handle, and found a way to tighten it in place by squeezing in a few small extra rib pieces. It wasn’t pretty.
I spent a little more time sharpening the end of the homemade blade and gave it a go on a scrap piece of linoleum. Needless to say, it didn’t carve very well but I could make simple marks in the block. If you were a master sharpener, I bet you could dramatically improve the tool. And, for the record, it took a lot longer than 15 minutes!
Source: Perry, R. W 1883-. (1938). Block Printing Craft. Peoria, Ill.: The Manual arts press. This book is in the public domain.