I looked over my tools today. Measured their worth, their weight, their weight to strength ratios, and then the open-handed handshake they have always given me. They’re honest things, the tools I own, transparently so–giving of their best, always, you know!
I wondered which politician or economist, media reporter or anchorperson could look at my planes and pick out the one that’s served me every day for 55 years and never baulked at the task. You know the ones I mean. The ones that wear split-worn jeans, cut and scrubbed and sanded to show wear. Someone somewhere in Bangladesh or India, maybe Pakistan, earning near nothing in sweatshops put them together and must have wondered what on earth such a thing was all about. Anyway, enough said. I considered my tools the more, what they meant to me one-on-one, in the great scheme of life, this pandemic, and there my heart leapt with their trueness to me. I told myself this; They have never let me down and never refused to work unless I neglected them and failed to sharpen them.
When and how they came to me is etched into my brain. If and when my brain gives out, I know their image will be impressed indelibly somewhere in the canyons. As I measured them, lifted them each, one by one, spun them, flipped them end for end in search of their marks, I touched the ones by which I identify elements of their history since coming to me. Scars, often, a drop here and catch there, a snag maybe, remain permanently recorded. I have lovely ones and then some unlovely ones, but still ones that I have grown to love owning, keeping and using.
Some work well and are ugly, characterless pieces because that was how they were made. Things can still work well, even when made by a brute method in seconds. They might be ugly because of their sheer bulk and mass, like a road digger or grader. The stiffness of mechanisms, the plastic of handles, such like that, can also become their own expressive ugliness. But I can overcome my dislikes if I get good performance. I own a Teflon-coated saw plate made shamefully at one time by the famed Spear and Jackson Company in the late 60s, early 70s with a black plastic handle. Tool designers like them wanted to render wooden handles obsolete by design. They succeeded. Anyway, it never rusted throughout its entire life and it still cuts as beautifully as any of the most premium makes because of the non-stick frictionless ease of a non-stick frying pan. Imagine a saw not rusting in 50 years. It doesn’t look the part anywhere near my workbench and doesn’t appear in my videos nor at woodworking shows I’ve traveled to in and around the UK and the US. It just seems still to me to be out of place, but here it stays with me.
AS my eyes walked me along the open shelves and into unopened boxes I could remember the times and the places that I bought the pieces and even the atmosphere surrounding me when I made my purchase or received each tool. I remember the sunlight in a field at a carboot sale in 1985 when a Stanley 71 router plane hung from my hand with a sticker on it saying £3 in pencil. Then too the water running down the plate glass window pane as my nose pressed against the glass and my hand gripped my five pounds to buy a #78 at the Edgeley street hardware shop in Stockport.
I’d worked a whole week for these one-pound notes burning a hole in my hand, but I wanted a little block plane with its adjustable throat that sat atop that strange coloured orange box with the Stanley name printed on it. £3 seemed such a lot when I was fifteen. I worked 46 hours for £3.50… for the week and not the hour.
The shop owner stood in his brown shop coat extolling the virtues of my purchases, opening the boxes, showing me what I already knew and slipping them back into their inside wrappings of waxed brown paper. I also bought two nail punches (sets USA) for setting nails and a coping saw made by Eclipse. I still have all of these now, after 55 years in daily use.
Discovering tools and understanding their functionality never ends. I have read books by others on hand tools, often soulless text that made no room for feelings, no room for flexing the muscle of the brain. They are like salesmen at woodworking shows and online who grab, copy and paste the same dull information provided by the manufacturer and then massage a little extra into the description to entice their buyers and show how wise they are about something they’ve never used in the day today. A little spin here and there and then they have the only thing they now what to make, the sale! Of course, it isn’t all like that, but you must remember that selling means communication and some people are especially good with their verbiage. If you are confused enough by the illusion offered in too many choices and too much information then you will plumb to buy anything or nothing.
Though the wet glass and the nose pressed cannot come from an online purchase, once you unpack your cardboard Amazon outer and forget the too high price of shipping, a love affair begins. You sharpen up and take that stroke and then you catch the once perfect handle with a square and you wince. There it is, that mark recorded in the wood and the brain, and fifty years later you recall every single detail!