Memories Are Made of These

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!

11 thoughts on “Memories Are Made of These”

  1. Hey a rare sighting of a block plane in Paul’s shop!!! I know what you mean Paul. When I worked in an automotive shop 20 years ago we had a Snap-on tools truck that came once a week. I sometimes will grab one of those tools I purchased on the truck and where I worked and who was there etc. Its a strange connection.

  2. Paul,

    How regularly do you clean/oil your tools? They’re in remarkably good shape considering the amount of use they’ve seen. many of the old tools I’ve found/purchased are rusty, or the shellac on the handles is flaking. I suppose this is from neglect rather than heavy use.

    Kind regards,

    Thomas

    Thomas

  3. David Carroll

    Lovely post! I feel much the same about some of my tools that were owned by my Father and Grandfather. Then there are some tools, like a 6-inch Starrett Combination Square, that I saved up my money for, much like you did. I took the bus to Northampton Mass and walked to Foster-Farrar Hardware store and emptied my pockets of the princely sum of about a week’s worth of groceries to claim my prize. I’ve used that square most everyday for 35 years. Every time I pick it up and my hand instinctively cradles the stock, my fingers drop onto the adjustment knob I feel happy. It’s been with me all of my working life. It cost a lot, it was an extravagance, but absolutely the best value.

    Once, I think it was in 1984, I was taking a Timber Framing class given by Jack Sobon, a noted Timber Framer, at the Hancock Shaker Village. It was a great group of guys, and we all got along learning, laughing, and working together. Jack teased me about my “little square,” asking, “Does your wife know you took her square?” but when it came to lay out some of the more complex joinery he asked to borrow it! Finally, he asked where I’d gotten it (in a hushed tone). So many memories tied to an object that’s become a part of me.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. If I ever build a workbench it will probably be for somebody other than myself. I have a European style bench that was first owned by my great grandfather. It has wooden vises and all of the nicks and scrapes along the edges that you would expect but the top is flat, the base is solid, and the wooden tommy bars on the vises are polished smooth by the hands of four generations. I can’t use it without memories of my grandfather patiently working with me on homemade kite, or some other hand made toy, while learning how to use the tools. To me it is priceless.

  5. I remember some of my tool purchases from over 50 years ago. A favorite place to visit was an Engineers Supplier in Sutton, Surrey. I can still remember the staff wearing immaculate white coats and the displays of engineering tools most of which were outside my price range.

    The other thing that brings back memories are the tools on made oneself. I still have a centre punch & cold chisel I made at school in use. They are gradually getting shorter when I grind the burrs off the head.

    Several other tools I made are resting and are only brought into use occasionally. I can still remember making them.

  6. Brent Ingvardsen

    The memories I have built were not necessarily from the purchase of a plane or a saw, but from the time spent repairing and refurbishing an old tool from a garage (boot) sale and lovingly bring that well made tool back to use. I don’t work wood for the end result, the journey is everything, mistakes and all.

  7. I still pick up my Dad’s and Grandad’s planes and smile. While none are at first glance anything special, it is ok with me. I remember the times I sat watching and listening to stories. I still cherish the times they would look my way and say “do you want to give it a go?”

    Fortunately I’ve done the same with my son and now the grandkids. They are special moments.

    I think I will go sharpen a block plane while I work this piece of sawdust out of my eye.

    It is truly a good day.

  8. I’ve tools that have stayed with me longer than my wife (ie longer than 50 years). I love them. They are handy, honest and never answer back. But if it came to it, I think I’d sell them first!

  9. Pierre Messier

    my first tools came from my grandfather a Stanley 45 ,30 different molding planes, #3 ,#5 ,#6 I was 13 and he worked for a furniture co. in town when he retired at 76 he set up my dads garage as a shop and did side jobs , I loved working with him and still use these tools today, 51 years later, I have the same shop now only double in size and a few power tools, I have picked up a few new tools hear and there but almost everything I have is old and I refurbished them , now teaching my grandson woodworking . I love your blog , and the vidios thank you.

  10. Alan Adler examined structure and earned a graduate degree in Package Design from Pratt Institute. He is the organizer of two organizations, Source Packaging and Cases by Source, which produce custom bundling for everything from airplane instruments to clinical gadgets.

  11. Keith brooks

    I can relate to everything you said here Paul I remember where I have got every tool I have tools I brought in 1977 when I was at school getting intrested in woodwork still have them most of them and over the years I have acumilated so many tools mostly I have scimped and scraped for and brought secondhand or been given to me in a mess and I have cleaned up and rescued from skips boot fairs I even enjoy cleaning them up so much I do alot for friends and even buy and sell them even though the money I get out don’t justified the time I spend but who cares I enjoy it now if I make a bit of profit I try buy something more useful to me I have even brought gentleman saws with bad teeth and have had ago at sharpening them from watching your videos I used to bung them in saw sharperners because never had time working on site great to have had a go I did one thought well that’s good did another then another and if there not that greater job who cares there cutting better than before and working for me hopefully I can only improve even made the saw holder so Mr sellers I salute you sir for your insperation and your great videos that take me back to things forgotten from my apprentice days where I left joinery shop and got into house bashing and site work all the best Paul sellers

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