Winter approaches, we just had the first snowfall, but fortunately most of it melted — gives me one more chance to put stuff away for the winter. But, oh no! that choice ash baulk I had been saving to resaw has already been found by my friends the termites. Someone told me they go underground for the winter, but this crowd is still happily chewing away out by my logpile.
Still obsessing about moulding planes, or to be more specific, rabbet planes: for years I had thought how cool it would be to own a complete ‘set’ — meaning one of every size as produced by a single maker, Mathieson, for example. But I have come to realise that apart from the fact that few users ever owned a complete ‘set’, such a thing being unnecessary from the point of view of what each size might accomplish better than all the other sizes (the point being, of course, that the various sizes were largely made available for individual comfort), a greater vocabulary could be developed by a little judicious mixing and matching. So although I cling to ten or fifteen ‘sizes’ — ranging from 2in to 1/4in., the real justification (other than the psychological pleasure of feeling ‘complete’) lies in the differences of features other than size. Differences such as weight, length, denseness, angle of skew (or not) nickers, etc. Each of which is sometimes more appropriate for the job at hand than another plane might offer. The moral being that variety is frequently more interesting if not actually better, than consistency or the dreaded uniformity, We are not only craftsmen but creators, after all.
Tools I inherit or collect — old tools, usually handtools — often feel like a comfortable antidote to the ever-increasing rate of planned obsolescence that typifies so much else of contemporary life. Much as I am usually pleased to get my new iPhone or a new car it’s a little discouraging to know that something I worked so hard for or saved up for so long is only going to be around for such a short time. I’ll never be able to enjoy the thought that I can pass these treasured marvels on to my children and grandchildren. If they even survive that long they will doubtless be looked upon with amusement. But I pick up a plane made a hundred years or more ago and I am pleased and grateful to have something that not only links me to my past but which also still improves my life.
However, looking at some of these things, I am also struck by the fact of my own obsolescence. They will certainly outlast me, as they have already outlasted previous owners. So the question arises, who owns what? Realising that I am little more than a temporary custodian I feel an increasing need and duty to pass things on while I might still have some say in the matter and avoid what would surely be a dereliction of duty if they were to come to an untimely and unseemly end while in my care.
Anybody want to take care of some extra tools?
There are a lot of contemporary/modern tools I am grateful for, such as screwdrivers with unbreakable plastic handles and the ever-increasing variety of screw heads: Phillips, hex, pentagon, thumbscrew, cross, Frearson, French recess, Motorq, pozidrive, supradriv, Robertson, etc., etc.— all useful for specific purposes, I’m sure, but I remain happiest with the traditional straight slot. Yes, I know it’s not tamper-resistant, I know that powertools can jump out and damage the work, and conversely it won’t allow the driver to cam out and not damage the slot, etc., etc. But I’d rather not be concerned with so many twentieth-century potentialities. I make furniture, I fix my house and the slot remains my favourite. I can clean and recut the slot in screw heads if necessary, I can align the slots for that last aesthetic frisson of satisfaction, and I never have to worry about the cordless drill having a run-down battery or my having misplaced the appropriate driver.
My screwdrivers are always there, arranged by size, in my toolchest. They are easily sharpened and rarely deformed and are easy to use with almost any amount of required torque. This is because they are the old-fashioned wood-handled type. I inherited them from my father in England so their superiority over many if not most contemporary screwdrivers is remarkable.
Firstly, the steel — having been made in nineteenth-century Sheffield — is much stronger than the average plastic-handled screwdriver, which means the head never deforms when trying to remove a firmly embedded steel screw, the shank can be used as a scraper burnisher, unlike many contemporary screwdrivers whose steel is typically softer than that of even a cheap scraper, the shank is finished with a flat section below the handle which provides a place for using a wrench if handpower alone is insufficient, and finally, having sharpened or refinished the tip should this ever be necessary, it retains its shape much longer.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I prefer the wooden handles — most of which are oval rather than round for a better grip — the turning is nice, the patina is rich after so many years of use, and I find the look and feel of wood more harmonious with the wood I work with. A gaudy plastic handled tool is jarring on my bench. I do what I do, after all, more for the experience than the ‘efficiency’ or cheapness. and in these days of disposable transience I like the tangible connexion with the past. But that’s another story.
On the road again — this time to Cincinnati for the Joinery Conference. Get out those filisters, dados, and ploughs!
Just saw an advertisement for a ‘new’ type of hammer — one with a wooden handle, the better to absorb the shock of hammering compared to an all-steel hammer.
Well, the reason I never bought an all-steel hammer in the first place, when these first appeared as a new and improved form, supposedly more resistant to breaking than the regular wooden-handled type, was precisely because a hickory-handled hammer was so much more comfortable to use. And, in any case, the reason the wood handles broke was invariably because the uninitiated was attempting to use the hammer as a pry bar. Just because a claw hammer could pull out a few nails did not mean that it was a replacement for a steel bar — just an additional convenience for SMALL nail removal. But who knew that!? With the result that soon steel-handled hammers started to show up bent, making it difficult to land the face of the hammer squarely on the nail. And then, of course, the steel handles had to be fitted with rubber sleeves at an extra cost so the shock would not destroy the user’s rotator cuffs. Aah, how we go backwards and forwards.
Meanwhile, my wooden-handled hammers continued to develop an honourable patina. Using such a tool, that I have had for twenty years or more, whose handle has a speck of paint spatter here, and an oil stain there, the whole haft gleaming with a patina the result of being held and wielded honestly and carefully for so long, connects me to a continuum absent from the steel-handled tool with rotting rubber handle and a bent shaft, the cheap chrome peeling from the head.
New and improved indeed!
However hard or fast I work it is never done. It never was, and it never will be. Without continual maintenance and repair everything eventually decays and disappears. We repair or replace but one way or another it all returns to dust. Just think of the lost Roman woodwork, not to mention the Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and back on to the dawn of time when the first branch was leant against a convenient tree trunk to form a rude shelter. All gone. Just as is most of everything since: Gothic, Medieval, Tudor, 18th-century.
What remains—partly—is the accumulated knowledge of how to do it. Although this too, being constantly upgraded, slowly erodes earlier techniques. How much woodworking technique from a high-end Georgian or Victorian shop remains. Of course we are going to forget how to use a bow saw when a tablesaw is available, and why use an old woman’s tooth when and electric router is available? But does the contemporary corpus of technique truly equate with what we have lost?
Every time I repair something structural around my hundred year old house I’m struck by how cheap and insubstantial are the modern materials, even if they do supposedly insulate better, albeit at a cost, for example, greater toxicity, less (ultimately un-)permanence.
No name on her toe, but her iron was stamped. Under a magnifying glass I could read the name Dwights French & Co., a company that supplied irons to Austin Baldwin who made planes on the Arrowmammett River in Connecticut in the 1840s and 1850s. Austin’s father, one Enos Baldwin, was born in Vermont in 1783, and taught his planemaking trade to his sons, Austin and his half-brother Elbridge. 1783! — barely a hundred years earlier — almost within living memory, certainly Enos’ father or grandfather could remember — the Turks had been narrowly defeated outside Vienna by the arrival of 70,000 Poles, Austrians, and Germans under the command of the Lithuanian king, Jan III Sobieski.
If she was a Baldwin, she had not travelled far in almost two hundred years. I had met her in New York maybe twenty years ago, and since her abutments were in good shape I had remouthed her and sharpened her iron. She was a little shorter than most of her kind, a scant 7-5/8in. from heel to toe, and being thus a little more delicate had probably escaped a harder usage typically suffered by her bigger sisters. But now it was time to take her on the road and show her what had happened to her country during her quiet sojourn in New England. The first stop would be Rhode Island, where many of her kind had flourished from the 18th century through the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th. But then it would be a long road trip via Texas to California and then up the Pacific coast to Portland, Oregon. We would meet again in the city on the Columbia River, and she would show the sons and daughters of the Overlanders what she could do, laughing at the short-lived sanders of the 21st century, whose mayfly-like lifespan would be over before she returned to her chest in New York.
I had faith that she would perform well, and barring accidents, knew that she could easily outlive me, and even with daily use in a professional shop could survive to become a dignified dowager probably into the next century. Appreciating her company, I wondered about her previous relationships, and also wondered wistfully if she would remember me fifty years from now. It made me think who owns who? I her, or she me?
All the birches and pale conifers from Scandinavia, hearts of oak from Merrie England, the walnuts and chestnuts from France, mahoganies dark from Cuba and longer-grained from Africa, whence also the intense and jungle-colored wenges, bocotes, and amaranths, and farther away in Asia the elephant teaks and Chinese juang-jualies. And returning across the Pacific the amazing koa from Hawaii and then the Californiam redwoods. What shall I use today? Perhaps a piece of taciturn elm — New England plain and hard-working.