What we talk about when we talk about hand tools

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

In the spring of 2021 I started writing, elsewhere, a series of think-pieces about technology in the woodshop, beginning with the question What is a hand tool, anyway?, continuing through the effects of tools and tool use on the worker and the world, and working towards, as I found, a sort of rubric for evaluating tools for wise and responsible use. As I mean to pick up this thread, I have moved the pieces here and am linking to them below, in the order written, and will link new pieces here as I write them. I am also tagging them with work and the worker, which opens a few more doors and will likely range a little further.

A couple of things to note. First, I mean this to be a practical discussion, not a purely philosophical one. Second, although my particular interest is woodworking, I believe the discussion and tentative conclusions are applicable far more widely. In fact, I think there’s real value, at this point in time, to come at the problem of technology use from a perspective other than that of the digital — i.e., other than that unique to this point in time. We’ll see if it bears fruit.

  1. What is a “hand tool,” anyway?
  2. Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”
  3. Tools and externalities

Cheap Sonnet No. (√5±1)/2. In Which the Poet Bemoans, Again, the Failure of His Tomato Plants

These are the seeds that Christ forgot to mention,
Guaranteed by faith and factory rearing,
Sown not on rock nor thorn nor bitten path
But in good scientific soil, and bathed
With electrically timed warmth and light.
They thrust themselves awake like Christmas morn,
Unfurled leaves like mouths of baby birds
Mother-fed, quiescent while the year matured,
Stunted, never feathered out for flight.
Beware, my brothers, engineered intention!
Every life must suffer nature’s wrath.
Plant by singing and by signs. Mourn
The lost. Save what will be saved.
Listen though you are not granted hearing.

Cheap Sonnet No. 1843½. In Which the Poet Espies a Yellow House

Sing what no neighbor dares confess
Amid the squalid safety of the new
(Constructed character of mismatched cubes,
Rectilinear gardens, monochrome)—
This cottage clothed in cheerful dereliction,
The color of a child’s shining sun,
With window-box and dooryard in a mania
Of zinnia, petunia, gazania—
Accidentally annexed, arrises askew,
Gilded, bowered, vine-rife, breeze-cleaned, bird-rung.
Why scorn what abundant life includes,
Careless or a contrary ambition?
Whatever saints and sinners call this home,
God bless and keep them in their foolishness.

The Sexton

Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

After William Merritt Chase, In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice (1878)

On Saturdays, at terce
I polish the brass. One by one
the candles from their unlit altar
in my calloused hands I carry
to a bench of pine my ancestors made.

Outside the sun bakes pilgrims in the square.
I sit in shadows, back against cool marble.

The candlesticks rest in my lap.
The polish stains my apron.
I peel away the hardened
husks of thrice-said prayers,
and with a cloth gentled by laundering
caress their graceful necks, their
swollen bellies, archéd feet.

I have no hurry. I have
polished this candlestick a thousand
years. I shall polish the next
a thousand more

until the light from high
windows the dark stones swallow
finds each arc, each surface,
makes it gleam.

I need no candle here.
I make the unseen visible.
My eyes will find
my work when it is finished.

February: A Cautionary Tale, and Desultory Philippic

‘Twas a grey day in February,
and evening fell like a dead canary…

Thus begins this year’s winning entry in the annual Upper Dongle Creek Literary Society Bad Poetry Contest. Penned by Mr. E. P. Merdle of Fickle Fork, Iowa, “February” evinces a deft hand at poetic form animated by vivid imagination and the worst possible taste. When asked for comment on his victory, Mr. Merdle replied only that “the main ain’t got no culture.”

First prize for 2022 is a box of five hundred pink erasers, a certificate suitable for framing, and a cease and desist order signed by six former U.S. Poets Laureate.

Continue reading “February: A Cautionary Tale, and Desultory Philippic”

Of useful work and community

People still do raise barns. Photograph by Rebecca Siegel licensed Creative Commons.

In the spring of 1941, a farmer named Victor Zimmerman of Seipstown, Pennsylvania, lost his barn to a fire. This was, sadly, no unusual occurrence. A barn stuffed with hay and straw is a tinderbox waiting for a spark, and fires were a continual risk in farming communities. When, one month later, thirty-four of Victor Zimmerman’s neighbors showed up to help build him a new one, that too was only to be expected. But the days of the barn raising were numbered. Soon enough that neighborly work would be something only the Amish did, and for the rest of us merely a symbol of community rather than its expression. Indeed by 1941 it was already a curiosity to many people. And so the Allentown Morning Call sent a reporter out to rural Lehigh County to cover it.

That, ironically, is the only way I know about Victor Zimmerman’s barn raising: it was already a curiosity. Practically all the other hundreds or thousands of similar gatherings that took place across Pennsylvania in the preceding couple of centuries are long forgotten, but Zimmerman’s came at the end of a dying tradition, after decades of upheaval and Depression, under the shadow of global war. It made good reading—so much so that seventy years later, Elaine Bogert of the Weisenberg/Lowhill (Township) Historical Society ran across the newspaper’s account of the day and republished it in the society’s newsletter.1 And then one day my father was idly googling his grandfather’s name, looking for genealogical Easter eggs, and found the article.

My great-grandfather, you see, was the contractor hired to build the barn. Victor Walbert, Builder and Contractor, Maxatawny, Pennsylvania. He died before I was born, but I have some of his tools, and use them every time I build a chair. This article was the first thing I ever learned about him that wasn’t a family story. So what would otherwise be merely a charming slice of life from the middle of the last century turns out to be personal.

But here’s the slice of life, anyhow. Continue reading “Of useful work and community”

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.” Continue reading “Tools and externalities”

Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again. Continue reading “Hand tools and “traditional woodworking””

What is a “hand tool,” anyway?

When I describe my work I usually say that I do “hand-tool woodworking,” or that I work primarily or exclusively with hand tools. Nobody has ever asked me what I mean by “hand tools,” so presumably everyone has a clear idea in his or her head what I mean… or rather what they think I mean. What do I mean? What’s a hand tool, anyway? And why do I use them, as opposed to… whatever hand tools are opposed to?

Maybe this seems like a facile question. I don’t believe it is. Nor an unimportant one. If I’m only using the term for introductions at parties and taglines on business cards, then I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I mean, but if I’m trying to make serious decisions about work, then it matters a great deal. It matters in conversations with other woodworkers who use machines, and who are apt to see a hand-tool-first or hand-tool-only approach as stupidity or snobbery—opinions that I can’t refute if I can’t clearly define what I’m doing and why.

Most important, it matters in making decisions about what tool to use for a job. We all have standards by which we evaluate and adopt (or decline to adopt) technology, but few of us actually know what they are — or have considered what they should be.

But it’s also the kind of question a guy with advanced degrees who has written cultural history starts thinking about while he’s in his second hour of sawing and planing 8/4 oak. Not just why don’t I buy a freaking bandsaw? but no, really, why don’t I? This need to define my terms was made rather more urgent, if ironically also more quixotic, by my experience teaching homeschool environmental science last spring. When my daughter suggested writing her final paper on means of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, I told her she had better start by defining what a “single-use plastic” was. She spent three months, wrote nearly five thousand words, and still never quite managed a precise definition, but by the end she knew a hell of a lot more about what she didn’t know. She grew wisely ignorant, you might say, as opposed to being merely a clever fool. Which I believe to be an improvement.

So let me see if I can become at least more wisely ignorant. This will take awhile to suss out; I’ll only get started today, and I’ll post new ideas as I think of them, revising my thinking as I go. Consider this an invitation to think along with me.

I can think of several qualities that might qualify a tool as a “hand tool,” but none of them is sufficient as a definition. Let’s start with two. Continue reading “What is a “hand tool,” anyway?”

The ecosystem of the kitchen

Following on my previous post thinking about the workshop as an ecosystem, here’s an example perhaps familiar to more people: baking.

If you bake, you may have run across traditional formulas for cakes. A pound cake is made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. A 1-2-3-4 cake has 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Both are easy to remember, and neither depends heavily on exact measurements. If your scale is a little off, your pound cake will just be a little bigger or smaller. Any old cup will do for a 1-2-3-4 cake; you may have to adjust the eggs a bit, but since eggs vary in size (at least if your chickens are as traditional as your teacups), you’d have to do that anyway. No special instructions, no special tools required — only skill, which costs only time and bears ample fruit.

Now along comes this newfangled magical thing called baking powder, which is supposed to ensure a consistent result, no matter your skill level. Wonderful! Baking made easy! Ah, but baking powder is measured in teaspoons, and has a big impact on the final product, so that an error of half a teaspoon either way may yield a very different cake. Now you need, not just any old teaspoon, but a modern factory-made industrially calibrated teaspoon, which you have to buy from, say, Sears-Roebuck. And your teaspoons have to be calibrated to your cups, as well, so it’s back to the mail-order catalog for measuring cups. The first chemical leaveners came into use by about 1790, and their successors were widely used by the mid-nineteenth century, but only after about 1880 did they really become respectable, because only then did they become really reliable — because only then did the first calibrated measuring cups and spoons appear to measure them reliably. And then, within a generation, it became almost unthinkable to bake a cake without baking powder.

But now instead of eyeballing, which always worked well enough before, you have to learn to do level measurements. And you can’t easily experiment with the proportions of your cake, because you’ll throw off those tiny little measurements, and you’re relying now on processes you don’t fully understand. You’ve yoked yourself to a whole system of store-bought tools, which are not only made by industrially precise processes but demand new, industrially precise methods of work — and to a system of set, test-kitchen approved recipes which had better be followed with equal precision. Your whole approach to baking a cake has changed. The skilled baker now becomes just another factory worker, a kind of subsidiary of the industrial system that made the baking powder and the measuring cups. All because of one little ingredient!

There’s a book in that story, and my two-paragraph history oversimplifies things, but you get the idea, I hope. The workshop of the kitchen is also a kind of ecosystem, in which tools, ingredients, techniques, tastes all have to mesh. Cooking evolves, the kitchen changes — but not all changes are gradual or benign. Every once in a while, an invasive species can show up and cause a mass extinction. And it can be hard to know what little changes will turn into cataclysms before they’ve done it.