Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. The switch to machines has a lot to do with that. I mow the lawn with a reel mower, and periodically I have to sharpen the blades, or they simply quit cutting grass; but if I used a power mower, the force generated would be enough to tear off tall grass even with dull blades. I don’t recall my father ever sharpening his lawn mower blades, and he was raised by a woodworker. —Or, instead of using a knife in the kitchen and keeping it sharp, we use a food processor whose motor will break before its serrated blade is too dull to shred food.

Hand tools, however, have to be sharpened, and sharpening takes skill and practice. Sharpening saws is particularly tricky, because you have all those individual teeth to file and set, because sawing across and along the grain require completely different patterns of sharpening, and because even different types of wood may be easier or harder to cut with various tooth patterns.

That brings me to The Village Carpenter. Rose describes the practice of pit sawing, in which when trees were turned into lumber by sawyers who worked in pairs using a long, two-handled saw, one standing above the work and one below. This video shows the process, though without an actual pit:

Sawing long,straight boards was a sawyer’s only job, and so he had a special relationship with his tool, as Rose explains:

The sharpening of the saw was no mean act of skill, no duty that could be entrusted to another. The sawyer’s regard for his saw cannot but be something of a mystery. To one who throughout his life has been accustomed to the handling of many tools, it is difficult to understand what it must be like to use a single tool from morning to evening, from end to end of the week. But it is easy enough to believe that such continual use would be reason enough for his devotion to its welfare, his meticulous care to keep it ever in perfect condition. Constant use, together with such tireless care and attention, and I know not how much inherited knowledge—for our sawyer’s forefathers had been woodmen before him—all this, together with the native sense and experience of many other simple men, sawyers, and toolmakers, working towards a common end, had perfected and established the shape of the teeth of the saw: the long serrated edge, with each tooth keen and correct in line with its neighbors; each with its gullet before, in which, as in a pocket, the dust created by the tooth’s onslaught on the wood was conveyed and discharged into the pit below. Our sawyer’s duty was to follow and maintain that tradition, proved correct by centuries of usage. This he undoubtedly did without question…

But the work of sharpening went beyond learned skill and practiced care to a vitally necessary, personal craft:

…yet it remained to him to regulate the cut of those teeth in proportion to the combined strength of himself and his mate. Only a little too much slant to their edge and the saw would bite too readily into the wood, beyond their power to force it downward. Continual practice and care had taught him how to maintain the exact proportion, the ability of the saw to cut an amount just equal to the expenditure of their strength. (pp 6–7)

Hand tools tend, over time, to conform themselves to the bodies of their owners. If you’ve ever handled an old wooden-body plane, you may have noticed the fingerprints of a prior owner worn into the wood. That may or may not make the tool more useful to its owner, but if they aren’t your fingerprints and don’t match the size and shape of your hand, it’s mainly just charming.

But Rose is describing a deliberate shaping of the tools to meet not the needs of the work but of their users’ bodies. The form of a tool will always shape the form of our work. Rather than adapt their work to the form of the tool, sawyers adapted the tool to the form of their work.

That, it seems to me, is a pretty good standard for choosing tools. Can I (re-)shape this to the needs of my work? Think of all the tools you can’t shape, and so are forced to use awkwardly.

Kitchen counters, for example, are a precise and consistent 36 inches from the floor, which is about right for chopping if you’re exactly six feet tall but too high for kneading dough or rolling pastry, and too high even for chopping if you’re a woman of average height—so your shoulders get hunched, and your work suffers. Back in the days of Walter Rose’s village carpenter, kitchen work surfaces were individual tables of varying heights (often custom-made or adapted to the purpose). The Hoosier cabinet, the first mass-manufactured kitchen work station (below), came in a variety of heights to meet the needs of the user. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was decided that continuous countertops were prettier… I’m sure it was only a coincidence that single-height cabinets were easier to manufacture. Or that “progressive” cookery of that era was pushing housewives to buy convenience foods and quit cooking at home, anyway.

ad for Hoosier cabinet

Or consider the girl I saw this afternoon, struggling mightily to pedal a bicycle up a long, steep hill. She couldn’t extend her legs fully on the down stroke; either the bike was too large for her or she hadn’t properly adjusted the seat. Maybe it was borrowed. In any case, the tool had not been adapted to her body, and she was having a hard time of it.

And let’s not even get into what’s happened to the Macintosh operating system over the past ten years.

It seems to me that a seriousness of work demands tools that can be adapted not only to the work but to the worker — or, failing that, a lengthy process of trial and error to find the right tool, and maybe a collection of wrong ones. It also seems to me that such tools invite in return a seriousness of work — and perhaps demand it, since they may work only poorly without adaptation. So the two things, adaptable or customizable (or “hackable”) tools and serious work, come together, but it’s not clear which causes which.