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.”

But that is not quite enough. Toolmaking, like any industry, also has what economists call “externalities”—effects on the world outside the shop or factory that don’t affect profit margins. Environmental costs, for example. Social or cultural costs, as when an outpost of a global behemoth replaces several locally owned businesses.

For that matter, my own work has externalities, which, easy as they are to ignore, remain my responsibility. One example is the disposal of leftover finishes, which has lately come to plague me. (Let’s say for the sake of argument that a finishing material like shellac or varnish is also a kind of tool, or at least can be evaluated by similar standards.) Standard hardware-store finishes all contain ingredients that cannot safely be poured down the drain, dumped on the ground, or chucked in the trash but must be treated as hazardous materials. “Boiled” linseed oil contains heavy metal driers; mineral spirits are toxic; varnish contains God knows what. Shellac is natural and safe, but must be dissolved in alcohol. I cannot buy pure ethanol (“grain” alcohol) in North Carolina because some teenager might abuse it,1I am not dismissive of the possibility that some teenager might abuse 200-proof grain alcohol, but rather of the notion that some teenager might not just as easily abuse 150-proof alcohol, which is of no use to me in mixing shellac. so I must dissolve shellac in “denatured” alcohol, which has enough methanol added to make it poisonous—which means that it, too, must be carefully stored up for a trip to the dump, where it will become someone else’s problem but remain my responsibility. I would like to be able to finish and preserve a piece of furniture without contributing to the destruction of something else (a waterway, my health, etc.). This seems to me not an unreasonable thing to ask.

So I will add to my list of principles:

  • Principle 3. A tool should not, through ordinary and proper use, cause harm to the worker, nor to other workers, communities, or places beyond the worker’s own ability to repair it.

In other words, a tool should not make messes the worker can’t clean up. (Of course the wrong use of a tool may make a mess, but that’s not the fault of the tool.) I did not specifically mention disposal, and maybe I should have, though if a tool is durable (principle 1) disposal is less of an issue.

Thinking again of toolmaking, I could simply add that

  • Principle 4. A tool should, through its making, contribute to (or at least not detract from) the welfare of the makers, nor of other workers, communities, or places.

The worker must, in short, grant the toolmaker the same respect he asks for himself, and expect that the toolmaker bear the same responsibilities.

Again, both of these new principles tilt the scales toward what are usually thought of as hand tools. Of course big corporations also crank out hand tools, but not really good ones. And, again, neither principle is perhaps entirely achievable. All toolmaking relies on work like iron mining, which is dangerous, unpleasant, and extractive: all the more reason the resulting tool ought to be well and durably made, and well used, and cared for! The impossibility of perfection should never stop you from trying to achieve it, only from beating yourself up about it when you fall short.