The Best Tools

“The wind that bends the bunchgrass there scrubs away at epitaphs; someday the stones will all be smooth. If there is tragedy here, it is in the loss of stories. Their stories could have brought them back. Stories outshine instruments of gold. Stories outlast stone.”

– Ralph Beer

This saw handle has a story. If you look closely, beneath the dirty varnish you can see (and feel) the imprint of a masters finger. On one side is the dished impression left by his index finger, the other side clearly shows the trail left by his thumb. It’s stunning to think how many miles of lumber this blade parted. Take a closer look and notice the handle is rosewood. So much for all those experts who claim the “real” workers didn’t spend the extra buck on the fancy tools.

When I grip this saw tote, it's like reaching across time and shaking hands with a master.

Anthropologists make a big deal about man the toolmaker,  something that sets us apart. In reality, the animal kingdom is filled with creatures that use tools and natural materials to their benefit. Otters use stones as hammers and birds fashion condos from mud and twigs. But man takes tools to another level. We have the ability to make a tool an extension of our hand and mind. I recently had a chance to spend a little time with Chris Schwarz in his wood shop. He held a mallet in his hand and shared how the tools we use the most – our favorite tools,  seem to get better over time. Almost as though the iron in a favorite plane takes a keener edge or that peening hammer strikes with a sweetness we can’t explain. Musicians often say the same thing about a guitar or violin. Do they really change and get better? This I know. Our tools become an extension of our hands and in doing so become a part of us.

Working on the furniture design book project (By Hand & Eye)with Jim Tolpin, something just as profound began to dawn on both of us. As we dove deep into the design language from our woodworking tradition, we both began to realize that this knowledge is intertwined with the traditional tool set and skill set, and much like that favorite plane quickly becomes intuitive. It has the potential to become an extension of our hands, something Jim calls “design at the point of a tool”. Perhaps you’ve had the simple joy of using a tool till it became a part of you. Could you imagine that your ability to design could occupy that same familiar place along side your favorite chisel or marking knife? Would you like to go there?

George Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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9 Responses to The Best Tools

  1. markdorman says:

    Good stuff there. A well used tool is a well Loved tool. The answer to the last two questions is yes and YES.

    Good better best
    Never let it rest
    Till your good is better
    And your better is best.

  2. shavemaker says:

    “Would you like to go there?” Absolutely gentlemen, lead on!

  3. Rob says:

    Those are quite some depressions to be worn by fingers alone. Is it conceivable the sawyer sculpted them out a little for comfort? I’m not sure finger and thumb exert that much pressure/ friction, but then, given enough miles of timber to saw, maybe they would.

    • Jim B says:

      That was my thought too Rob. It’s hard to imagine a grip so loose it would wear away like that.

    • walkerg says:

      Rob,
      Iv’e wondered the same thing, yet it has a look about it, sort of like the action of water and wind against stone.

      George

      • The depressions sure do look like they’ve been worn in by use. But if that’s the case, how is there any of the sawplate left? Surely somebody who invested this much in his saws would sharpen frequently, and in that case, I would expect to see an even thinner plate matched with a tote that has that many miles on it. Is it possible that the saw plate is a replacement? If it’s original, I’m betting that the depressions were carved or scraped in by the owner, and then sanded down very thoroughly.

  4. mike siemsen says:

    I believe it to be true that the more we pratice the better our tools work.

  5. Ron says:

    And then there is that great feeling of ease and syncronicity with your work when you are using the right tool for the job: a well tuned shoulder plane taking off that last one thousandenth to make the perfect fitting tenon or a chainsaw felling the maple that will eventually be the source of your next project.

  6. Jim Tolpin says:

    Well I once knew an old New Englander who said he inherited from his father the very axe that George Washington used to cut down that infamous cherry tree. Or course, the handle had been replaced three or four times and the head at least twice……..

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