Once upon a time, I was picking up a washing machine for the local agency that passes used furniture on to those in need. For some reason, my partner and I drove separately—two guys in two trucks, but not a tool between us. The apartment-dwelling donor was also tool-less. We could not get the water hoses off barehanded and spent much of an hour chasing down a pair of pliers to do the job. I am determined that will not happen again. All our vehicles have at least a rudimentary tool kit.
I tend to do odd jobs wherever I go: parents, church, work (before I retired). As time goes on, my in-truck tool bag gets heavier and more eclectic. Besides the usual screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches, I have work gloves and disposable latex gloves. Electrical tape. Teflon plumbing tape. A circuit tester. A torpedo level. A line level and masons’ nylon string. A 50’ measuring tape. Heavy duty scissors. Eyeglass screwdrivers. Ear plugs. Disposable dust masks. Garden shears. Stakes for marking and laying out. These days there is barely room for the groceries behind the seats of my little extended cab pickup.
When I began woodworking, I had never used a power tool except a drill. A circular saw was a frightening thing to me. So, being scared, cheap, and contrarian, I decided that my new hobby would be hand tools only.
During this hand-tools-only phase, I ripped two-inch rock maple with a panel saw, smoothed a glued-up table top with plane and cabinet scraper, cut blind mitered finger joints with back saw and chisel. I no longer have the patience for such tasks, and long ago overcame my queasiness about power tools. But those formative experiences leave me awed when I consider the stamina and skill of the lumberjacks and pit sawyers and cabinet makers of our pre-industrial past. Power tools make it all too easy to forget.
Using hand tools is one way to learn humility. In an earlier post, I mentioned that the seemingly healthy pines in my woods tend to fall over. But we had one that died standing. It had always had a significant lean and, a number of years after its death-by-pine-bark-beetle, was looking half-rotted and hazardous. For safety, I decided to drop it. Being one of the few people in Tennessee who does not own a chain saw, and at the same time being the proud possessor of my grandfather’s two-man crosscut, I gathered my number two son and the old crosscut, and we laid into that “rotted” trunk. Inside, we found a hard, seasoned core. It nearly defeated us.
In addition to my grandfather’s saw, I have acquired a few other antique hand tools. Most are still usable, and my hardware-loving wife allows them to be displayed in the house. Three wooden-bodied planes I found at a flea market are in pretty rough shape, yet I have been able to make shavings with two of them. The left-handed half-hatchet my brother found for me feels custom made for my hand. The balance scale my other grandfather used for weighing cotton bales would be usable, if I had a beam to hang it from and something heavy to weigh. My draw knife reminds me of the one my father taught me to use as we stripped the bark off some pine poles to make a ladder.
Don’t get me wrong. I have grown to love power tools. My table saw and cordless drill/driver seem nearly indispensable now, and there is a Tim-the-Toolman moment each time I get a chance to use the hammer drill or reciprocating saw. I’d like a drill press, and Nancy dreams of a band saw, although we’d have to acquire a larger shop first.
However, I have discovered that more and bigger tools are not always the answer. Over the winter, we had to have some trenches cut through my in-laws’ yard. I scattered some annual rye grass seed and some straw, waiting for the backfill to settle. Now it is time to re-level the yard and get some permanent grass growing. So earlier this week, I rented a small tracked machine, the kind that you stand on the back of and pretend to be a heavy equipment operator. I imagined using it like a dozer, remembering how loose the soil was when the trencher got through with it. Silly me. It turns out my in-laws’ yard is made of brick-in-training, which did more than “settle.” “Set up” is, I think, a closer description. Fortunately, we haven’t yet been through the kiln of August.
The solution? A tiller. What the one-ton machine couldn’t do, the 50-pound tiller could. Set the spike and let it chew. Reset and repeat.
Even my beloved drill/driver is sometimes more than enough. After too many trips to retrieve it from the shop, just to make a hole for a cup hook, I have been lusting for a set of gimlets to keep in the house. Just what I need—more tools.