Well Used Hand Tools

As I sit here and type this, I can look down at my hands and see a least three cuts or abrasions in various states of self-repair. If I turn them over… I can’t type any more.

I could also find three or four more.

This is not an uncommon state to find my hands in. Bandages are a common accessory and the scars that criss-cross my fingers, palms and forearms are plentiful and, to me, read as some of my life’s stories. I can’t say that remember where all of them came from, but I can tell you about some of the major ones. The long curve between two knuckles on my left hand made by a slipped screwdriver, the three parallel lines on the outside of my right thumb from the hand saw that I didn’t see until it was too late or the blobby one on the back of my left hand made by the hot lead dripping off the soldering iron. They make me think of the projects that I’ve tackled and that tackled me back just a bit.

I work with my hands a lot and to any one who takes a moment to notice, it shows. I’ve always been somewhat proud of that. When I was a child, I remembering looking down at my soft, doughty hands and then at my father’s and marveling that someday, they might look like his. Mine seemed impossibly soft and round. The backs stood up like little hills and the mole that sat like a small bug on the back of my left hand was the only mark of distinction that I could find. Other than that, they could have been anyone’s. Any kids, at any rate.

Dad’s hands however had veins that stood out boldly as they twisted over knuckles and the scars dotted here and there, made them unique. On one hand, the size of a shelled peanut is a little mound of smooth flesh, devoid of any hairs and a slightly different hue than the rest of his skin, browned in the summer sun. Being the sort of kid who asked questions unabashedly, I inquired as to what happened here. Being the sort of Dad who indulges, he told me:

Many years ago, while he sat in high school chemistry class, the teacher was doing a demonstration. This particular experiment involved a Bunsen burner, a beaker and a small amount of sulphur. What ever the experiment was meant to show, the lesson that my father took away with him was that, A: melting sulphur can and will at times jump out of the beaker and, B: if it lands on your skin, it will immediately burn a hole through it until it cools off enough to stop. Then it will crystallize.

To this day, a small yellow-green patch sits at the bottom of my Dad’s scar, a memento of his school career. I was always taken by both the story and the mark it left and recall many instances of sitting in my Dad’s lap or near enough to touch him and quietly poking the scar and looking for the yellow-green at the bottom.

Since those days, my own hands have taken a lot of use and abuse. Though my love of collecting and using tools has taken its toll, the hardest work they ever put in was when I had my own manufacturing business. It was very hands-on type of work and the thing that my hands were on was clay. Lots and lots of clay. ;

Clay is insidious stuff. It’s smooth to the touch, cool and mushes easily in your hand. Other than being heavy to move around, it’s pretty simple stuff to work with in a lot of ways. What it also does is suck the moisture right out of every pore you have. Add to this that hand lotion and clay do not play well together, and you have a recipe for some seriously dry hands, especially come winter. The other thing about clay is that it’s like semi-liquid sand paper. It might be a very fine grit, but it still scours away at your skin. Do this for about ten years, and the result looks like this…

hand

That’s my hand just a few days before I sold the company and decided to do something else to earn my cookies and milk. I tell you honestly, there is not enough moisturizer in the world to heal those cracks. Ten months later, they look much happier, and so, by the by, am I.

Over the months I’ve been home, I’ve bent my will and tools to making our house look more like we want it to and less like a pile of lumber and shingles that have been dumped into the approximate shape of a house. My hands have been working hard, and Short Stack has noticed.

Like most children, he is obsessed with Band-Aids and will cry for one to cover the most minor of abrasions. To a kid, putting a Band-Aid on something is almost a magical experience and is viewed as a near panacea for all woes. When he spots some cut or blister on my own hands, his first inclination is to take me to the bathroom to get a Band-Aid for it. Some times I agree and we head off to cover the damaged digit with a dancing Snoopy or other cartoon emblazoned sterile strip. Other times, I tell him that I’m fine and that it will heal on its own. That doesn’t seem to bother him too much but I can see him think about it and wonder.

I look down at his hands and then at my own. Devoid of any obvious and permanent marks, they are pretty much as they were meant to be. My daughter, Lulu Belle’s are the only ones in the house that are cleaner and softer. Not even two years old yet, they are delicate, smooth and puffy, the knuckles existing only as dimples. Both of them will see many changes in their hands as time goes by. The thought of scars marring their tiny hands turns my stomach, even as I look at my own scars with pride. How funny.

I’ll happily show them someday how to use their hands to build and make things, though I know it will inevitably result in skun knuckles, scrapes or worse. That’s a given. It’s part of using something whether it be a machine that gets dinged and scratched with use or our own bodies. I still feel that it’s important to use them, though.

I’ll just try to keep them away from the clay. That and teachers with shaky hands and Bunsen burners.

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Tool Junkie

As I looked into the empty, steel box, a very faint memory flitted through my head, just at the edges of my ability to reach it, like an escaped pet that manages to stay just beyond your grasp. In the box, there should be an electric saw perfect for the construction job that I was neck deep in. Instead, a terrified spider stood guard over a few burned out blades and the ancient sawdust left from previous battles waged with my house. The saw was nowhere to be seen. In my mind’s eye, I could envision handing it to a grateful someone who turned down taking it with its carrying case and saying something about getting it back to me later.

The problem here it that I can’t for the life of me, remember who this individual was.

Normally, I take care to reclaim tools quickly and write my name all over them as a precaution lest they be enveloped by some other tool chest and taken as its own. This time around, I had neglected these steps and since the moment of its lending happened well over a year ago. All I am left with now is the metal box and no saw. I think I can safely guess that the saw and whomever I loaned it to are both gone for good. That’s a common issue with the island we live on. The houses here are often in need of extensive repair and the people who live in them tend to come and go as they discover that planning life around a ferry schedule isn’t all that simple. They put the project up for sale and move on. I’d be willing to bet a bag of doughnuts that my saw isn’t even on this island anymore.

Tools are something that I have a weakness for. Places that sell them call to me like the sirens to Ulysses and ever since we bought our first house, I’ve been pursuing my ultimate goal of owning them all. Every tool out there. All of them.

toolchest

Some, I’ll need two of.

Or possibly… three or more.

My tool love was magnified by the fact that I used to own a business in manufacturing that required a pretty sizable array of toolidge, which I happily indulged in. It was kind of like telling a caffeine addicted barista that they had to sample each and every pot of coffee every morning.

The only thing better than shopping for a new tool, is shopping for a new validated tool!

When I sold my shop last year, the contents of the toolbox were not part of the bargain and it all came home with me to happily overflow my basement. I have two complete wrench sets, two each of two types of drills (two battery powered and two half inch corded), two circular saws, two drill presses and more measuring tapes than the mind can comfortably explain the need for having.

Some of these duplicates have gone to my parent’s house to clutter up Dad’s workbench and they have been happily received. For him, it means that he finally had some power equipment that he’s been unable to justify buying and for me it softens some of the guilt I feel for all the hand tools that I borrowed from him in my youth and then lost in the back yard, the woods or simply secreted away to my own house. I’m sure some of his as well as my own tools live, lost and forgotten in various closed up walls or behind built in cabinets with the spiders and old shopping lists that seem to lurk there and reproduce in abundance.

Though I’m a sucker for motorized tools, my real love is with good, old fashioned, cast steel ones. Hand tools have a spirit about them that you just don’t get with anything else. A cruise through a few of my bench drawers or tool boxes will yield you a healthy example of wrenches, screw drivers and saws that are rough, darkened with age and grease and quite old. They date back three or four generations now and some have been used by my family, some still alive, some long gone now. The marks left on them by their past projects are imprinted on each tool like scars of honor.

Many years ago when my Grandfather knew he was dying, he made a request of my Father. He wanted to make sure that he’d take the tools. My Dad was his only son and it was important to Grandpa that his tools continued on in family hands. Naturally, he agreed and didn’t really understand what he said yes to until after his father had passed. Grandpa had worked with his hands his whole life and his years at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Western Electric Company and the farm he had, made him a solid, “fix it your self” kind of person. He had amassed an impressive stable of hand tools as well as a few electric ones (including a truly intimidating looking half inch drill that has to date back to the fifties or sixties). Bringing it all back to our home turned my Dad’s normally well organized work space in the basement into a huge collection of dark, heavy iron, ancient coffee cans filled with various drill bits and boxes of unidentifiable and obviously specialized bench mounted equipment. Later on when my wife and I bought our first house, Dad and I started to transfer some of them to my place.

As you look around the clutter choked area I call my workbench, you might notice that the most used tools are kept within easy reach. My Grandpa’s grey toolbox sits only an arms length away and I paw through it often. When I do, I often whisper through a smile something like, “Ok, Grandpa. Lest see if you have… needle nose pliers / a pipe burnisher / a 5/16ths wrench”… or something along that line. I value the connection it gives me and using his tools makes him feel close by just like it does when I use one of my Great Grandfather’s tools or one of my Dad’s that I have snuck off with when he wasn’t looking. I’ll get it back to him later.

More likely, I’ll use it to fix something in his house at some point soon. I’ll try to remember to leave it on his bench after.

Tools are special to a fixit guy. A wrench stops being just a wrench once you’ve used it long enough, bled on it, carried it in your pocket until the jeans rip where it goes and the metal goes dark with age. It represents the projects you’ve completed and the problems you’ve solved. Its loss would be keenly felt and its replacement would always be just that. A replacement.

There’s a story I’ve heard about a man talking with a farmer who he spotted chopping firewood. The man makes a comment about the farmer’s rather abused looking axe and mentions that he ought to get a new one.

“No sir! This is the best axe I’ve ever had! I’ve been using it for most of my life. I’ve put three new handles on it and two new heads. I just love this axe!”

As you can see, it’s the spirit that carries on. The story is a joke, naturally, but to be honest, I identify one hundred percent with the farmer.

After a trip into town and then to the tool store, I had parted with a sizable chunk of money but joyously clung to my new purchase. In my arms I held not simply a new Sawzall, I held MY new Sawzall.

sawzall

It’s far better than the one I lost and I’m thrilled to state that at the time of this writing, it is already dinged, dirty and well broken in. It’s earned its cookies and an honorable place among the family tools in my workspace.

It won’t last forever, naturally. It’s a power tool after all. You can bet that the motor will eventually over heat and fail or the bearings, filled with the grime and sawdust of a hundred projects, will someday seize, but in the mean time, it’s going to see a lot of work, and it makes me happy! When its day does come, I’ll toss it out and start shopping for a new one. The old hand tools will still be there though and work just as well as they always did and I’ll be working them just as hard.

All I need to do now is figure out a way to keep my own kids from nicking them before I’m finished with my own projects. I’ll probably have to build some sort of giant, locking tool chest and to do that, I’m going to need to pick up some new pieces of equipment!

Hmmm… I’ll need a joiner, a new router, some clamps… lots more clamps! Hmmm….

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