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…


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.


10 Responses

  1. It’s funny how the body/extremities/face change over the years … due to time, lifestyle, work, and play. I don’t think any of the transformations taking place on me are work related though: I blame time, but I’m sure lifestyle and play have really done most of the damage.

    • The tough part of me has been going from being on my feet all day and hefting bags of clay to mostly sitting. All my pants seem to have shrunk, but only in the waist. It’s the oddest thing!
      All in all, I like the changes work makes on my body rather than those made by time. The work ones tent to be scar making material and some minor aches and pains, but the time related ones tend to involve my eyesight and overall stamina!

  2. It took me a while before I realized it was working with hands that I missed through my studies and first years of employment. Sitting at the computer, writing, reading… Cooking was the closest to “making/producing” something.
    After I returned to knitting I felt much better, somehow. It gives me big pleasure to make something with my hands – be it a piece of clothing, playing with clay, sanding wood or cutting paper. After all – we are all Homo faber, rour hands being our main ‘tool’, right? 🙂

    • There’s just nothing quite like standing back and admiring something that you actually made with your own hands, is there? For years, I thought that I had far too many hobbies and that i just ought to chuck most of them and focus on one or two. Then I realized that MAKING stuff was the hobby! Building a house, making cookies, knitting a sweater or what ever! I just like making stuff!

  3. I worked for a while as a slip caster and it played havoc with my skin and I think it permanent damage. In the winter the skin on my hands gets very dry and can crack.


    I’m one of those sissy guys that uses a lot of moisturising lotion on my hands. As a matter of fact, I keep a bottle of the stuff near my chair in the living room, I use it so often.

    • I try to do the lotion thing, but I just forget. Then my hands crack and start to bleed. Ugh. Winter is not my friend. I keep a package of bandages and ointment next to the bed to cover up the worst ones for the night in the homes of softening them up while I sleep, but mostly it doesn’t work.

      The season is changing here in Maine. The leaves haven’t even changed or fallen from the trees yet but I can already feel my hands drying out.


  4. Scars are something to be proud of in my opinion and here we see that each one has its own story. I have one on my knee where I fell over aged 3 and was puzzled because I’d slipped on an orange peel not banana skin as happened in all my storybooks. Then theres one across one eyebrow where I skidded on black ice and knocked myself out on some scaffolding across the footpath one particularly severe London winter. I love the story about your Dad and the bunsen burner. I remember heating sulphur at school. I think we were learning how plastic was made?

    • Action Girl has one on her calf courtesy of her big brother and a thrown rock. She points it out every once in a while when she notices it still there after all those years. She has me beat for the best memory/scar though. Both Short Stack and Lulu Belle were born cesarean and though the doctor was very skillful, the scar stands out pretty prominently. She’s very proud of that one!


  5. Great story about your dad’s hands – I also used to look at my fathers hands when I was a kid, particularly at the texture of his starngely damaged thumb nail. And I used to be amazed how he was able to use the tiny clay modelling pieces to large hammer and chisel with the same precision.

    You are right to take pride in the tatoos of work (tools), mine testify mostly of carelesness ,but hey, they are there, testifying 🙂

    • I’d say that they all have to do with carelessness in some fashion! I don’t think I’ve ever set out to do damage, but it inevitably happens. I was just working on the house today and replacing a rotten floor joist in the basement. Just as I was cutting through it I thought, “This thing is going to smack me in the face when it falls”
      Aaaaand… I was right.


      So the question is: Why didn’t I STOP?
      Answer: Because I was WORKING! The saw was running, I was cutting, I was going full steam! “SMACK” Oh well. No blood, but it made me roll my eyes at my self.


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