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….

Slow and Steady Mows the Lawn

“Hey Dad, do you still have that old mower in the garage?”

The slightly guarded reply over the phone that followed was looking for more information. “Which mower do you mean?”

Action Girl and I had recently moved into our first house together after several years of apartment dwelling and suddenly I was confronted with the need to own things that I had not considered before. It was a simple and elderly house in an old neighborhood and came with its own foolishly small bit of grassy lawn. No mater how foolish it was though, it still needed mowing. Our two house cats could only chew it down so much. Give them credit. They would have done their best, but I wasn’t okay with cleaning that mess up later.

Growing up, we had a pretty good sized lawn. It wasn’t overly hilly or terribly large, but mowing it properly took an evening to do. It was just big enough that pushing the old, hand mower was a noisy pain in the neck. Your feet turned green with the sticky clippings and there’s just nothing quite like shoving a two stroke, blue exhaust belching engine in front of you for an hour and a half. As a small child, I was instructed to stay well away from it when it ran and like most small children when warned about an astonishingly loud, appendage eating machine, I took the direction to the extreme and mostly viewed it from the safety of the house.

This wasn’t my Dad’s first mower, however, but rather his first gas mower. As a young man at his first, real, career-style job, an older and more experienced coworker had gotten to know my father and saw an opportunity to offload some of his excess garden shed treasures on the “new kid.” When you’re new to homeownership and you are just trying to get up and running, free stuff is hard to turn down. Those of us who have reached that point in our lives where we have to make paths through the basement and garage just to reach the back wall, can sniff these young-uns out a mile away and offload on them mercilessly. An offer of some free necessity and a warm smile is cheaper than a trip to the dump, with the added benefit that they can often be convinced to even come and take it away themselves. If however, the item could possibly be turned down when seen in the flesh, it’s best to go with “the drop off.” It’s harder to refuse something once the offerer has gone through the trouble of bringing it to you. At least, that’s what he’s hoping for.

Such was the method of transfer of ownership that my father found himself in when the “lawn mower” that he was offered turned out to be a thirty pound, cast iron, rotary mower. A forced smile and, “thank you” from Dad, and into our garage it went. He immediately went out and got the gas powered finger chopper that I hid from, and there it stayed for as long as I can remember.

As time went along, Dad managed to get his hands on a riding mower and when I was old enough, I would pilot it around in ever tightening circles, pummeling the grass into submission as Dad did the small areas with the push mower he had bought all those years before. The antique rotary mower was left to gather dust and other than the few times I remember taking it out to oil and push a few feet, then hanging it back up, it never saw the light of day.

Now it was my turn to need new things necessary to the maintenance a house. I had been borrowing an electric mower from a nearby friend since we had moved in, but if you have never experienced the thrill of running over your own power cord, then you my friend, just haven’t lived. They are horrible little machines and after the second extension cord wound up in the trash, I decided that I needed something else.

Getting a gas mower for the five hundred square feet of lawn I had seemed worse than foolish. That type of blunt headed consumption, frankly drives me more than a little batty. I needed something else. Then I remembered the rotary mower.

“That mower? The one hanging up in the garage?” My dear father, sensing a chance to reverse the roll he played all those years ago when he came into ownership of the cast iron wall hanger, pounced.

“SURE! You can have THAT one! Tell you what, I’ll even go and get it sharpened for you before I bring it up.” He was going for full effect on the drop off. Once he had it cleaned up and ready for pushing, there was no way I could turn it down. With a light heart, Dad took down the old rotary mower and, leaving a large, oil stained outline on the garage wall, took it to the local shop for sharpening.

“Woah! Where’d you get this one?”

The guys at the shop all came over to inspect the machine as Dad wheeled it into the showroom. After a brief retelling, one of the workers looked down at it with respect. “Your son’s a lucky guy. They didn’t’ make them like this when the made them like this. This thing is the Cadillac of the rotary mowers. They do a way better job of mowing. The grass will look great after a pass with this one.”

My Dad related all this to me when he dropped it off and much to our amazement, we found that when sharpened and freshly oiled, not only does it purr like a kitten, but it cuts the grass beautifully, evenly and quietly.

mower

There are a few things that can get in the way when using it. First of all, it weights a ton and you never forget that for a moment when you propel it across the lawn. Secondly, if you put off cutting the grass too many weekends, you are in for a lot of sweating later. Unlike its motorized brethren, rather than smashing the grass down with a whirling piece of metal, this snips at it like scissors, and just like scissors, you can only snip so much in one bite. It can be like trying to cut a phonebook in half with pinking sheers. Long grass means multiple passes.

I have a larger lawn now and though I suppose I could justify a gas mower, I still happily use this one. I never have to fill it up, it starts ever time and most of all, I love the sound. My new neighbor keeps offering me the use of his electric mower whenever he sees me with it out, but I just thank him and say that it’s my version of going to the gym. The fact of the matter is, I love it. I can hear the birds over the whirring blades and I smell like fresh grass rather than exhaust and burned oil when I finish. The old mower was built in 1918, and I always get at least one passer by who stops to marvel at it as they walk by. I have to admit, I’m proud of the thing.

The best outcome of all this was my father’s own revelation. He’s always hated mowing the grass and the ride-on and the push mower always seem to need something. Top that off with his dust allergy and high opinion of rigorous physical activity and he started to view cutting the grass in a different light. Shortly after I started using mine, he went out and bought one of his own. It’s new and lighter and easier to push, but the effect is much the same. Now his neighbors stop and comment about pushing such an old fashioned mower around the yard. Entertainingly enough, one of them has decided that it was a good enough idea to warrant him going out and getting his own as well. We just might have a minor revolution on your hands here!

I doubt that my son and daughter will enjoy pushing my ancient, iron monstrosity across the lawn when the job becomes theirs, but I won’t be getting rid of it any time soon. If they want a gas mower, they can get one. In the mean time, I’ll oil this one up and push it out across the grass. It’s been doing just that for about a hundred years now.

Why stop now, just when I’ve gotten it broken in?

mower2

The Square Footage of a Dream

Many years ago, I had a dream. My dream involved a big chunk of land, a rambling farmhouse and a barn.

In the place where I grew up, that really wasn’t a far-fetched dream at all. There were lots of farmhouses, bards and fields scattered all over the New England countryside. They stood as relics of the farming past. The years before the railroad connected the fertile Great Plains with the eastern city centers, this is where the food came from. It had to be close. Lord knows it wasn’t because New England makes good farm country. Unless you’re really into growing rocks, it’s a brutal place to scratch a living from the boulder strewed land.

My mental image of my quiet farm in the country was sculpted in the pre-Martha Stuart days; long before the masses of baby boomers were told that country living was the goal and the prices asked for such properties was driven to the moon. I clung to that vision for a long time.

farm

As is so often the case, my long range plan is not how things turned out. The house we live in is very tiny. It is perhaps nine hundred to a thousand square feet and the lot it is placed on is little more than a postage stamp. You might think that this would disappoint me. It most certainly does not.

The reasons for my change of heart are simple. First of all, a smaller house simply means less house to take care of. The modest size of our home is enough to keep me busy for weekends, stretching into infinity. Every time I look up a it, I see a new part that needs replacing, painting, fixing, removing or completely reengineering. A few months ago, the kids, Action Girl and I all went up the coast to visit a friend who had purchased the quintessential “old farmhouse”. The building wasn’t terribly big, as farmhouses go, but looking at its sagging floors, ancient windows, rotting soffits and ancient plumbing gave me the screaming heebeejeebees. There was a lot of work to do and it was easily three times the size of our place. I had the inescapable feeling that you could whittle away at it for years with out seeing any measurable improvement. It was going to take a long, long time and a lot of money and work.

Then, there is heating. Our home is heated quite easily by one small, gas fired, hot air system. No ductwork is needed and it sits quietly in the corner until it’s needed. This winter, I hope to close in our south facing front porch with a series of big windows. I’ll do the floor in slabs of slate and the passive solar will probably keep the heater off during the daylight hours, all winter long. Heating the massive, old and questionably insulated farmhouse of my dreams would be another matter entirely. Most likely, it would involve a combination of a lot of splitting, stacking and burning of wood and roughly a bazillion gallons of home heating oil. I grew up in a house with a wood stove and to be honest, the shine of chopping and stacking cord after cord of wood in the cold air and then schlepping it into the house armload after armload seems to have rubbed off some time early in my childhood. I can live with out going back to that and with the cost of oil these days; I can defiantly live with out that bill!

Now, imagine this old farmhouse sitting in amongst rolling fields, a large grassy lawn leading down a winding driveway to the roadside. Specifically, imagine having to mow the yard and hay the field. Now, there is one major caveat to this part of the workload that would come with my dream farm. It would give me the justification to own a tractor, and that is nothing to sneeze at. To have ownership not only the faded, red Farmall, in all it’s greasy, rumbling glory, but also a valid reason for having it in the first place… well, that’s nothing to turn one’s nose at.

farmall

I also know full well that I’d have to beat Action Girl to the driver’s seat if I ever was going to get to drive it. At least until running it became humdrum. And that’s the problem. It would be fun AT FIRST. Soon it would be another house chore of Damocles that would hang over my head, threatening to squash me flat under six tons of farm equipment. No. I’ll pass. My little plot of land is easily mown by an old fashioned, rotary push mower, built in 1881. It takes me about twenty minutes.

Last and most importantly, there is the space. Lots and lots of space. This would, for me, be very, very bad. I tell you now and with out shame, that I am a pack rat. It comes to me via genetics, or at least, that’s what I tell my self in an effort to diffuse guilt. My wonderful Grandmother, though she kept a tidy home, was a pack rat too. The floor of her bedroom was reportedly, navigable only by paths that wound and twisted through the stacks of “important” things that she had carefully set aside as too good to throw out. Apparently, when once asked about these collections of saved items, she replied, “Well, I’m not what you’d call ‘nasty neat’”. Neither am I. I’m more “friendly cluttered”.

If I think I could use it later, I’ll save it. If I think someone else could use it, I’ll save it for them. If I have no particular reason to keep other than it’s in perfectly good shape and otherwise it will go to a landfill… well, if any one needs it, it’s probably in my basement. Actually, I’m making it out to be worse than it is. I’m not THAT bad anymore, but it does go against my grain to toss something that still works or just needs a little love. Moving to an island, accessible only by ferry has only made it tougher to deal with my tendency to hoard. There is nothing more aggravating that getting stopped cold 90% of the way through a project because all you have are ¾ inch fittings and all you need is ONE ½ inch elbow. I tell you, it can lead to some interesting plumbing solutions out here. Here, having my boxes of odds and ends actually pays off!

Most of all, I think that people are gold fish, in that we will grow to the size of our tank. If I had the barn that I had always dreamed of, I am completely certain that it would contain at least four cars that I’d be “working on”, part of an airplane, old engines for both car and airplane and piles and piles of stuff that was too good to throw out. When the day would come for my kids to put me in a nursing home, Action Girl would be left to deal with my treasures and, really, the best way to do that would be with a match and a gallon of gasoline.

My house is small. I have no barn or field to fill with interesting tidbits. My basement is full and therefore, to put something new in it, something else must come out. I still dream of my farmhouse in the country, but it’s accompanied now by a shudder brought on through knowing myself. The house would own me, rather than the other way around and that would be a heavy burden to carry. No, I’ll stay in my little house with no fields or fireplaces and just dream about my farmhouse. It’s cheaper that way and the best part is, I never have to paint it.

I do wish I could justify the tractor, though. Vroom! Vroom!

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