We have our stories, my tools and I.
Got my first chainsaw for twenty-five bucks from Ralph Hoffman, the small engine guy in Mariposa town. I think he was doing me a favor, giving me that price for a very used Pioneer, Canadian brand, noisy and heavy, life-saving. Fire crew boss at the Forest Service station told me I could sharpen it with a hand file and maybe he could but I bought a clamp-on jig. I still have it, and the saw.
What I use now is a 45.7cc Husky with a 16 inch bar and even for nostalgia I couldn’t go back. Also have a 14 inch battery driven saw which is lighter and quieter. Would hate to do without either. Also, I’m good at sharpening both.
A way to think about tools is that one has with them a relationship. Me and them, we kind of know each other and we get the job done.
I’ve got a splitting maul that needs its third handle. First two were hickory and plastic respectively and I believe the new one will be plastic too, but it’s a decision. And I will install the new handle myself, thinking through what I will ask the tool to do and how I will get along with it while the work is being done. This is about my banged up old hands gripping the handle leveraging an eight pound iron that smashes into a log at 80mph. Over and over. It’s a relationship.
These days I do much of that work with my neighbor Rodney’s gas-powered hydraulic splitter, a very different relationship. There is a ritual for starting up, and one for closing down, rules set by Rodney and the requirements of Briggs & Stratton. I’m trading work by my hands with slower, noisier, easier work by my back. Anybody who cuts firewood thinks about these things, and the relationships.
In the early days I didn’t think much about tools. I remember once writing in surprise that around here in the mountains people generally know how to weld, which struck me as exotic. Now I do, not very well, but if I have to I can. My neighbor Bud down the road was as comfortable with a half stick of dynamite as I am with a stick-shift pickup.
My friend Doug has a rule about buying tools. If it’s one you use often, he says, spend the money; if it’s just a maybe-handy-sometime piece, then cheap’s okay. He also has a bucket of brushes of all kinds. He says that when he sees one in a hardware store he doesn’t have, he buys it ‘cause ya never know. I love that, and I’ve started my own brush bucket too.
Some serious time ago my friend Eric took me to a shop in the San Mateo hills where he helped me rebuild the engine of my VW Camper. The facility was among the left-overs of an estate whose patron had, among other things, supported a harpsichord artisan. The artist had passed on but his tools were still there. A room of odd, obscure devices for making an odd musical instrument, tools for working in both wood and metal. Now-unnamed gadgets for stretching, and holding just so, and measuring precisely, all so that the strings would sing properly when plucked by armatures connected to the keyboard. There was nobody there any longer who knew how to use them, or for that matter how to make a harpsichord. Probably now – and this is awful – those wonderful tools are in a landfill someplace. When the relationship ended, both parties to it died and were buried.
Please don’t bury my chainsaws.
In my shop I’ve got a come-along winch with a bent handle left over from a family-famous incident having to do with a pig. I’ve got a Shopsmith (you can look it up) that I use only for its drill press function now, but with which I built my first tiny house. I have a Dewalt cutoff saw that I got from a guy in Oakland who must have known I was incompetent but was sweet anyway and coached me to build a wooden tool box with it before I took it away. I have a small kit of mechanic tools in a box the size of a loaf of banana bread that were actually sufficient to rebuild that VW engine. Did it twice. I have everything glass, plastic and rubber, needed to brew beer. Kevin taught me to do that.
Lots more, many with some kind of a legend.
Actually, there are, I have, two complete kinds of tools, like maybe having two families. At my desk – the home of the other family, as it were – two or three computers, couple of printers, a professional video deck, two scanners, thumb drives, software on discs, paper pads, stickies, file folders, pens & pencils. All that stuff. There are two kinds of jobs – the ones where you shower in the morning and those where you shower after work. These are for the former kind, the jobs where you are tired but not sore.
Maybe I don’t have a relationship with my writing tools now. But actually, under the shelf over there is my typewriter, a nominally portable Smith Corona in a case. Close by, a Hermes airplane portable, probably weighs a quarter as much. Haven’t used either one for years, decades, but I love them. One lived on a desk at home, one traveled with me and my suitcase just everywhere. With them I logged my ten thousand hours. They’re antiques, tools from back then, before laptops, before cell phones, before the Internet. They are noisy mechanical things, and my body physically connected to them. They talked back to me while I worked, like a maul or a saw. We had a relationship.
Don’t bury my typewriters either.
Tom DeVries, a recovering journalist and television producer, lives just outside Yosemite in California.
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