Do Tools Make the Man?

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Or does man make the tools? An interesting discussion titled “The tools we get attached to” is taking place on LinkedIn in the Preservation Trades Network Group. Folks are talking about their favorite tools, like the hammer they have had since they started working. One individual told the story of dropping his favorite trowel into a hollow-cavity brick wall he was working on and, realizing he couldn’t get it back, recorded the exact spot in the wall the trowel resided. Years later, he discovered the building was scheduled for demolition, so he returned to the site and talked to the crew doing the work. When they got to the right place, they allowed him to recover his favorite trowel.

“If we want to grow more tradespeople, we need to put tools in the hands of children.” My one-time employee, Pavel Prytup, who now lives in Russia, seems to have taken me at my word. It looks like he hopes his son will grow up knowing how to hew.

“If we want to grow more tradespeople, we need to put tools in the hands of children.” My one-time employee, Pavel Prytup, who now lives in Russia, seems to have taken me at my word. It looks like he hopes his son will grow up knowing how to hew.

I know I have certain tools that mean a lot more to me than others, including the first framing square I bought when I was doing odd jobs in college to make some extra money. I bought it on the recommendation of a friend's father who was a carpenter. It is a really good square and actually has 16ths of an inch delineated on the scales and a 1-in. rule divided into 100ths. Years later, I learned that my square had a brace length chart on it for laying out braces for timber frame buildings. The length in inches is given to two decimal places. The hundredth scale is there so you can convert to 16ths using a folding rule.

It even has scales on it in 10ths and 12ths of an inch, which I have always referred to as “Stanleys.” I never could figure out a good use for them until a few weeks ago when I was asked to grade some Southern Yellow Pine floor joists in a 1916 department store. The joists were 16 feet off the floor, so I photographed them. I had measured the height of some I could reach from a stairwell, which allowed me to measure how tall they appeared on my monitor and then use the 12ths scale to create a proportion I could use to determine the knot diameters. I’m sure that’s not what the “Stanley scale” was meant for, but it sure came in handy.

I’ve always enjoyed figuring out how early carpenters and timber framers did their work. You can learn a lot by carefully studying the things they built. Oftentimes. the marks left by the tools they used will tell you a lot about their technique and approach to laying out and cutting a particular joint, but much can also be learned from the tools they used as well. Unlike cheaply made modern tools, or modern electric tools, 100-year-old carpentry tools usually are ready to go back to work with a little reconditioning. What the tools were used for or exactly how they were used requires reconditioning of a more personal sort. To understand the tool requires trying to place yourself in a different time; in effect, you need to get into the boots of the builder, if you will.

My grandfather used to tell me, “There’s a right way and a wrong way to use a tool.” I remember feeling like some days I spent my time inventing new wrong ways. But grandpa was right; using a tool the right way makes the work go faster and takes less energy. Even using a broadax to hand hew a log into a timber shouldn’t be a strenuous endeavor, provided the tool is sharp, well hafted and used correctly

But figuring out just how to use it correctly isn’t something you can learn by reading a book. The best way is to learn from people with experience by working alongside them. Once you understand the basics and you start hewing, the tool tells you how well you are doing if you pay attention.

Knowing the proper way to use a tool can be very rewarding and instills a sense of pride, but another aspect of tool ownership that can bring joy to any tradesperson is owning good tools. Historic tools are quite collectible because, for the most part, they were well made and often the makers of the tools took so much pride in what they produced that they decorated them. Even manufactured tools from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were made with ornate Victorian decoration, clearly offering tradespeople of the day an opportunity to show off the tools they owned and were proud of.

My own toolbox holds as many 100-year-old tools as it does modern ones. Some of them I own and use simply for the joy of knowing they were owned and used by another tradesperson, or maybe several, prior to my putting them to work, but others are examples of well-made tools that are either not made anymore or are only available as poorly made examples of today’s tool manufacturing. I also own examples of some of the very ornate old tools, but those are reserved for admiring the talents of the maker and never go in my toolbox or onto a jobsite.

One of the real joys of my work is knowing I can pick up my tools, both old and new, and actually make something. Unfortunately, today few people make things for a living, and even fewer understand the old ways of working with tools that were employed by the people who created our built heritage. As I have said before, that knowledge is as important a part of our heritage as the things it created.

For me, understanding that much of that knowledge is contained in the buildings themselves is important because I know I can learn something from every project I am part of. But sometimes the learning experience comes when I figure out exactly what tool was used in the first place, finding an example of it if I don't already own one, and experience using it to repair what it once created. From my perspective, the tool itself has taught me something.