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If Only These Old Tools Could Speak

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Blog entry by summerfi posted 11-12-2013 05:44 AM 790 reads 0 times favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Since retiring and moving into my new woodworking shop, I’ve been going through my tools and bringing them up to good condition. For many years they were used hard, but because of my busy schedule, their maintenance was too often neglected. I have a number of treasured hand tools that were passed down to me from my dad and granddad. When I was a young man without money to buy tools, these were my using tools. As I became older and my means increased a little, these old tools mostly lay idle in the drawers of my workbench. Now I’m pulling them out and cleaning them up, and like myself, I’ll give them a proper retirement. I have an old oak tool chest that was built by my granddad sometime in the early 1900s. I’ll stock the tool chest with a nice assortment of my ancestors’ tools, and I’ll keep it close at hand in my home to look at and admire.

Photo: My grandad, on the left as a young man ca. 1903. On the right at age 81 in his shop at Fayetteville, WV. He is stooped over from severe arthritis. This photo was taken in 1967. A few of the tools in the background are now in my possession.

Today I reached into a drawer and pulled out five old screwdrivers. We typically don’t give much thought to screwdrivers. You can buy a full set from China at Harbor Freight for $2.99. But these screwdrivers are special. Four of them were re-handled in wood by my granddad, and I believe the fifth one he made in its entirety. His initials – SMS – are clearly stamped in the octagonal shank. As I cleaned up these old tools, my thoughts began to wonder, and I started wishing they could tell me of their past. How did granddad acquire these tools? Why did he make new handles – were the old ones broken? What tasks did he plan to use them for? What were his thoughts as he carefully cut the flutes in the handles with sharp chisel or gouge? Where did he get the maple and walnut for making the handles – did he cut the trees down himself? With a crosscut saw?

Photo: Five screwdrivers owned and re-handled by my granddad.

Photo: Granddad’s initials – SMS – stamped on the shank of a screwdriver that I believe he made, probably from another broken tool or re-purposed piece of steel.

You wouldn’t think the innocuous screwdriver could bring out one’s emotions, but I did get emotional as I cleaned, sanded, and waxed these ancient instruments of a skilled craftsman. Something about holding old tools in my hand makes me think of my own mortality. These tools, no doubt made before I was born, have seen the passing of generations. They will still be here when I pass too. Given to me by an old man when I was young, now it is I who is old. Once these tools were new and could work hard; now their working days are over. When my days are over will someone clean me up and put me to rest in a nice quiet place? Will I be forgotten, or will the memory of me be passed down through generations like these old tools have been?

One day my old tools will belong to my children or grandchildren, or at least that is my desire. I hope they will care for them as I do. I sometimes see tool ads on ebay or Craigslist that go something like this: “I’m cleaning out grandpa’s old tool shed and putting this stuff up for sale. I don’t know what these tools are for, but hopefully someone will find a use for them.” How sad. I wonder if the sellers cared as little for grandpa as they do for his tools. To me old tools aren’t just pieces of wood and steel. They are representations of their former owner(s) and the rich history that has accrued over generations. How could someone possibly even think of selling grandpa’s tools?

I’ve been buying some of these cast-off tools myself. I enjoy cleaning them up and bringing them back to life. To me, it is an honorable endeavor to take an old tool that once was useful but has since fallen on hard times, and restore it again either as a productive working tool or as something to be admired and appreciated for its beauty and history. I’ll resell some of these tools that I buy and restore because, while they once belonged to someone’s grandpa somewhere, they were not a part of my family’s history. I only hope they are lucky enough to be bought by someone who cares.

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-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- "Of all the tools I own, my favorite is a good sharp pocket knife." - My Dad



4 comments so far

View Don W's profile

Don W

15235 posts in 1256 days


#1 posted 11-12-2013 01:08 PM

Very well written. I agree with visualizing what the old tools would say. They have had a history and it would be great to know what that history is.

-- Master hand plane hoarder. - http://timetestedtools.com

View BTimmons's profile

BTimmons

2141 posts in 1173 days


#2 posted 11-12-2013 04:50 PM

Great post. As for the musings on age, mortality, and one’s legacy, I already think about this stuff all the time and I’m only in my 30s. Having a kid does that you, I guess.

My uncle is a pro woodworker, and owns many tools that belonged to my grandfather, grand-uncle, and great grandfather. He’s told me that they’ll be mine when he retires. I’ve seen his arsenal of tools and it is impressive. Where I’ll put all those will be a challenge to tackle some day. But would I sell any of them? Not if I have anything to do with it.

-- Brian Timmons - http://www.BigTWoodworks.com

View Roger's profile

Roger

14859 posts in 1492 days


#3 posted 11-13-2013 01:16 AM

Very nice story. Yes, these babies would tell some good ones for sure. It’s up to you now, to make some statements with what you build.

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Kentuk55@bellsouth.net

View CFrye's profile

CFrye

3360 posts in 528 days


#4 posted 11-14-2013 03:45 PM

Thanks for sharing Bob. You’ve summed up my own thoughts about old hand tools (and rusty old vehicles I love to photograph). Your granddad did a beautiful job on those screw drivers. If they are sound I hope you use them and not just put them on a shelf.

-- God bless, Candy

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