toolsNorm Abram’s little book Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter (Little, Brown, 1996) is, I was about to say, a minor classic on the building arts. But I must revise that opinion. It is a true classic, a book that fathers should read with their sons. It contains seventy-six chapters in one hundred and ninety-one pages, each chapter therefore averaging just over two and one-half pages, and each one offering wisdom on family, work, and tools. “My father,” he says, “taught me always to tap the chalk box before I pulled the line out. It became a ritual with us.” Ritual.

I’ve been thinking about tools lately, in part because I must reorganize both my garage and basement workshops (they have taken on lives of their own), and perhaps even more because of the snippets Christopher Wiley has been sending about how to teach his sons, and all young men, to build a godly house. Tools are a significant part of the permanent things, but they are also relative to time, place and function. That is, we are tool-using animals, whether it is a flint-edged knife, or the one supposedly developed by Jim Bowie, or the Swiss Army knife. Or to put it another way, we are an ingenious species, capable of creating hammers of nuanced proportions, and using them to build dwelling places and to kill other members of our race more often than using guns. Another interesting tool.

Forbes magazine recently did an unscientific but rather serious survey on “The Most Important Tools Ever.” They enlisted a panel of “experts,” including a senior research associate at the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History (how would you like to argue with him?), a bunch of Forbes readers, and various journalists. It is not clear if the survey included anyone who actually uses the top twenty tools they came up with. Here’s the list, in order: knife, abacus, compass, pencil, harness, scythe, sword, glasses, saw, watch, lathe, needle, candle, scale, pot (not the stuff you grow and smoke), telescope, level, fish hook, and chisel. I suspect that if my grandfathers had been asked, about half of these items would not have made it, and if you asked my grandchildren, they would say that the iPhone would replace the other half. Goodness, is the lathe as “important” as the hammer, or the sword as the gun? Remember Sean Connery’s line in the movie “The Untouchables:” “Just like a dumb dago, to bring a knife to a gun fight.” Too bad for Mr. Connery, another “dumb dago” had indeed brought guns.

We seek out or invent tools as we need them, being tool-making creatures. A man building a dwelling for his family does not really need a telescope. He needs a hammer. A woman trying to make clothes for her children certainly needs a needle, but she doesn’t have to have a chisel. A family trying to grow food does not particularly need an abacus, but that family needs several tools not on the Forbes list. The hoe has probably done more to sustain mankind than the telescope, which brings up an interesting point about what is really “important” about tools. Most of the good dictionaries define tools as instruments, usually used with the hands, that perform certain functions. As such, they are mostly morally neutral–depending upon what the functions are. Henry Thoreau, it is said, when seeing a coughing, wheezing, fire-spitting train for the first time, pronounced it “an improved means to an unimproved end.” Wendell Berry has said essentially the same thing about gasoline driven weed eaters, comparing them with scythes.  Nevertheless, we use what we need.

Norm Abram gives about ten pages in Measure Twice, Cut Once to what he calls “The Disappearing Tool”–the screwdriver. Ever since the invention of screws (in their modern form at the end of the 18th century) all carpenters have known that for many types of fastening they are functionally superior to anything that came before. Because screws have heads and are threaded, they require a tool that twists them securely into place. I have never seen a middle class household that did not contain a screw-driver of some kind. They are almost as common as forks and spoons. Straight slot screwdrivers have served as chisels, paint can openers, punches and a hundred other things. They come also in Phillips head, star, square, and several other patterns. Most carpenters still have several of various sizes in their toolboxes, but most of them who depend on screwdrivers have gone to power tools that can perform a variety of drilling and driving tasks faster and better than anything they have ever had before.

There are many “disappearing tools.” A carpenter’s toolbox from, say 1946, would look just about as different today as a farmer’s tool shed, a tool and die maker’s or automobile mechanic’s tool benches from the same era. Many trades practiced in my grandfather’s generation have also disappeared, and the tools have become curiosities, or the objects of nostalgic auctions. Norm Abram says that his father, just a few years after his retirement, brought his tool box to help his son build the house of his dreams and felt as if he had stepped through a time warp. Within an hour he was using a pneumatic nailer, and not complaining at all about his hammer sitting unused for days at a time. But Norm also says that what has “declined from my dad’s generation to mine is the prevailing standard of skill in carpentry. My father could do many things by hand that I’ve never practiced enough to do.” Tools come and go, but when skill starts to decline our connection to the permanent things changes, and usually not for the better.

Tools themselves, it must be said, are not the permanent things, nor are the trades that demand particular sets of tools. I was trained as a house painter by a master painter who, when he hired me as a seventeen-year-old, was already eighty and had painted every imaginable surface, from clapboard and plaster to automobiles, for over sixty years. He told me stories about breaking up the lead to mix paint, when preparation time was over half the job. He taught me to choose ladders well, and to oil them properly. He made me buy a four inch bristle brush of such quality that it cost $35 in 1957, and weighed over two pounds when filled with paint. He taught me to paint with either hand, and to putty and cut in eight foot windows in a half hour. He hated rollers, but knew that they were better for much indoor work than brushes. He cleaned his brushes meticulously, and the trunk of his 1947 Plymouth was a traveling paint shop. Art Comstock was his name. Art never could save any money, spending most of what he earned on strong drink and loose women, but I never saw him compromise on the quality of his work. That was permanent.

What does not change is the need to get the work done right. Tools are a means to an end that is both functional and moral. Lizzie Borden’s idea of the function of an axe was a bit different from Paul Bunyan’s, or from my cousin’s when he split firewood all summer to earn enough money for his first year at Cornell. The Forbes list thus must be taken with a grain of intellectual salt. It’s the object in the work that is important, and permanent. Between the tool and its object Norm also has a little parting note:  “I have always had two metal bandage boxes in my [toolbox] tray. The first one…contains most of my drill bits. The other one contains bandages. No one is perfect.”

Books on this topic may be found in the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Two parts of this essay strike me as the height of literature, akin to one of my favorite writers, namely Raymond Chandler:

    “They enlisted a panel of “experts,” including a senior research associate at the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History (how would you like to argue with him?)”


    “He cleaned his brushes meticulously, and the trunk of his 1947 Plymouth was a traveling paint shop. Art Comstock was his name. Art never could save any money, spending most of what he earned on strong drink and loose women, but I never saw him compromise on the quality of his work. That was permanent.”

    The latter segment could actually be the perfect opening paragraph to one of Sam Spade’s detective adventures.

    As to tools – personally, over the years I have come to love a good, sturdy axe. One of the great pleasures of life is chopping wood in order to provide heat for the women of the family (men don’t really need it, or we can generate it in other ways, namely through a variety of physical exercises). The male ego, however, is most satisfied by providing heat for the family through the sweat of his brow, powerful axe in hand. On that note, I do not like saws; and even if a saw might sometimes be more utilitarian, it is not as manly as an axe.

  2. We were rebuilding a horribly-roofed carport that had collapsed under the weight of a hundred-year blizzard. To support the new roof, we were hanging 2×6 as beams. I found, hanging in our storeroom as it had before my father’s death, my grandfather’s absolutely ancient framing square, with logarithms, conversions and EXACTLY the right length to distance and true the beams. With it, I quickly realized, I could have built a solid frame house. I still have some fossil equipment of which I make great use. A saying for which the modern world would be wealthier is that ‘Obsolete doesn’t mean useless.’

    Thank you for the thoughtful, useful, enlightening essay.

  3. The most important tool? — a mind that knows what skills are necessary to do whatever job wherein one is engaged. Please remember that “technology” does not refer explicitly to hardware, but to the established (ritual, it you like) and efficient methods of doing a task.

    My Daddy, a master carpenter, had many tools. With a 6th-grade education, but lots of experience, he could look at a plot of ground, hear what the customer wanted, and come within a smidge of accurately estimating time to complete and cost of materials. (And then, would come home and have the high schooler — me — figure out his estimate with pencil and paper. He was never far off.)

    A decent tool in the hand of a craftsman produces wonders. An excellent tool in the hand of a butcher…

  4. What an enjoyable piece of writing. John Willson, it is a simple fact that you do not post enough articles.

  5. I second Mr. Parson’s, an erudite observer, and the man who nailed up the vast majority of the shingles on our humble abode, helped placed twelve inch oak beams, nail up dry wall and much more. A gentleman who knows, personally, of what the inestimable Dr. Willson speaks. Indeed, we need more of this, John.

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