Whenever I wander down the aisles of an antique store, something unseen draws me like a magnet toward the sections that contain the old tools. These ancient hammers, chisels, planes, and saws, often located on greasy shelves and almost hidden behind doors and walls, are usually jumbled together, sometimes even lying on top of one another. One must pause for a moment and look hard so as to be able to distinguish among the maze of various tools.
I pick up an old wood plane and hold it in my hand, wondering about the story it has to tell. Somehow I can picture a master craftsman carefully shaving the edges of a thick piece of oak or cherry to carve a beautiful desk or chest, or maybe gently tapping a wooden mallet to tightly bind the dovetails of a joint.
Tools are something I like to have around me. I can remember a calendar my grandmother had hanging on the wall in the 1950’s. Along with the ubiquitous across-the-counter medical advertisements was written an oft-seen slogan: It’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.” Tools illustrate that point as well as anything.
A need for a flathead screwdriver can never be answered by using a Phillip’s screwdriver. And when a person needs a hammer, a shoe just won’t fit the bill; and a pair of tweezers can never take the place of a set of pliers. Yet we may only need these tools once a week, or once per month, or even once per year.
One reason that I think old tools have interesting stories to tell is that people don’t usually toss tools away. And for the most part, tools don’t wear out or break. O.K., so maybe I have purchased some cheap screwdrivers over the years that have bent or broken and I’ve replaced a few wooden hammer handles, but most of the quality tools I’ve purchased are just as good as the day they were bought. The first socket set I ever bought is still my favorite, although it was purchased in the 1960’s. Other newer and far more expensive sets just don’t feel as comfortable in my hands. I doubt I would toss the ratchet away even if it did break.
The first good hammer I owned was purchased in the 1970’s and it is still the one I use most often today. I have screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers that are older than my grown children and will just as useful to my grandchildren as they are to me today.
Tools often are associated with memories of people from the past, and this alone is enough reason to cause me to hold them in my possession. For instance, I still have the hammer that my dad bought in the 1950’s; the same one he used to build a modest house. Somehow, I suppose, that helps to give me some connection to the skills he possessed but I failed to inherit.
Another tool handed down to me by my dad is a small, broken piece of whetstone. The stone, measuring about two and one half by five inches, has never met its equal with sharpening pocketknives and kitchen knives as well as other tools. The fact that one edge is broken off is only a minor, almost meaningless detail.
One of three toolboxes I have, all old, is my dad’s handmade, heavy-welded metal box that he used while working in the cotton mill. Another is a toolbox I bought in my early twenties, about forty years ago. The third is newer, but still probably thirty years old. I wouldn’t part with any of these boxes.
Some of the old tools I have are electrical. One of my prized possessions, a circular saw built in the 1950’s, is strong, powerful, and extremely heavy. I can’t imagine how someone could operate a saw like this all day and still have enough strength left to get home. An electric drill I have is around fifty years old and works as well now as it did then, especially with a cord that is only about ten-years old. Another drill I have is about ten years newer.
I don’t use these drills much anymore. I’ve succumbed to the ease and versatility of the more modern variable speed drills. I probably should be ashamed of myself. Some of my tools are a bit unusual. One is a picker, a tool used in a cotton mill weaving room. It is shaped like an icepick but with the last one inch or so of the blade curved into a ninety-degree angle. Another is an old icepick; a tool that brings back memories of delivery drivers with huge forearms lugging hundred pound chunks of ice to place into an icebox.
Perhaps, some day in the future, a person wandering down the aisles of an antique store may happen upon my tools. I hope the person can somehow find that the story about their history has already begun—at least the first four or five decades. Maybe someone else will continue from there.