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Tool Stories


 
  My Past and My Future by Charlie Driggs  

This discussion seems to me to go to the heart of what the Porch debates in so many ways. We ask a bunch of questions of each other that all go to these points.

What is the best tool for this job? What is the best tool of it's type? How much time should I spend on getting an edge - should I be able to shave my arm without even feeling it or can the skin feel just the tiniest of pulls? How long should it take to make a _____? Why favor handtools over electron burners?

For a production shop doing the same thing over and over in high volume, I have little doubt that machines are the way to go for many tasks - especially if they can be computer controlled to produce uniform dimensions. 

But that isn't the kind of work I ever want to do, and more importantly, using those tools introduces safety issues that cannot be ignored.  (A personal experience with a screaming demon drawing blood confirmed that, and I thought I was following all the safety rules.) 

I had thought for close to a decade that maybe I'd retire, set up a shop, and restore / refinish furniture part-time and maybe occasionally make new stuff by request.  I like the work, and I'm reasonably good at it while I readily admit I don't know nearly as much about it as I need to know to be trusted with a stained, dirty, damaged piece that if properly restored would be a $50,000 antique such as I irregularly see in museums, shops and shows.  I've made a living in a line of work that has next to nothing to do with my current hobbies / occasional paid furniture repair-refinish work. 

Like many of us rockin' away here, I'm in a financial position after 33 yrs of a professional life that is modestly comfortable, and I can afford to have a few LN planes in my workshop.  I bought them because I thought I needed their finer qualities and hadn't found examples of what inspired their creation at an affordable price.  That in no way makes my workshop better than anyone else's, as I am certain that others here can make things that are more awe-inspiring than what I have produced while using more "mundane" tools.

Some of my ancestors were also carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, budding cabinetmakers, and toolmakers.  I know much of what they did would be considered 'serviceable' or 'meeting market needs'.  I contrast, I strive to do higher-end work out of a desire to improve my skills and produce something worth keeping around, not because I have a customer that is limited by what they can afford.

The reality is that nearly all customers are limited by what they can afford, because they are like us.  Only a very few can hold out for the finest work and afford the cost of having it done, just as few of us on this list can afford a bespoke mahogany bedroom set and custom fitted cabinetry in our closets (and no, I can't either, but I do know a couple people who can and did).

As a result, many of us doing woodworking as a hobby explore producing things that are probably 'better quality' with our old tools than what former commercial owners of those tools would have produced.  Worse, the things I produce I could not part with for the going commercial price of competing products because customers allocate what income they have among many different competing needs, and that rarely allows them to write blank checks.  I'd go broke if I was in business trying to find customers who want me to make the finest furniture I could make, just as did Paul's acquaintance with "the grandest shop".

What I strive to do, and probably many of us strive to do, is in between 'mundane' (NO termite barf) and exceptional, and yet still borders on what 'gentlemen woodworkers' might have done 100-200 yrs ago. 

I know I can't charge enough to provide me with a reasonable income per hour of work expended making furniture, just as I've determined that I can't sharpen saws for prices people can justify and make enough to make it worthwhile.  (At the prices Tom Law charged me a few years before he retired, I didn't see how he made enough to want to keep doing -- and then he retired.)  So it is unlikely I'll ever try.

A few years ago, when we were exploring the prices charged and time required for cabinetmakers and joiners to build various items 100-200 yrs ago, it was a confirmation.  I knew I was too slow - but the time it took those guys to get things done was nearly a ten-fold improvement over me.

And our shops are very often better equipped than what they had to work with.  Seeing the Dominy shops and what Winterthur displays of that family's works, what is demonstrated at Williamsburg and elsewhere, and inspecting fine old antiques repeatedly confirms to me that the 'finest craftsmen' of old weren't 'finest' because of a high-end collection of tools or a superbly gorgeous workbench or any obsession with making furniture perfect in corners no one can see as well as on the outside.

They didn't do their work that way.  More of it was consistent with what St. Roy shows (the rare times I get to see his show) than many of us might admit.  They may have had fine tools for a few specific tasks, but because they knew how to use what they had or make what tools they needed even when those tools were what we might think second-rate, they were able to get the job done in fine form and short order with tooling that is less impressive than what many of us have already.  That's highly respectable in my eyes. 

I like the few luxuries I have in my shop, but I am much more conscious at this point of just how large a gap remains between my level of skill with my tools and the skills those folks displayed in their work. 

So, I no longer delude myself into believing that I can make some money at this work, and I instead focus upon learning more about how our elders did their work, did it well, and produced things that are worth preserving through generations.  Using hand tools, preserving hand tool methods, and preserving the tools while still keeping them useful provides me an avenue for considerable relaxation. 

That makes it worth it, and I can still select the degree of fineness in my work to match the immediate need.  I can simultaneously be working on a quick-build project for a mundane use right next to an attempt at something finely crafted.  I don't need to get tied up in an obsession over work quality that leaves me unable to either finish anything or ever use a fine tool.

Life is too short, and I need to accomplish things to that I hope will add to the things of value and worth preserving over the years .  That's how I use my tools, and thankfully I don't have to worry about making a living from many of the tools I have acquired from people who did use them to make their living.  This is my relaxation, my enjoyment, maybe part of my legacy, and I'm thankful for it.

Charlie Driggs
January, 2005


 
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