My workshop is a one-car garage in the basement of my 91-year-old house. It’s a cramped and cluttered space, but I manage to get a lot done in it and I simply enjoy being there. Almost all of the time I spend in my shop I’m alone, but it’s far from being a lonely place. In the midst of my tools, I’m surrounded with reminders of people I’ve cared for. Every tool has some usefulness, but the ones that have stories to tell are the ones that I value most.
I have, of course, many of my late father’s tools, but there is one that stands above the others. It’s the Stanley No. 100 ½ round-bottom squirrel-tail plane he used for shaping the blades of racing sculls. He had dropped it on his shop’s concrete floor and the tail had broken off. It wasn’t a tool he could easily replace, so he asked our neighbor, Bob Clare, if it could be repaired.
Bob, who was known to many as “Scrap Iron,” owned the two houses across the street; he and his family lived in one and his shop occupied the other. Both back yards were filled with metal scrap, some heaped on the ground and some propped against racks and towering high overhead. Bob brazed the tail back onto the plane, and while it’s a bit crooked and the repair looks like it was made with gobs of drab gold clay, he saved the plane.
In that plane I see my father at work in the garage, surrounded by the racing shells he was repairing, and in the repair I see Bob with his grease-blackened hat cocked back on his head and hear his cackling laugh. His shop caught fire once, and when I saw the smoke, I ran over to help. When I arrived, he was dragging a metal cabinet out the front door. It was full of flammable solvents and he had put it right inside the door for just such an emergency. (I, of course, put my cabinet full of solvents and paints just inside the garage door that opens to my shop.)
Bob had already turned the water on for the garden hose, but there was no spray nozzle on it. I was trying to put the nozzle on, but, with the water running, I couldn’t get the threads engaged. Bob calmly took the hose, folded a kink in it to stop the flow, and screwed the nozzle on so I could douse the flames. That repair is all I have of him. If the Stanley 100 ½ ever disappeared, no other tool could ever fill that void.
My mother also has a presence in my shop and I am always reminded of her by the tape dispenser she used in the print shop Dad and I built for her in the back of the house. I also have the universal plane and the full set of blades that she bought at a yard sale. She thought it was worth taking a gamble to pay all of $5 for it, hoping I might have a use for it. I did, and cut the beads on my dory’s seat risers with it.
The smallest of my three drill presses is dedicated to stirring epoxy. It is covered with cured residues as if encrusted with coral, but every time I use it I’m reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Bob Altick. He liked to tinker, and once he made several ingenious pendulum letter scales for determining postage. In his late 70s his health was failing and he gave his tools to family members. I got the drill press. He died in 1988, but I’ve mixed a lot of epoxy since then and he’s never long from my thoughts.
Hanging on a pegboard is a 10” steel spring-joint divider, the very first tool I bought when I decided to build a boat and needed to tool up for lofting. I bought the divider in 1977 for $6 in a second-hand tool store. The two-story clapboard building the store occupied was torn down decades ago and replaced with a welding supply shop; it was torn down and replaced with a pumphouse for a sewer main. The divider has a brass ball on the end of the screw and a threaded brass knob for adjusting the span. The knob spins so freely that it’ll travel a full inch along the screw if I give it a good flick with my thumb. Every time I use it I can see my 24-year-old self, looking for a direction to take in life and finding one in boats.
With the 1×30 belt sander I reviewed in this issue now sitting on my workbench, I’ve been thinking about the other tools in my shop that were just ordinary purchases. In spite of all I’ve accomplished with them, I don’t have the same connection to them as I have to the tools that have stories to tell. My 14” Delta bandsaw, for instance, has been an essential workhorse for me for 30 years, but I have no memory of where I bought it and I could easily replace it and not give it a second thought. On the other hand, I clearly remember when and where I found my old 10” Homecraft bandsaw: trout-speckled with rust, it was standing along the road I used to drive to work. It had a “Free” sign taped to it, so I stopped and loaded it into my car. Vic, the woman who put it there, is a friend of mine and the bandsaw had belonged to her father. There is only that one bandsaw with that story.
I eventually realized that the 1×30 belt sander did have a story to tell, but it was one I wasn’t paying attention to: its price. I had been pleased, at first, with the how little it cost, but began to wonder about all of the parts and labor that went into it for just $39.99. Manufacturing moves to places where labor is cheap and manufacturers there may not be required to protect them workers and pay them well. If that’s a tool’s story, I’d rather pay more and support manufacturers who take good care of their people. After all, the tools in my shop, however I came by them, are the company I keep.