There’s something about old hand tools. Unlike the shiny new ones in the catalogs, the old ones have character. What exactly is character? The dictionary defines it as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing”. Look at an old tool, and I’m sure you’ll agree.
Take the old bit brace above as an example. It belonged to my grandfather, who left it to my father, who left it to me. As best as I can determine, it was manufactured sometime in the latter half of the 19th century, and so might have belonged to my great-grandfather as well – I’ll never know for sure.
Take a good look at it. The wood parts are richly grained, and have a resemblance to rosewood, though again I can’t tell for sure. The structure is a little wobbly – a trait common to braces that have the chuck attached with a screw. All of the metal surfaces have that wonderful black oxide coating that old tools seem to acquire, and makes a wonderful shield against real rust. Everything works as it should.
It’s a big brace – 14″ sweep with tremendous leverage Yes, that’s a 1 1/2″ Irwin auger sticking out of the business end, and it turns it just fine (although I DO break a sweat). Try putting THAT bad boy through a 2″ slab of half-dried white oak with your little 10″ sweep brace!
It’s a good brace, but the magic comes from the fact that it was handed down to me. I remember my father using this brace when building my treehouse, fixing things around the house, and trying unsuccessfully to teach me to use it. I wish now that I had listened and learned more.
Old tools are more than just implements, they’re links to the past. Every ding, every wear mark was placed there by a previous user. Who were they? What did they do? Two of my old saws have initials stamped into their handles. Whose name and livelihood do they represent? Where did they come from? What did they build?
As we grasp the tool, we see the wear marks where others before us have gripped the tool in the same way. It’s almost eerie when I pick up a handsaw, and my pointing index finger drops into an oh-so-subtle groove where others have used exactly the same grip for decades. There’s an implied challenge in it: “Are you good enough?” the saw seems to whisper, “My last owner was.”
All old tools have a touch of this, but family ones much more so. They are continuity, they are permanence, they remind us that we are links in a chain. We are the recipients of the past, and we have an obligation: to do the best work we can, to take the craft past where we found it, and, in turn, pass on what we have learned.
Perhaps our children will listen better than we did.