We’ve been having lots of discussions lately about old tools. This isn’t out of the ordinary around here, as you might guess – most days feature at least one moment of geeking out over the discovery of some 19th-century photograph of a cooper at work, or poring over a beautiful painting by a Dutch master of a woodworker’s shop, or examining a tool that Joshua or I just picked up – but the pace and variety has increased. One big reason is our recent opening of registration for the 2023 M&T Apprenticeship Program, where students from all over the world will convene for an 8-week online course in hand-tool woodworking. Once they’ve signed up, many students reach out to us with questions about tooling up – where to find a good tenon saw, whether their metal-bodied Stanley no. 5 will work for the course. And our advice ends up sounding the same, over and over: Pick up old tools.
If you’ve ever bitten into a heritage apple, you know they’re something special. Today’s supermarket specimens, bred for shelf appearance and resistance to bruising, taste flat and foamy in comparison. But the ancient varieties were cultivated for flavor, some tasting like rose with purplish flesh, some with hints of nutmeg or peach, some like honey or pepper with a rainbow’s variety of colors. They are unique, and singular, and don’t do well being trucked all over the country so exist only locally. That ancient, gnarled tree behind the run-down farmhouse up the road is likely a heritage apple that tastes like nothing you’ve had before. The best apples I’ve ever eaten came from an old farm on an island off the coast here in Maine. The flavor was stupendous – peach, pear, rose, and super crisp. I loaded my pockets from that tree.
Heritage tools are the same way. Sure, you can buy new saws – some are quite good, some are completely unappealing and cheap – but they lack the depth and variety that comes from ancient stock. In our most recent podcast episode, where Joshua and I are unpacking David Pye’s book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship in Chapter 7, we discussed Pye’s concept of diversity as a beautifying agent. What Pye means is diversity of features: color, texture, and different elements being revealed at different scales. This diversity is one of the main reasons that handmade furniture is so much more appealing to the senses than factory-made. It welcomes us in to investigate; it reveals new facets. And another diversifying agent, as Pye puts it, is patina. Think of it as the staining of time, the wear of the ages, a human connection to the past. (This is true in the literal sense, because much of the dust and grime that builds up is composed of dead skin cells – using that old fore plane is really shaking hands with an ancestor.)
“Patina and distressed surfaces of one sort and another have been prized from ancient times,” Pye says, noting that these elements accentuate the appearance of the object by giving dimension or depth. There is, of course, a fine line between wear and damage, between patina and filth. But most agree that the process of aging well makes an object more beautiful. To the appreciation of the physical appearance of an antique object or tool, I personally also value the Eric Sloane-ian perspective on the ethereal draw of the past we feel in handling and using these tools. As Sloane put it, “Closing your hand around a worn wooden hammer handle is very much like reaching back into the years and feeling the very hand that wore it smooth.” New tools can be great, but they are just new. There is no mystery, no initials carved by a phantom of another century, no maker’s mark partially obscured but always inviting a close inspection, no slight divot where years of placing a finger wore away the wood. Yes, these are intangible qualities. But that makes them no less valuable.