Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The tools of our tools

"Men have become the tools of their tools."
 -Henry David Thoreau

The context around this quote deals with the transition from Eden-like simplicity, to agriculture, and other systemic ways of life that require tools and so on to continue to function. But given that Thoreau lived at the height of the industrial revolution, it's pretty clear that  he was really reacting to the change from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Maybe he was decrying the move away from a life where people did things by hand. Maybe he was just trying to cope with changing context in general, it's hard to say. I'm sure there are serious Thoreau scholars who have gone into this more deeply than I will. But the quote is a good point of departure, because it's easy in the shop to become a slave to your tools.

Whether you're a hand-tool purist, a machine junkie, or a hybrid woodworker, I think there's something to be said about paying attention to the balance of power in your own shop. Blades need to be cleaned, chisels and plane irons sharpened, jigs repaired, etc... there's a lot of maintenance involved sometimes. I have no issue when it comes to being the custodian of my tools, until I begin to think that maybe, I have too many tools.

This is just something I've been musing on in recent weeks, as I try to clear out some space in my own shop. There are some tools that don't get as much use as I thought they would. Sometimes it's a tool that was a real investment, but didn't pan out. Other times it's something as simple as wondering why I have so many hand planes. I don't have as many planes as some folks that I've talked to, but there is simply too much steel that needs to be sharpened. When I started out, sharpening took a couple of minutes away from the work, but it was a good time to step back from something, collect myself, regroup, and get back to work. Now, I simply grab another plane, and before I know it, they're all  dull, and I need to take half a day to get things back in tune... or decide to work with dull tools. Sharpening is Sisyphean in nature, and I get that. It's part of the work, so I accept it. But detouring for half a day to fix up the fleet is another matter.

There are other tools and machines and processes that are simply more involved than they need to be, and there's a lot of 'stuff' that needs to be organized and dealt with, and in similar fashion, I don't always get everything put back, jigs repaired or remade, or blades cleaned off, or whatever. (Lord knows my table saw blades could use a good cleaning...) In some cases, it's because I need to revamp and streamline, but in other cases, I'm beginning to think it's just that I should go farther to simplify, and focus more on the work than on the tools. And if I have to focus on tools, to figure out which ones really deserve the focus.

There's clearly a balance that needs to be struck there, it's obvious that many tools are necessary, and in some cases, I really do need to just rebuild those jigs, and clean things up. And there are definitely babies in that bathwater. It's life in a small shop, for sure. The shop machine needs to be maintained. But it's very possible that the machine should be made to be more efficient, and less needy... 

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