by Steven D. Johnson
(Page 3 of 4)
No Bad Tools
We all buy all the woodworking magazines, right? And if you have been at this hobby for long,
perusing them has probably at times engendered a feeling of déjà vu. You know, that feeling that "I
have read this before," or "I've seen this project." Personally I am pretty confident that I have
read at least a hundred articles about sharpening, seen plans for a hundred bookcases, and have seen
the same jigs built over and over. Yet, I continue to buy the magazines. I tell myself I am
supporting the hobby, supporting the advertisers, and supporting the writers.
More than anything now, I read the tool reviews, but with a certain suspiciousness that is frankly a
little unbecoming. Still, there is an unshakeable feeling that somewhere, somehow, not everyone is
being totally objective. Admit it, you have felt this, too. You have questioned the veracity, or
at least the objectivity, of tool reviews and reviewers. No doubt, editors and writers sense this,
and their furious protestations of innocence and purity only conspire to make things worse. It is a
little like a politician claiming honesty or as Gertrude said in Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too
For a misspent period of time, I was "into" totally outrageous, exorbitantly expensive stereo
equipment, and I remember the jaundiced eye with which I read reviews that seemed, invariably, to
favor the most exotic, most expensive, most obscure of equipment. I also vividly remember the one
brave writer that reluctantly admitted most world-class musicians have rather inexpensive (read that
as "cheap") stereo systems and even listen to portable music players (gasp, the bane of the
audiophile). And therein lies the crux of the matter.
Just as a gifted musician can enjoy listening to music on an "inferior" stereo, a gifted and
talented woodworker can make beautiful things with so called "inferior" tools. Thus I have grown
aware that there are no "bad" tools. There are, of course, "better" tools, and even "best" tools,
but there are no "bad" tools… especially in an historical context.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate to see the Cleopatra Exhibit at the Milwaukee Museum (should the
traveling exhibit come to your city, or a city close by, it is highly recommended). But as
fascinating as Cleopatra's life and mysterious death was, a display of an Egyptian mummy's
sarcophagus was riveting. For more than an hour, I was mesmerized, lost in thought, looking at a
3,000 years old piece of woodwork and contemplating the tools, the labor, and the craftsmanship that
went into its construction.
The lid was originally joined to the lower portion with what we would today call floating tenons and
dowels. All over Egyptian tomb walls are drawings of woodworkers using hand tools with copper
blades and bits. Bronze tools did not come into use until after 2000 BC. Carved drawings show
workers steam bending wood by holding it above boiling water, then curving the piece and sticking it
into the sand to "set" the curve. One tomb wall graphic shows two men using bits of sandstone to
smooth a board. Converting a log to lumber was also clearly depicted.
A log was stood on end and lashed to another post. The carpenter then sawed lengthwise down the log
to produce boards. As a result of the technique, the limitations imposed by the workman's height,
and the fact that there were not a lot of really good native trees in Egypt, it was impossible to
produce long lengths of lumber. With only short lengths to work, the Egyptians used scarf joints
extensively to create longer boards. The Egyptians made their own plywood, used animal-based glues,
and executed intricate inlay work. Their beds were assembled with mortise and tenon joints,
dovetails were common, and their boxes were exquisite in detail and craftsmanship. Some items were
even designed to be knocked-down and reassembled repeatedly. All of this craftsmanship was
accomplished with an adze, a handsaw, and a hand-powered bow-driven drill. Remember, there was no
steel as we know it today, and all cutting edges were copper and later, bronze.
There were no hundred-dollar water stones to sharpen those soft copper blades, no lasers to guide
their tools, and no planes that could take shavings a thousandth of an inch thin. But the Egyptians
built, as Howard Carter said when he first peered into King Tut's tomb, "…beautiful things…"
So, today, there are no crummy tools. Whether it is the ten dollar saw from the big box store or
the off-brand thirty dollar rechargeable drill, anything and everything that we have today is better
than the Egyptians had several thousand years ago.
Those plastic-handled, soft, not perfectly balanced chisels in my "go-bag" have cut a lot of wood
over the years. They have chopped mortises for locksets and hinges, shaved lumber for a better fit,
trimmed trim to hide lumpy floors, and removed many a piece of rotted wood for on-the-spot repairs.
I have a new respect for those "cheap" chisels. The screwdrivers I like the least and relegated to
my traveling tool bag are way better than what the Egyptians had, which was nothing. An old piece
of sandpaper is better than a chunk of sandstone, and that cheap block plane that I so cavalierly
abuse can surely cut ribbons around any copper-bladed tool. I am going to show it some love this
afternoon and clean, sharpen, and oil it.
These are very good times to be a woodworker, and especially good times for anyone new to the hobby.
Good tools can be had inexpensively… the best tools will, of course, always cost more. All tools
today are good, some are better, some are great, but even the "good" is better than ever.
(Page 3 of 4)
Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and
supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis
(although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his
Steven can be reached directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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