Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Ghost in the Machine

When you’re a professional writer, people tend to give you cranky manual typewriters as gifts. They don’t expect you to use them, per se. But they do expect you to display them in your home. Good thing I’m not an undertaker.

For years I despised manual typewriters and rolled my eyes any time one of them showed up at my door with a bow on it.

My hate affair with these clackety beasts began in journalism school. Though our school had modern computers, the school decided that Basic Writing students should use manual typewriters only.

So every evening my head ached from the pounding of letters against platens from the fingers of 20 would-be scribes in my writing lab. My pinkies ached from pressing the shift key. The smell of correction fluid made me wince. I bought my first Macintosh that year and never looked back. Until this weekend.

My youngest daughter became curious about one of the typewriters in the basement, so I pulled it down and got it working. She’s pretty fast on a keyboard, but watching her struggle on a typewriter was a revelation.

The manual typewriter taught me some critical lessons.

1. Use the fewest words possible to say something.

2. Make as few mistakes as possible.

3. Always think two sentences ahead of the one you are typing.

Without those three lessons, I doubt I’d have this job.

When you are a woodworker, people tend to give you beat-up wooden-stock handplanes as gifts. They don’t expect you to use them, per se. But they do expect you to display them. Good thing I’m not a proctologist.

My mom gave me one this summer that made me shake my head. It’s an old jointer plane, probably craftsman-made from ash or something oaky. The maker included the pith of the tree in the body , generally a no-no in planemaking. And the body has cast into a wacky rhombus shape.

I took one look at the tool when it came out of the box and set it aside. This week, something compelled me to take a closer look. I knocked its wedge loose and removed the chipbreaker and Ward iron. The iron has been ground away to almost nothing, but it is interesting. It is perfectly crowned , just like I crown a jointer plane blade. And the face of the iron has clearly been polished during honing.

This was a working tool. I took a close look at the sole. Ignoring the holes from some insects, it was obvious that the sole was burnished from hard use , it was the best-looking surface on the entire tool.

So I resolved to get this thing working. Perhaps it has a few more lessons in store.

– Christopher Schwarz

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9 thoughts on “The Ghost in the Machine

  1. winton

    At one point as a little kid I couldn’t wait to get a typewriter just like Dad and got one for christmas one year. I did finally take typing in junior high. As an adult I traded that manual to a starving collage student for a Champion food juicer. I hope it helped him to feed himself.

    Then in 1990 I to bought a Mac. I still have it. It still works great but it is just on display now. I am still buying and using Macs.

    Great machines ! ( doesn’t feel right to JUST call it a machine but you will make fun of me if I call it a friend. However, being a Mac man, you may feel similarly )

  2. LizPf

    Chris,
    I guess I’m older than you, though I don’t feel it and our kids are the same age.

    In college, I was stuck borrowing a typewriter — usually electric, occasionally manual. My professors teased me about never being able to meet the minimum length requirements on my research papers.

    Fast forward a few years to grad school. I was working full time, and used my work computer to write my papers. I surprised myself with the first one I wrote — half again the maximum length!

    Maybe it was my lack of typing skills, or my maturity … I got better grades in grad school, too.

    Now, does this mean I’ll do more better woodworking if I use more electrons? And do I even want to investigate this?

  3. Bill Houghton

    You can generalize your observation to a lot of technologies. I’ve seen written references to how good your aim had to be with muzzle-loading guns – if you didn’t get the deer/bear/whatever on your first shot, it’d be over the horizon before you could be ready for your second one.

    The photographer at my old employer, who grew up on the old Speed Graphic cameras, and who told me he could take a shot, insert the dark slide, remove the old plate, insert the new plate, remove the dark slide, and be ready for his next shot in 30 seconds, definitely had learned to grab the best picture the first time. None of this shooting a roll of film in 30 seconds and picking the best of 36 – or, in the digital age, shooting almost without limit and then picking the best of 500.

    And so on.

  4. David

    Chris – Because of the grain orientation of that jointer, I’d suggest leaving it alone as a display piece or workshop curiosity. I’ve restored a fair number of wooden jointers to working condition, with varying degrees of success. Most often, the trouble is with a jointer that used a stock from a small tree (definitely the case in your example) or twisted grain. These won’t stay even close to flat for any length of time (and I’m not talking about 5 thousandths – the out-of-flat condition can be measured with a ruler in eights of an inch).

    So I leave these alone, since tuning them typically requires removing a fair amount of wood from the sole, and it just twists up again anyway.

    A much better bet is buying one at an MWTCA event specifically for the purpose of making a user out of it. You can then reject any that have twisted grain, were built with rift-sawn stock, or other problems.

  5. Kip

    The only handplanes I collect are the ones given to me by well-meaning people who think I collect handplanes. I guess I’m not the only one with this type of collection. At least it’s planes, not something much worse, like hand bells or ceramic frogs or something. Once these things build momentum in an extended family they’re hard to stop.

  6. Jeremy Kriewaldt

    My grandfather was a judge and he said the same thing about writing judgments – he used fewer words to say the same thing if he wrote it long-hand rather than dictate it (either to a stenographer or to a machine) and then he reckoned he said it better when it was shorter!

    Reminds me of someone (Pascal I think) who , at the end of a letter, apologised for its length , saying "I didn’t have time to write a shorter one!"

    All the best

    Jeremy

  7. Bill

    I have several wooden planes that likely are 150 years old, and I have owned several that were older than that. I also occasionally actually use them. There is a different grip and slightly different style to using a wooden jointer than your #8, but when tuned and with a waxed sole, they work exceedingly well. The thick, stout, tapered iron usually will hold a wicked edge and provide for zero chatter. I can understand those folks who swear by wooden planes (as compared to those of us who swear at them) and prefer them to metal ones. The problem is that the ones you typically find – especially the wooden bench planes like those pictured – tend to be pretty well thrashed after being rode hard and put away wet too many times.

    I know what you mean, though – I have been given at least four wooden planes in the past few years, and three of them were jointers. One was a fore plane riddled with powder post beetle holes. But even that can be resurrected if you’ve got the inclination. Scott Grandstaff, infamous tool-guy from Happy Camp, CA, put out an APB for a beat-up old wooden fore plane to make a wooden scrub out of. So I sent him the wormie one. He re-worked and resurrected it into a pretty cool razee-bodied wooden scrub plane. Here’s his story, along with pics: http://www.wkfinetools.com/contrib/pScott/art/foreScrub/forescrub-1.asp

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