Years ago I was asked to judge a building contest put on by Bosch that pitted young technical students against one another for a big cash prize and a whole bunch of tools.
For the contest, the students were given a plan, some wood, some tools and a certain number of hours to get it done. As judges, we had to watch them to ensure they were safe and to observe their work practices.
The Bosch officials were interested in the project the students built, but they were equally interested in evaluating how efficient and tidy their work habits were. Most of the students were total slobs and they became more and more frustrated as the day wore on. But a few of the students swept up, organized their parts and tools into discrete piles and never panicked.
These students were the finalists.
Now it might be easy to chalk up the score for neatness to Bosch’s Teutonic roots, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Workshop efficiency – and for me, joy – comes from having every operation flow smoothly, from picking up a knife, to sawing a tenon to gluing an assembly.
This wasn’t something that came naturally to me. It took years of frustration in the shop, which was amplified by the fact that I shared the shop with a bunch of other people at the magazine. We shared all the machines and hand power tools, and we had a bunch of shared hand tools.
I quickly realized that sharing a chisel is as good an idea as sharing a handkerchief in February. I bought my own hand tools and began organizing them so they were always at hand.
Then one day I noticed something else. When I worked in the shop, it became cleaner and cleaner every hour. When some others worked in the shop (no names, I promise), the floor became piled with dust and shavings, and tools (and their wrenches) were everywhere.
Now that I work only at my home shop, the following habits have become ingrained in my daily routine: Every tool that was used gets wiped down at the end of the day. Everything gets put away. The floor gets swept. The garbage emptied.
It might sound crazy, but all these little things make the stressful operations – cutting wild dovetails, finishing, etc. – much less stressful.
I was reminded of all this when carpenter Jeff Burks sent me an article by James Waring See (1850-1920), a machinist and shop foreman who wrote articles for American Machinist magazine circa 1880 under the pen name “Chordal.”
His column, Chordal’s Letters, was very popular and the articles were assembled into a book. Burks says he admires this column because it is about human nature.
“I try to read Chordal’s Letters every year, because it speaks so much truth about my experience in the building industry, and people I have had to work with,” Burks wrote. “You may find something for yourself in his words.”
Burks sent me this selection that was reprinted in the Chas Strelinger catalog in 1895. It describes three kinds of mechanics. You might see yourself in these words – or you might be in denial.
Check it out – it’s a great read.
— Christopher Schwarz
And if you want to know what sort of mechanic I am, the best place to learn that is through my book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which describes the essential hand tool kit for the woodworker in great detail. What’s important. What’s junk. And you get to build a tool chest. It’s available in ShopWoodworking.com.