Do Power Tools Have Soul?
I don’t generally think of power tools in the same reverential, (perhaps) overly romanticized tones that come to mind when I consider hand tools. I can stare at my grandfather’s 8 oz. Kentucky Bluegrass claw hammer for hours daydreaming about what may have caused the nicks and wear. Or imagine the unknown maker who’s hands wore through the finish on the tote of the #3 Stanley I picked up at a New England flea market years ago.
But I seldom think of power tools in that way. I go through cordless drills like they’re popcorn, tossing one to the trashcan at least yearly without an ounce of lament for anything except the hundred or so bucks I spent on it. I’ve got a couple of biscuit joiners, but I no longer have any idea where I picked them up and haven’t used them in so long that I don’t even recall who made them. If a router motor dies I pick up a new one and dump the old one without even passing thought of ceremony.
Why is this? Is there something inherent in the act of plugging in a tool that predestines disposability? Well. Maybe. Or maybe not.
I recently picked up a new (to me) Laguna 18 inch band saw from the late 90s. When I checked the date on the saw, I realized that, as it was made in 1998, this was exactly the saw I’d wanted to buy new 15 years ago, but a) couldn’t afford and b) didn’t have enough work to justify the purchase of even if I could afford it. So after talking some sense into then young self I started checking the want ads.
After a little poking around I ran across a older Delta/Rockwell 14″ with a riser block already in place. I picked it up in Woodbury, Conn., in 1998 at a workshop that inhabited an old mill on the pristine banks of a small stream. Moving the machine from its perch overlooking quietly gurgling trout water and the old, still functioning water wheel to the dank basement of my rented shop was, from the band saw’s perspective, a definite downgrade. And I’m sure it didn’t appreciate being banged around as single-handedly and sloppily I wrestled it from the bed of my pickup onto hand trucks and through the Bilco doors into my basement.
But with a little help from friends who knew more about machines than I did, I nursed the old Delta back into shape, and then tweaked and tuned it for the last 15 years. I moved it from that shop to another, to another, and so on at least five times. When the engine burned out, I picked up a used one and learned a little more about machines as I replaced it. It’s the band saw that I used to launch a woodworking business, and I learned its quirks along the way. But having roughed out the parts for around 100 chairs last year, the Delta’s the motor is balking again.
So a couple weeks ago, when I saw the Laguna for sale in my woodworking Guild’s newsletter, I called immediately. Scott Thompson, a friend and Guild member, happened to be over in my shop that day and I asked if he knew anything about the saw. He did. It was the saw of his neighbor and good friend, a solid machine he’s used more than once. He had a key to his pal’s shop, in fact, and could let me in to see it anytime.
I called the saw’s owner again and was told that he bought it from another Guild member, Worth Squire. I called Worth, who told me he’d bought it new and that it served him well but that he upgraded a few years later to get more resaw capacity. He suggested that I upgrade to ceramic band saw guides (which he’d removed when he sold it 10 years ago) but other than that he thought it should be good to go.
I rode out and met Scott the next Saturday. The saw had been sitting unused for a while and there was a little rust to prove it, but it powered right up and the motor sounded strong. The blade tracked well and plowed through a few test scraps. The wheels seemed to be in good shape. There were at least a dozen rusty blades hanging on the wall, so we threw the saw and the lot of the blades into the back of my truck.
I spent half my Sunday dismantling the saw and turning the rust into patina. I still need to pick up a set screw, but the saw is in otherwise good shape and the motor sings. I love the new saw. It is, in fact, the saw that I wanted when I bought the Delta 15 years ago. Still, looking at the Delta squeezed into the corner of the shop that really doesn’t have room for two, I still haven’t been able to post the thing for sale. The motor whimpers, but now I already know how to replace that. And the few cracked pieces from the table’s tilt mechanism could be easily found online.
Maybe, I tell myself, I just need to keep the two saws.
I often have two people working in my shop and the ability to keep both saws running would really speed things along. As much as I’d like to think that keeping the old Delta is great strategy from a keen business mind geared toward efficiency, I know just as much is sentimentality from all the memories I’ve already got with the saw. I can still tell you where a few of the nicks in the (nearly) zero-clearance insert came from. Perhaps that’s the same thinking that makes me hold onto the extra No. 4s I keep on a high shelf in my shop but never use. Maybe that sentimentality on my part, the soul I project on a tool either power or hand, comes not from whether a tool plugs in or not, but from the history I inherit and then build with the tool.
Having been bought from the friend of a friend and once owned by another friend, I know this new Laguna has the pedigree it needs to coax the same nostalgia I now have for my old Delta saw. Now I’ll just have to put it thought the paces and see if it makes the cut. For now, however, I’m holding on to the old Delta. For perhaps the wrong reasons rather than good sense. It feels like the right reason to keep a tool.