Too Many Vintage Tools; Not Enough Space; Too Much Guilt
It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I have a messy house…with guests arriving on Thursday. I should be cleaning. But I started that chore in the study/shop with the intent of at least organizing the mess therein, and fell into the rabbit hole of looking through the three boxes of my grandfather’s vintage tools that I inherited in late 2007. (And then I fell farther into that hole and decided to take pictures and write about them… .)
When I joined the Popular Woodworking Magazine staff in 2005, I knew very little about woodworking beyond mechanical joinery. In fact, I recall marking “rabbet” as a misspelling on my first binder read-through, which was on the day that I started (I think we were editing the November 2005 issue). And two years later, while I knew how to spell rabbet (that’s “rebate” for you British and Canadian readers note: I’ve been told that in Canada the word is “rabbet”), I was in the midst of building my first “proper” project with the help of Glen Huey, a chimney cupboard that was on the cover of the February 2008 issue. (I wish Grandpa had seen me take that project to completion; I think he would have been proud…despite his comments that I should work on my lumpy gravy instead of dovetails. And now I’m getting maudlin…sorry!)
Anyway, I decided I should hold on to all of my grandfather’s tools until I knew a little more about woodworking – then decide what to keep and use, what to keep just because, and what to offer to other family members.
Now that I know a bit more about woodworking and tools (and I’m tired of those cardboard boxes gathering dust), the time has come to make some decisions (OK – no it hasn’t; this really should wait until after the upcoming holiday). But I’ve been inculcated into the philosophies espoused in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” (in which Christopher Schwarz asserts that you shouldn’t have more tools than you need), and in the last five years, I’ve acquired a fair number of very good tools new and used: Lie-Nielsen bench planes and socket chisels, some Blue Spruce chisels and a marking knife, Veritas rabbets and plows, a Czeck Edge birdcage awl, dovetail saws from Bad Axe, Lie-Nielsen and Tools for Working Wood (and yes I know that’s at least one too many DT saws), rehabbed vintage panel saws, and more.
In comparison to my grandfather (and perhaps many other people) I am grossly spoiled when it comes to woodworking tools. He was born in 1917, and trained as a cabinetmaker during the Great Depression. His tools are largely user-made, probably by him, and the ones that weren’t user-made are mostly unbranded. They’re an odd mix of carpentry and woodworking tools, because after graduating, he worked as a carpenter and laborer for the L&N Railroad in Louisville, Ky. The picture at the top includes a railroad axe marked “L&N,” and an odd collection of mostly shop-made chisels, gouges and awls. Other than the axe, only two of those tools are marked in any way: the W. Butcher 1-3/4″ cast steel gouge and the G.I. Mix 1/2″ firmer chisel, both on the far right. But my favorite one, for sentimental reasons I suppose – because I’ll never use it – is the 1/4″ gouge Grandpa made (I think) out of an old file. I would never do that. Because I am spoiled.
There’s also a curious collection of rusty saws (and I wish to point out that most of these tools are in the same condition as when I received them; I did not allow the rust to happen), none of which, with the exception of the badly corroded and broken-handled Disston carcase saw (11-1/2″ long, 12 tpi) seem terribly useful. The keyhole saw is a Disston No. 15; the other three appear to be shop-made. No dovetail saw? Perhaps he used the gent’s saw for dovetails. (He also had a set of panel saws; they went to another family member.) Most curious to me is the small pistol-grip, brass-backed saw to the right of the keyhole saw. What is that thing for? The blade (beyond the handle) is 4-13/16″ long, with 1/4″ under the back at the toe and 3/8″ at the handle, rip-filed 13 tpi. And the handle is tiny, too (and appears not to have been broken; it was made in that odd shape) – it can’t have been comfortable for my grandfather to use (he was 6’3″ as a young man, with hands to match). If anyone knows what that saw is for, please let me know in the comments (click on the picture to enlarge it for a closer look).
Then there’s the completely random small collection of moulding planes – again, probably user-made and unmarked with anything, not even the sizes on the two largish hollows and two smaller rounds (one of which is positively teeny – a No. 1 or 2, I’m guessing). Aesthetically, they appear not to have all been made by the same person, and there are no matched pairs (which is a darned shame). I don’t recall ever seeing my grandfather use these – nor do I know of any furniture in my grandparents’ house that had the profile of these dedicated moulders. (Again, you can click on the image to enlarge it should you care for a closer look).
And here’s another mystery tool that I’ll ask your help with: Does this flat spokeshave look familiar? There’s no maker’s mark anywhere on it (the blade is clearly a somewhat recent replacement), and I have searched unsuccessfully across the Interwebs trying to find one like it. It’s metal (obviously) with some (well-worn) scrollwork cast into the front, and it has a wide open “spring-loaded” mouth that tightens down (a little bit) against the springs when you turn the screw at the top, but even at its tightest, it flexes. (There’s one just like it on eBay right now…but the seller also seems not to know exactly what it is.) I also have Grandpa’s curved shave, but it’s a less interesting-looking tool.
And there’s lots more – much of it a motley collection of oddities, including hunks of lead from my great-grandfather’s plumbing business that are to me useless, and the brass shaft – but no rosewood fence – of a Stanley No. 92 marking gauge (too bad, that – I might have used that one were it whole). But unlike Christopher, I have more than one feeling (his joke, but I’m stealing it) – and primary among them is guilt.
I have, in the last five years, saved to buy the high-quality tools I wanted, quite simply because (with a little budgeting) I can afford better than what my Grandfather could. I used his featherweight No. 7 no-name jointer plane until I could afford to replace it with a far superior No. 7 Lie-Nielsen. The no-name is now relegated to a window ledge, and never gets used. But how can I get rid of all these things that I don’t need? My grandfather hung on to them for at least 70 years…even if he rarely used them during my lifetime, either (hence the rust).
I don’t think I can do it. I think, instead, I’ll build a nice, small chest that I can tightly pack with the tools that I can’t (or won’t) use, that I can’t imagine needing and at which quite possibly I’ll never again look. There are some items that I’ll clean up and use in the shop – including an excellent array of auger bits and Yankee screwdriver bits, that 1-3/4″ gouge and possibly one or two of the dedicated moulders, as well as a No. 3 bench plane. And there are a couple more that I’ll clean up and use as, er, decor (I’m so ashamed), including the L&N-stamped railroad axe (No, I’m not having a Lizzie Borden moment; it’s just cool).
I’m punting; after unpacking and assessing everything, I’ve decided to leave the disposal decision for the next generation. And instead of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, it seems I’ve added a project to my already too-long list. And my house is now more of a mess. Sigh.
— Megan Fitzpatrick
p.s. If any of my Fitzpatrick relatives are reading this and want a handsome small chest full of tools and bits and bobs you’ll never be able to sell, never need and never use (but also won’t be able to get rid of), please don’t hesitate to call me. If you call soon, you can even choose what kind of chest you’d like.
p.p.s. Want to learn more about hand tools – especially those from just before the turn of the 20th century? Check out our reprint of the 1889 book “Exercises in Wood-Working,” and companion video instructions – Part 1 features Christopher Schwarz; Part 2 features Robert W. Lang.
p.p.p.s. Why yes, that is my upside-down and unfinished Anarchist’s Tool Chest serving as a photo backdrop. And yes I should finish that…along with everything else that needs doing.