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Tool Envy

My father has been an amateur woodworker for nearly forty years, and this Christmas I had a chance to see what anyone would have to consider his masterpiece: a secretary built in solid mahogany using mostly hand tools.


It’s a stunning work to which these photographs do meager justice. The hand carved ball-and-claw feet support a “bombe chest” with curves so dramatic that they seem an impossible outcome for the material from which they were formed. The doors above swing open, like an old watch case, to reveal a warren of little drawers, a writing desk, and a pair of slim shelves for candles. I cannot imagine what letter would be of such importance that it would require the use of such a dais, except perhaps a letter of gratitude to the saplings of the tree that gave its life for something so grand and beautiful.

Secretary Interior

It is a cruel fact of my genetic makeup that I have no talent for such things (my brother, a couple of years younger than me, pursues the construction of guitars with an ease I find almost insulting). I am occasionally filled with the desire to pursue my father’s avocation, but I find, upon careful examination, that it is not the bombe chest that I desire so much as Sunday afternoons in a quiet workshop. I remember the smell of wood shavings from my childhood the way others remember the smell of baking bread, and the simplicity of the questions and answers that attend the activity. “What are you building?” I’d ask. “A chair,” he’d say. Never in my life as a scholar have I been able to answer a question about what I was doing so briefly and with such certainty.

In the end, though, it’s the tools that fill me with envy. Woodworking tools are perhaps the only thing more beautiful than a meticulously crafted piece of furniture. Even their names fill me with pleasure: rabbet plane, coping saw, mortise gauge, firmer chisel, oilstone. They are heavy, solid, sharp, durable, and greet you like a firm handshake when you hold them. Like hunting dogs and violins, they long to fulfill their purpose. My father tells a story of how, as a young child, he gave me a cross-cutting saw and a huge block of wood. I sawed away with fury for a long while, and when the piece was finally cut I burst into tears. Whether those were tears of joy or sorrow I cannot recall, but even today I see the logic of that response.

Years later, as a student in college, I fell in with a crowd of oil painters, and the sweet smell of turpentine was added to my list of madeleines. They also had tools, and I envied the materiality of art making as I envied the haptic pleasures of the workshop. Gesso, stretcher bars, oil paint, brushes, wax medium. I am even less able to make art than furniture, but the physicality of art fascinates me to this day. As a young prose writer, I was beginning to understand the importance of erasure. But how I longed to undertake that activity with the same bodily exertion they used when they scraped the paint off a canvas with a spatula and wiped their considered thoughts on the pant leg of their jeans.

I had no real idea of the physicality of my medium until graduate school when, in a class that looked at “books as physical objects,” I was able to handle 400-year-old codices that possessed nearly all of the qualities of my father’s secretary. Books of the hand press period needed to be pressed, sewn, bound, and cut, and there were tools for doing all of these things. As with woodworking tools, these ones had magnificent names: piercing awl, bone folder, composing stick, chase, galley, foolscap. Once, I had a chance to pull the bar of a wooden hand press. My body thrilled to it just as it did when, again in childhood, I would bring an axe down upon a log I was splitting for the woodstove in our basement. “Let the tool do the work,” my father used to say. And what work it is when the kinetic energy of arms and shoulders presses ink into paper like a hot brand.

I do not wish this to be taken for nostalgia. I do not long for the days of quill pens and hand presses. The tools of my trade are digital, and I cannot see a single argument for why it should be otherwise. At the same time, I do not understand why these new tools cannot have the solidity and craftsmanship of the old.

Computers are marvelous devices, but a laptop is to a wooden hand press as a disposable razor is to a Lie-Nielsen block plane. I adore the the MacBook Pro I’m using to write this essay, but I adore it solely for what it allows me to do. There is no pleasure in its keys, its buttons, its adapters, or its hinge, all of which seem fragile and temporary. Apple has rightfully won awards for its sleek, innovative designs, but no one would think to give a craftsmanship award to the manufacturers who stamp them out like cans for holding tuna.

One might argue that sophisticated equipment must be delicate by nature, but no one who has held a camera made by Leica or Rollei could think such a thing. In fact, these cameras are the closest thing I know to the high quality hand tools of the page. It is impossible not to feel pleasure when hitting the shutter release on a Leica and hearing the clockwork miracles within. A Rolleiflex is as solid, as unlikely, and as perfectly proportioned as a bombe chest. No one doubts that they will work a century from now. Whenever I hit the power button on a laptop, I wonder if I’m pressing it too hard.

I will never own a Rollei or a Leica. Only a professional would dare spend that kind of money on a tool, and only a professional would demand this level of perfection. I understand this, because as a professional writer and programmer, I spend three or four times what ordinary people spend on their computers. For my money, I get ungodly levels of speed, panoramic monitors, and more storage than I know what do with, but I do not get anything fit to stand in the same room as a Leica. The parts of my computers break like everyone else’s. None of them could stand a three inch drop. They will be sent to the landfill without a hint of farewell.

People complained when they discovered that the battery for the new iPhone is soldered in — aghast at the thought that Apple was merely trying to create eventual enthusiasm for iPhone 2.0. It didn’t occur to anyone that the iPhone might fall apart in your hand before the battery wears out. Those who complain about the present flimsiness of electronic media devices are offered “ruggedized” tools, but there is no point of comparison between “ruggedization” and craftsmanship. The former tries to compensate for what is, at heart, chintzy and ephemeral; the latter aims to avoid the need for such compromises in the first place.

I said before that there was no nostalgia in my longing for high quality tools, but perhaps there is. Next to my high-performance desktop machine — the case of which, after a year, is already beginning to discolor — there’s a notebook and a pencil for which I together paid nearly fifty dollars. The former is a beautifully made Moleskine notebook with a sewn binding and solid boards. The latter is a perfectly crafted lead holder with a clutch as firm and eternal as the clutch on a Lambourghini. I did not hesitate at the price of either, and would gladly pay more. I am, after all, a craftsman.

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