Friday, November 19, 2010

Tools on Wheels

Technical difficulties still prevent images.

In a fit of mild prosperity some years ago, we invested in a top of the line tool chest on chest. It was an over-ambitious statement for a home shop, but coughing up the money seemed like a good idea at the time. Me, I’ll buy anything that’s the right shade of red, and this chest is as good a piece of furniture as anything in the house.

We’ve been downsizing in place, and I keep discovering how very pleasant it is to live with empty space. And how very easy it is to maintain space with little in it.

When we bought our first house, a six-hundred square foot working man’s cottage, a canny older friend reminded me to “leave room for people”. She also advised not to over-restore, but to respect the textures of old plaster and wood.

Leaving room for people has also meant leaving room for us, the best surprise of all my adventures in home furnishing. The peripheral areas of the house are close to empty, and it’s a snap to configure and knock down a room for guests or a big project.

The plan is to centralize the working tool collection on one side of the kitchen. I’ve never known a kitchen that didn’t have a junk drawer. Since my kitchen has no drawers, I have kept detailing gear in a plastic mechanic’s tool box. From that kit, it was a small step to persuade my partner to move the big rig up from the basement so we could enjoy it every day.

The thing is a feast for the eyes, and a feast for the hand, too. It’s easier to wipe clean than any furniture, cabinetry, or appliance I have known. Since each part of the unit locks, I can secure small valuables with no bother. It’s on really good wheels, so it can turn up front and center in seconds.

Most of our home maintenance projects take less than half an hour to finish, but until now, setting up and putting away has taken that long again, at least. I am very happy to be parking shop gear close to the food and graphic production areas of the main floor. I’ll segregate the work tops, avoid toxins, and do dusty procedures outside.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Potential Space

Dear Readers, Tuesday's windstorm took out my fast connection, so this is an image-free post. Back with pictures as soon as the utility is in one piece. Deft

Some lessons are never learned for good. A couple of times a year I cruise the property ridge pole to sump, fence to fence, looking for thickets of junk. The less stuff I keep around, the faster I can do the survey. It’s a red flag warning when dead inventory blocks active work. It means the engine of the household is seizing up.

Life is sweet when cupboards are less than three-quarters full. The house can then inhale new inventory; the housekeepers easily use it; and, with luck, use it up. Or at least use something else up.

It doesn’t take much effort to keep the place in trim, but it’s hellish to have it capsize.

Different locations will dictate different ways of managing storage. It’s folly not to keep at least a month’s staples on hand, and it’s amazing how little space that requires. The more remote the site, the deeper the reserves should be. In a city, the stores themselves are, uh, storage areas, and it’s slick to let paid professionals keep the shelves in order and refrigerate edibles at commercial power rates.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


1867 Stanley rule and level wood planer photo courtesy Flickr

I had a week-end of my favorite kind of housekeeping: cleaning a shop. My grandfather kept me at his side in his basement workspace, and one of my dearest memories is of sitting beside him on his tool chest while he took a break. My brother laid that chest on me a few years ago: it will impress no one, but it was made around 1905 for “going West”, and the zinc top is comfortably coved from years of use.

The interior of this chest is soaked with the oil used to lubricate stones, and it’s not a pretty, domestic thing to have around. It is, however, a darned useful piece of gear, and it lives upstairs. I’ve been able to tame it with Magical Sliding castors, some gaffer’s tape around the top to keep slivers at bay, and a Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings sheepskin for upholstery. This is seating at its most fundamental, so to speak, and it’s as comfortable a perch as anything in the house.

English wives of the imperial Raj travelled with utilitarian chests that were little more than glorified painted crates. They used them as side tables and covered them with quilts. My aunt did the same thing with foot lockers when her husband was with the Marine Corps. Transit cases are absolutely basic furniture, dating back to the Middle Ages. They’re called trunks, and some have domed tops, because they were originally hollowed out from sections of trees.

I still have many of my grandfather’s hand tools, and I still have many early memories of exploring his inventory. He had the wit and wisdom not to protect me from cutting edges. I was free to learn how to handle and manipulate real gear from the beginning, and did no harm except to whack my thumb while getting acquainted with a full-sized hammer. A more dedicated craftsman might have been concerned about protecting a carefully honed edge from childish clumsiness.

Turn of the century hand tools were styled like Art Nouveau furnishings. They’re similar in feel and appearance to Singer’s treadle sewing machine and to the platen hand press of the period, although the finishes are a little rougher.

It took me a long time to realize that my passion for old iron is, at its heart, an affinity for the carved wooden models from which the parts are cast. The expression of the skilled hand is inescapable, and it comes to life as I clean, sort, and stow the collection.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Alan Turing via Flickr

Economist Paul Hawken, of the original Smith and Hawken, published a book in the late Seventies called The Next Economy. In it, he discussed his concept of money, namely that the real currency is a barrel of oil. During this period, inflation was terrible, and interest rates rose to thirteen percent.

Hawken pointed out the advantages of buying what he called intelligent products, ones with more in them than might meet the eye. This was the same year he and his partner bought a container load of hand-forged English tools and sold them through a tiny, modest, black and white mail-order catalogue.

I ate up their prose and bought a small border spade for my first garden. Living with an archaeologist, I was no stranger to a shovel or twelve, but that little spade, which still gets used three or four times a week, was a revelation. Using it introduced me to iron that keeps an edge (sharpen a shovel and it will do three quarters of the work), a stout oak handle that raises few blisters, good balance, and a blade so sophisticated in shape and scoop that I don’t need a trowel.

I could have bought a two-bit shovel at the hardware store and replaced it six or seven times in the ensuing years, but I would have been using a tool that required me to serve it, that caused pain, and that didn’t do its job very well. The border spade, which cost about twice as much as I really wanted to pay, is the fruit of a long tradition of horticultural hand tools. They were being produced long before mass manufacturing, and I hope they will still continue to be supplied. Any blacksmith could copy my blade, and even I could cobble together a handle.

The culture of hand production worked out design solutions over millennia, while the culture of electricity is bringing literally intelligent products to the market in great springing leaps. Every dollar spent is a vote for something: choosing a candidate is as risky as an election. Modestly informed guessing has left me with an inventory that is profitable, although not impressive.

An intelligent product holds good surprises, solves problems of which one was unaware, and is on the bonny side of the eighty/twenty equation in which twenty percent of the products (or, sadly, people) do eighty percent of the work.

-30- More after the jump.