So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses, an in not altogether unpleasant sadness–Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!
I did not come to woodwork by experience. I did not grow up with a jack plane in my crib, or saws with blunted teeth for playthings. Instead, like many of the things that I love to do, I came to woodworking not through trees in the form of lumber, but in the form of paper: books. I grew up reading for adventure–tales of the sea, of wilderness survival, of romance and revenge. But some of those “adventures” were not all together beyond my reach, and reading about them taught me to love them. I read and gained some idea of models for good living, and how to feel about it. I enjoyed the reading, but it was the enjoyment of anticipation: I wanted to do it myself. But Henry David Thoreau doesn’t provide as many particulars in how he built his cabin as I would need as a complete greenhorn; he may have borrowed the axe, but he knew how to handle it.
Of course, Ishmael gave detailed instructions for whaling, but there is no market for whale oil these days, and Ishmael never really wished to be out killing whales at all, he just wanted to see the world; I don’t know 30 other sailors or any Quaker investors. So, since it’s hard to make a go of it on a sailing ship these days, my aspirations always circled back to handwork–not as a living, but to make the stuff that shelters and supports our lives. That includes the labor of the garden, and the work of making the goods of my daily world.
And at some point, probably while performing research for my MA thesis, I stumbled on The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz. I requested it by inter-library loan. As soon as it came in, I knew I was a fan. The material book was beautiful: bound in cloth and stamped like the few 19th century books I own. The contents were great too: Schwarz incorporates the historical perspective of scholarship that I admire. He writes personal narrative that uses particulars details of his life to draw general conclusions about society today. And he sprinkles in lots of GI tract jokes. Shortly after that book came in, I bought a beat up old jack-plane in an antique shop, and decided to start using what little spare money I had to buy tools that chanced by.
I knew I wasn’t going to get a complete kit all at once. But I had time. In fact, I had more time than money or space, so I just picked things up, $5 for a handsaw here, $10 for dividers there. Most of it came from junk shops. A few things from garage sales. Then I came to the Midwest and suddenly tools were everywhere. I farm sat, and was rewarded with a car load of tools that I fixed up. A neighbor called me over to help clean out a garage and said “take what you want.” So, after about 3 years of patiently storing and cleaning up the tools, I had enough to get started.
For the first series of this blog, I’ll highlight some of the meandering stories of my tools, and my meanderings through the books that are also important tools. My bookshelf and my toolchest are equally beloved.