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Recognizing a Quality Hand Tool

by Kerry Lambertson
Finland, MN

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Any serious craftsman or woman will know the value of a high quality tool, but it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff given the seemingly limitless spread of hand tools available on the market today. Recent years have seen a wonderful renaissance in the manufacture, import, and widespread availability of hand tools based on traditional designs. Additionally, it is my opinion that some of the best woodworking tools available are a century or more old.

Within living memory for some, handwork was linked directly to food on the table and a roof overhead. Knowing this, the prudent craftsman demanded tools that were of enduring quality, made accurately and from high quality materials. Though not always as essential to survival as in previous times, a worthwhile tool will still make the difference between an efficient, accurate, and enjoyable woodworking experience and a frustrating waste of time. Many excellent designs and methods evolved during earlier periods of American tool­making and much worthwhile knowledge can be gleaned from the study of these old tools. I hope I can share some of what I have learned about the selection, tuning, and care of fine quality woodworking hand tools.

I am not a tool historian, but I have learned to recognize a quality antique tool when I see one. I've also learned how to choose fine quality tools on the occasions when I require a brand new tool. In sharing what I've learned, I'll first say that though I love a bargain as well as anyone, investing in quality is never amiss. Through many exasperating trials with poor quality tools I now often say that I would rather have one plane, chisel, or drawknife that can be relied upon than an entire shop full of tools of inferior quality. My advice is that if you have the budget to purchase one "top of the line" tool or ten tools that "are probably good enough," buy the one. You will never regret it and before long you will have saved enough for the next tool that will be a faithful friend for years to come.

That said, as earlier mentioned, many of the finest tools are old and thought to be obsolete, and are lying in heaps in the derelict barns and flea markets of America. There are tools of marvelous quality to be had at low prices if one is willing to develop a bit of an eye, and invest some time into restoration and tune­up. Many old tools have been misused, abused, or neglected. Sadly, learning to tell the quick from the dead is part of the process. Surface rust can be scrubbed away, but pitting of any depth is probably a deal­breaker. A chipped edge can be re­ground, broken plane totes can be glued, and chisel handles turned and replaced. However, a cracked or badly mushroomed socket on a chisel, a broken eye on an axe or hatchet, or deep chipping around the mouth of a plane are all reasons to keep moving. Occasionally, the tool collector will come upon a tool that has been very cleverly repaired, whether brazed, welded, or soldered, or with parts that have obviously been replaced. If these repairs seem sturdy and serviceable, they probably are, and it is my opinion that a well executed repair adds to the character of a tool.

With a bench grinder, perhaps a combination disc/belt sander, a bit of steel wool, abrasive paper, machine oil, and time, a great many fine quality tools that were headed for the scrapyard can be made serviceable again for years to come. It all comes down to a very personal equation concerning how much time and love a tool is worth to its owner. I feel a sense of satisfaction in saving these antique beauties from decay and destruction, and like to think that their preservation contributes to the legacy of craftsmanship.

There are also a great number of brand new tools that are well worth the price that they command. Particularly in this era of hand­tool renaissance, small producers are creating tools worth passing from one generation to the next, and they deserve our recognition and support. If you feel unsure about which companies are making a product worthy of your investment, ask fellow craftsmen. If you're new to woodworking and don't know anyone else who is involved, consider attending a gathering such as Woodworking in America or Handworks . If all else fails, call the company directly and ask questions. My experience is that most toolmakers and woodworkers are more than willing to discuss tools till the cows come home, and that anyone worth their salt will be more interested in describing processes, techniques, and methods than pushing a sale. A conversation with a representative will tell you a great deal about a firm's quality or the lack thereof.

A high quality hand tool should feel good in the hands, and look good too. Though any skilled craftsman can sharpen a tool, when a new tool arrives dull I must infer that the company that made it does not consider sharpness to be important. Ill-fitting or misaligned handles and crudely made castings with sharp edges or loose fits are additional signs of a tool­making firm's lack of interest in quality.

Most of the woodworking tools described here will have cutting edges made of high carbon tool steel. When tempered properly, this steel will hold a razor edge that is tough enough to go through oak knots without chipping. Steel of this quality, when touched to the wheel of a bench grinder or abrasive belt on a sanding machine, will shoot a shower of bright, hot, fast moving sparks. This goes for antique as well as new tools, and a steel that fails to measure up to this test either was of low quality in the first place or has had its temper destroyed somewhere along the line.

To a surprising degree the adage that quality speaks for itself rings true here. Fancy bells and whistles and new­fangled gimmicks pale when compared with the elegant simplicity of a skillfully designed, made, and maintained tool working at its intended purpose. This article is not a plug for any specific tool company, but it is a call for woodworkers to demand nothing less than the highest quality in tools and I hope it has offered a few useful thoughts in how to go about locating these tools. Fine work demands fine tools, and fine tools create a peaceful and pleasurable work experience, which, after all, is why we got in to this, isn't it?

Kerry trained as a boatbuilder. He now builds furniture and teaches woodworking skills at various gatherings and folk schools. He has a particular passion for hand work and efficient use of hand tools, and enjoys designing and building items of day-to-day necessity.

You can email Kerry at k_lambertson@yahoo.com .

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