High-tech tools lack low-tech aesthetics

Future Tense for Feb. 11, 2008

By Steve Welker

Working on a community-built playground project called "Build A Dream," Mac, Charise, Joe and I had a problem.

We had installed some newel posts and handrails, but one post was about an inch too high.

Mac is a dentist and — I’m sure this news will comfort his patients — very surehanded with power tools. Using a Sawzall reciprocating saw, Mac neatly cut off the excess.

However, he couldn't reshape the 45-degree backside slope. There wasn’t room for the power saw.

The right tool for the job was a 26-inch crosscut hand saw.

Amazingly, Joe found the only one on the job site. That hand saw was perfectly clean and shiny and looked like it had never been used. With it in hand, I finished up the post in 60 seconds.

Sometimes, the best technology is old technology.

A lot of the technology that built our world was as simple as a hammer and saw, nails and screws. In fact, that pretty well describes the technology used to construct the Build a Dream playground. Of course, that technology was wielded by hundreds of willing workers and some very skilled builders.

I’m lucky enough to have had four grandfathers, three of them builders. My mother’s mother, who died at age103, outlived three husbands. Two built the Pentagon during World War II. J.I. Marshall was John McShain’s chief superintendent on the job and Ernie Moschel was one of the chief federal inspectors overseeing the work.

My father and his father also were builders. Harvey Welker, aka “Poppy,” built houses, barns and public buildings in and around Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. He taught woodworking, masonry and other craft skills to my dad, Chuck, who became a civil engineer.

Dad and Poppy taught me most of what I know about woodworking and construction. I wish I had paid more attention to the lessons, but some of their old skills rubbed off on me. I can still sharpen a crosscut hand saw — I never could get the angles right on a rip saw — and I can set the teeth if somebody loans me a wrest. I never picked up the knack my dad had for setting the teeth with a pair of pliers and I probably never will. Nowadays, sharpening handsaws is almost a lost art and there’s no one to show me what I failed to learn.

For cutting most wood today, I use a circular saw, table saw or bench-mounted miter saw. At that I guess I’m lucky to have had Dad’s training. A lot of the people on the Build A Dream job site ran to the miter saws whenever they needed to cut a piece of lumber. What’s so hard about cutting a 2-by-6 with a Skilsaw and a speed square?

There were portable and cordless drills everywhere on the playground job. I have to admit, my absolute favorite “modern” tool is an 18-volt cordless drill. I can’t tell you how many 3- and 2-1/2-inch screws we set, but they were passed out in gallon jugs.

In many places, we simply drove 20-penny nails with hammers. No traditionalist here, I admit I like fiberglass handles on hammers instead of hickory. They’re easier to grip and they absorb more impact shock.

What really surprised me was the number of routers on the job site. We used them to round off all of the corners and edges on the boards. Growing up, I used planes and scrapers for the same task. The planes didn’t give as smooth a rounded edge and were nowhere near as fast. Score another victory for technology.

The tools I remember from my youth were mainly hand-powered. I made holes with a brace and bits or Stanley push drill or Millers Falls' eggbeater-style Yankee drill. I shaved out rabbets with a Stanley No. 78 duplex filletster plane (I still have it), cut dovetails and tenons with a Disston & Sons backsaw, jointed wood with bench planes and made mortises with chisels. Like my grandfathers, I had a Stabila folding rule (invented in 1851), Davis spirit level, a Starrett combination square (invented in the 1880s) and steel tape rule, various wrenches, pliers and Vise-Grips (patented by Bill Petersen in 1921) and a Swanson Speed Square (invented around 1930).

While I was growing up, though, my dad steadily added to his collection of electric tools. The post-World War II era was a Golden Age for woodworkers and other carpenters who wanted “more power.” Albert Kaufman invented the jigsaw for Bosch in 1946. Edgar Anstett invented the PowerNails nailer in 1949 (the year I was born). Gene Cowley at Vermont American produced the first affordable carbide-tipped circular-saw blades in 1951. Jerome Schnettler and Edward Ristow invented the Sawzall at Milwaukee Electric Tool in 1952. Robert H. Riley Jr. created the cordless drill for Black & Decker in 1961. Ed Niehaus designed the power miter saw for Rockwell in 1964. Dennis Huntsman in the 1970s figured how to keeps routers running at a steady speed under load. Steve Wilson at Paslode perfected the 3-1/2-inch nailgun in 1973.

1973 was the year I graduated from college and struck out on my own. It’s probably the last time I worked in Dad’s shop. After that, at least for awhile, the tools I bought were whatever new gadget that Ace Hardware or Tru Value featured around Christmastime.

Lately, though, some technological changes have caught my eye — er, eyes. A lot of new tools have LED lights to help illuminate the job. More have ergonomic grips that make it easier to hold and control tools. Some have laser guides.

Last week, however, I picked up one of my grandfathers’ hand saws. It’s an old Disston, it’s slightly rusted and needs resharpening.

What surprised me was the tactile sensation. That saw felt great. The carved apple wood handle slipped into my grip like hand and handle were meant to be together. It triggered long-dormant, but unforgotten muscle memories. I knew that saw and I could cut wood straight and true. How many times in life do you get such epiphanies?

That old Disston saw may be “low-tech,” but don’t be surprised if you see it back in my toolkit ... in the future.

———

Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.



Email High-tech tools lack low-tech aesthetics to a friend

Share this article with a friend.

Your Name: 
Your Email:  

Your Friend's Name:
Your Friend's Email: 

Message to your friend: