Old tools looks so much more elaborate than today’s utilitarian looks. Is there a reason to the madness, or were the craftsmen of old just vain?
Have you seen this image before?
The famous Studley tool chest. A tour de force of woodworking skills, combined with a selection of tools any woodworker would be drooling over.
Now, what would be the purpose of making something like this? Too much time on his hands perhaps? Not exactly. Mr. Studley made the tool cabinet while employed by the Poole Piano manufacturing company in Boston. I can only speculate why the made it like that – over-the-top elaborate, highly compact and intricate (parts of it is three levels deep). My best guess would be that he made it so – because he could. Also to demonstrate his level of craftsmanship and skill. Perhaps to explore techniques? Problem solving by practice? If this intrigues you, there are a lot of information available online. There are in-depth articles about the chest and the tools, and they are well worth a read!
In the hand tool world, one group of tools sticks out in this regard: the hand saws. Specifically the handles, so let ut use those as the main focus group here.
If we look into the higher end saws being offered, the elaborate handles stands out, combined with beautiful and often highly figured wood. The must-have-factor skyrockets, which I guess is a necessity considering the price tags on these bad boys. The saw in the above image is listed at $360, which would make the eyes watering over just as much as the mouth..
The modern variants are somewhat different. Gone are wood, the teeth are impulse hardened which makes them last a long time – but you can’t really resharpen them (certainly not worth it) and the blade is just a stamped-out piece of sheet goods. We somehow went from what is shown above, to this atrocity:
Now, that throw-away plastic waste of resources – I’ve seen cases of these being offered to contractors, so they are intended to be tossed about the construction site – is what most folks think of when we say “hand saw”. We’ve all seen the rusted and bent ones tossed about construction sites. A waste of resources indeed, and the plastic handles ends up being micro plastic pollution. We as woodworkers should give this a thought, in my opinion. After all, that gorgeous piece of curly maple was “just a tree”. The forest is full of’em…
Now don't talk to me about the polar bear Don't talk to me about ozone layer Ain't so much of anything these days, even the air They're running out of rhinos What do I care? Let's hear it for the dolphin Let's hear it for the trees Ain't runnin' out of nothin' in my deep freeze It's casual entertaining We aim to please At my parties Dire Straits / Mark Knopfler
The throw-away above is representative of the mainstream tools being made today. Chisels with rubber infused plastic handles – “for better ergonomics”, the PR people boasts – are being mass manufactured alongside tools that won’t cut it in a woodworking shop. That is no phun intended, because I do not find it amusing in any way, shape or form. We are being offered “tools” that cannot be used in any meaningful way because they are made to make more profit, not to be better tools. We as consumers are being edumacated and formed from early on to just look at the price tag. 50% off! The deal ends now! Our prices are the lowest!
Here in Norway, this is widely spread. For example: there are three big chains in the food industry that controls most of the food stores, and today I saw an article about some politicians wanting to put down regulations on the amount of Own Brand (OB). And I believe that is a good thing to do! Now, I don’t like government control any more than the next guy, but I’ve seen how the OB’s is taking over. I can buy minced meat from the brand Gilde, or I can choose “Coop Xtra”. Xtra being the OB of the chain Coop, and it is a lot cheaper than Gilde. But the quality? Vastly different! I could season the content of my dust collector, add food dye and broth and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the dyed and seasoned shavings and that Xtra OB “minced meat” which is dry and bland. The Gilde brand is delicious!
I wrote an article on this subject – focused on tools, of course – earlier called “Money for nothing“. It is one of my most read articles, so I think I did hit some nails with my frying pan. The best (or worst?) example that comes to mind, is Stanley. Once renowned for good quality tools, they have diminished into a profit generating crap producing company that no longer has the ability to produce a decent hand plane. I have a plastic handled Stanley plane, the first one I bought and long before I knew what to look for. The adjuster wheel is made of plastic! How long will that last? The plane does work, but I have spent hours fettling the thing into coherence. Out of the box you’d be lucky to cut luke warm butter! Not worth $40! I certainly won’t buy another modern Stanley tool if I have another option. They do not deserve a dime!
Thankfully, there are still some companies that makes decent tools. In the image above you’ll find three saws made by Spear & Jackson. The two on the left are the 9500R panel saw – I got two, one for rip and one for cross cut – and to the right the tenon saw 9550B.
These saws can be sharpened, and the 9500R has a tapered blade which is ground so that the top of the saw is slimmer than down at the teeth. This means it can be steered in the cut. They are pretty cheap, about $20. The 9550B costs about $35 – close to 10% of the Bad Axe one above (a bit different beasts, I know!).
*prices found at toolstop.co.uk
There is one difference between the two models – look at the handle on my 9550B! That is NOT how it comes from the factory! The factory handle looks pretty much the same as on the 9500R. Compared to the Bad Axe – and to Lie Nielsen, Veritas and similar high-end manufacturers – one might wonder why they aren’t a bit more elaborate? Clearly made with CNC, why not make them look more like the old ones? Perhaps the look is more “contemporary”? I don’t know. But I do know this: the handles are not very comfortable in use. I own a Veritas Dovetail saw, and that handle is a delight! Not the most intricate, but not as plain as the S&J saws. As soon as you experience high end tools, your baseline moves up.
I came across a video by Rex Krueger where he did a few modifications to the 9550B. The saw is really awful straight out of the box, but becomes excellent with a few steps – steps which could be done to the 9500R, too. One of the steps: reshape the handle. Rex has free plans for it here. So that’s what I did. I reshaped the handle as per the plans. When I got the saw, I also took most of the set out of it and got a pretty decent tenon saw in return. Reshaping the handle made it really good! I made it look vintage in shape.
So maybe there is something to the old, vintage look other than vain looks? Lets’ see a thousand words:
Now the saw feels like a handshake – it “grips back”. I find that I have a lot more control. I even made a slight recess for my index finger to rest in, making the saw fit my hand like a glove. I still need to sand it and apply some finish to it, but it has become a really good saw.
I will reshape the handles of my 9550R’s in the same manner. The old school look really do work better.
Form und funktion, Herr! Precision tools need good handles. The rubberized / silicone infused plastic handles that seems to be very popular are in actuality a pretty crap design. Designed to fail, I should say. We have a Tupperware spatula where the silicone peeled off the handle early on. I have a few tools with this “feature” as well – the rubber / silicone / whatever it is, does not last very long. And when it’s gone, the handle becomes pretty uncomfortable. Clearly, this feature is designed to fail. The ergonomics are good for a short while, then you can just toss it. Throw an otherwise perfectly “good” tool (I am being generous here) in the trash so that the manufacturer / reseller can earn a few pennies more.
Because what does it cost to make a decent wooden handle over a plastic one? I bet the cost difference is a couple of bucks at the most. But the environmental cost is a whole different story! We know enough now to be aware that the throw-away society isn’t sustainable, so I urge you to consider your impact. Use your consumer power by NOT purchasing POS tools. Do business with manufacturers that makes good quality tools! The Spear & Jackson saws are great for the budget minded, so get those. Don’t buy plastic handled throw-aways. And learn how to make your own handles for old chisels, files and so on. Your offcut bin content can yield good handles, not just chopping boards or fire wood.
As for the “form” aspect, I will let Eugene Cernan say it for me. In the series “From the earth to the moon” there is a scene where the folks at NASA have a heated debate about the landing site for Apollo 17. He voted for Taurus–Littow for several reasons, one of which was that he thought the site had something unique among the alternatives: Taurus–Littow has grandeur. Then he said, and I am quoting from memory here:
And I think there is something to be said about the exploration of beautiful places.-Eugene Cernan
Think of it this way: an Olympic biathlon gold medalist (because we Vikings loves to shoot guns when we are out skiing, apparently) have a gun with a stock that is precisely fitted to hers / his body, style and needs. Any gun nut who does competition shooting have ergonomically shaped gun handles in order to perform. And so it is with woodworking tools. A hand saw handle that fits YOUR hand will give you more control and accuracy. If it looks nice too, it is an added bonus; it induces pride in us.
And that is important! I know this, but cannot remember why.
Who cut the cheese???