Monday, 5 February 2007

The Appeal of Old Tools...

While browsing in “My Pictures” I found this picture of some tools that we had arranged and photographed a few months ago. The juxtaposition of shapes makes an unusual image and I thought it was a good opportunity for me to explain why “old tools” are listed as one of my interests.

When I was a “Starving Student” I had a great studio apartment above a garage in LA. Cheap and perfectly placed for work and university, it was the kind of fun accommodation that you usually see in TV shows. Quiet, peaceful and secure, it could only be accessed through the fully fenced garden and had (at the bottom of the stairs) a small, enclosed private patio. The young, creative couple that owned the house had wonderful ideas and had done most of the work themselves, including the decorating of their home and it had been featured in a lifestyle magazine.

With a non-existent budget, any decorating I did had to be accomplished through charity of friends and thrift shops. My resourceful landlords had used some old saws as decorative features on their wooden walls and I wanted to poach their idea for my little patio. When I found a box of old tools for a dollar at a yard sale, I bought it and although there were no saws, the old iron pieces fascinated me. I cleaned up all the things that could be hung up on nails and oiled them (with olive oil – less than successful) and decorated my little patio space. Those first tools earned me quite a few compliments; back then old tools went well with the “country” look. From then until now, I have been enamoured with old rusted metal objects!


Back at the turn of the last century, tool making was becoming very industrialised. But go back another fifty years or so to the mid 1800’s (or earlier) and you can find some wonderful things. Some of the old squares, used by woodworkers to keep their angles straight, are made of Rosewood or Ebony with brass studs where they attach to the metal, highly decorative when cleaned up and hung on the wall of an office or study. Of course, if you have a Georgian home with fine chintz curtains and mahogany furniture, old tools would be out of place…or maybe not. I’ve framed some lovely old tools (tiny wooden handled screwdrivers) and used them in a traditional home before so why not a pair of fine chisels with boxwood handles and heavy brass ferrules. Hmmm…

M, being a cabinetmaker, knows and appreciates old tools from a completely different perspective bordering on reverence and I have learned a lot from him over the years. Originally, he bought chisels, screwdrivers, planes, levels, rules and saws to use because of the quality of the materials and manufacture. Many of these tools are highly sought after by craftsman of today who use them either for their own work or in the restoration of the ships, furniture, panelling, carriages and buildings of yesteryear. Each and every item was part of the essential equipment that the Cabinetmaker, Shipwright, Joiner or Cooper had to have to ply his trade and a good craftsman kept his tools in pristine order. There are tools that were common to all the trades and then there were speciality tools, made for specific work. Most old tools will have the names or initials of one or several owners because each man marked all the tools in his tool chest; they were prized and valuable and to loose one meant hardship and expense. Many craftsmen kept their tools after they retired, some sold their tools on, some tools were lost, sometimes they were stolen but most often they were passed from father to son. The consideration and the care lavished on these old tools often comes through in the tool itself…they are lovely to handle, often you can see the way the item was used, as in the case of the old wooden planes that still bear the marks of the craftsman’s hands where he shaped a moulding. The very old steel has a deep and lustrous patina once the rust and gunk has been cleaned off. Sometimes, even if the item is too far-gone to take away the rust, it’s still got that honest beauty that comes from a useful life.


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