Friday, April 22, 2011

The Marks Left on Tools

My girlfriend recently gave me a very nice handmade knife from the 1970's. Made by a small shop in Whitefish Montana, long out of business, the knife is in excellent condition. The near mirror polish on the blade hardly marred by scratches, and the edge was untouched by a stone or use since its final rouged-buffing at the makers bench. For something approaching forty years old, the knife remained essentially new. The design of the knife is simple, a modified drop-point hunting knife, with pinned wood-laminate handle scales. It carries in a hand-stitched leather sheath, of a quality of workmanship not always common to even custom knives. Well made through and through, it is a tool; An object of combined elements of purpose. And yet, it has gone the decades since its making unused.
I am bothered by this newness of things meant to be used. There is no poetry in disuse of fine tools. It is the death of intent and meaning, an act against life to always rest a thing meant to be worked with.

On my workbench there live a few tools of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers, from the L.S. Starrett company. They are not new, in any sense. Most have passed a century. All have been used in the numerous tasks of a machinist, for lifetimes now. As machinists tools, they are exceedingly precise, and still have sharp edges, fine points and little slop or wiggle in their moving parts. These tools were made in a time before computers, when math was done by hand and mind, and the most precise work was that of men who manipulated machines themselves. The precision of these tools was artistry of purpose. Tools finely made, so they might be used in making other things that would be used. They have lasted not because they were put away and never taken down, but rather because they were acted upon and with as intended. A tool used is, of necessity and responsibility, a tool cared for.
The use of tools imbues them with an even greater richness, from the users knowing of them, the oils of his work and himself in their fine knurling, the experience of what he can do with them. The care of tools is a natural result of this. We care more deeply for that which we know, and value through experience, because we wish to preserve that which preserves us. Good tools, like good lovers, make our desires possible, our wills able to be wrought, their touch fuels our engines, and we care for them, or we die alone and empty. It is a lesson we learn, those of us who know it, just in time.

I sharpened the knife she gave me. The buffed factory edge, though shiny and new and perfect to see, was not keen when I took it up to use. Stoning the edge to a shaving sharpness left it uniformly and finely scratched where it had been as mirrored as the blade, and to a collector (those ill preservers) less valuable. Sharpening and using the knife is an act of being alive. Touch and pressure and wear are real and whole, and nothing good exists absent of them. Nothing good is unmarked by the passing of time.
Our tools, the objects in our lives we call valuable and their condition through time, are markers of ourselves in the world. If our tools are given over to rust and devastation, all we leave for the world is brokenness and useless oxidization. Ruined tools are things that perhaps should never have been. Tools that are unmarked, boxed, shelved and protected in perfect newness, never truly were. Only things used, worn, marked by process and care carry any valuable weight. The marks we leave on tools, are the marks we leave on the world.