What does a tool weigh? by Chris MacBain

shieldSo spring is right around the corner. This means little to me now that I live in Southern California, but back home in Chicago it means one thing…Garage Sale Season! My brother and I would carpool to a shop where we both worked. In the spring we would take side streets home in hopes of seeing the unmistakable signs of a garage sale. These signs include, but are not limited to; 1] A sign made from an empty case of beer, hung on a street sign, by a coat hanger that may or may not have the word “garage” spelled correctly. 2] What would be the equivalent of an average household worth of belongings laid out on bed sheets in a front yard or 3] A huge garbage bin parked in a driveway. Number 2 can be tricky; it wasn’t until we started asking prices were we made aware that the guy was actually being evicted. We still got some sweet deals.

One sale in particular stands out from the rest. It was in the garage of a modest home on the Northwest Side. A very sweet older woman was selling her late husband’s tools. My brother and I sat down and chatted with her for a little while before looking at the tables stacked with tools. She told us that he was a machinist his whole life and was stationed on a boat during WWII machining replacement parts for other ships in the Pacific. There is a part of me that would feel a little bad picking over the items of a deceased machinist. But his wife assured us that he would really want his tools to continue their usefulness. So we started to browse.

On one particular table there was a bucket full of hammers. Every type you could think of in all sizes. We took them all out and counted them. There were 26 hammers. I asked my brother why a guy would have 26 hammers and he just replied, “Because 25 isn’t enough and 27 is just gluttonous.” There was one ball-peen hammer that caught my eye. The handle seemed shorter than it should have been in relationship to the head. It was filthy. If there were ever any sharp edges on it, they were pounded out years ago. As I held it in my hand, I started to feel its weight. Not how heavy or balanced it was, but the weight of the object itself. You could tell this was his “go to” hammer. To open a mold, loosen a pin or hold the door open while he was bringing in material, this one hammer was it. I imagined this single tool creating, constructing, demolishing, and being productive. Helping the one who swung it solve problems and put food on his families table. I don’t think we, in general, understand the true weight of the tools we use anymore.

imgresWhen everything was handmade, before CAD and/or CAM, we had tangible items we would hold in our hands to solve daily problems. They were important, hard to replace tools. But on some level, can’t the same be said for programs we use now? Is it so bad or unbelievable that a designer, engineer or toolmaker would feel a same sense of comfort designing in a familiar if not loved computer program as a pattern maker picking up a chisel? Sure there is a tactile response we mentally long for. This is why with all the e-readers out there I still prefer the feel of a good sturdy book. But sometimes it isn’t about climbing the mountain, it is about getting to the top. Let’s be honest here, most of us want to get our work done as fast and painless as possible. I am sure if we weren’t concerned about productivity, or had infinite patience we could still draw things on velum using pens and pencils. But we are concerned with efficiency. Because of this concern, we want to be comfortable and happy with the tools we use, even if that tool is a computer program. These tools should be selected with not only efficiency in mind, but satisfaction of the user. You could have the most useful tool in the world, but if someone doesn’t know how to use it or despises it, it will never be used.

So take the time to feel a kinship with your tools. Whether it is SolidWorks, CAMWorks or a planer take ownership of it and embrace it. Learn how to use it. Learn how to use it well. Take a class or call tech support. Make your program as important to you as a good saw is to a carpenter.

As I walked out of that garage that day I had a lot of good stuff in an old shopping bag. I had a pair of calipers, a Brown and Sharpe layout set, a height gauge and yes the hammer. As the nice lady put the hammer in the bag she smiled for a second, looked and me and said, “Good choice.”

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