Lancaster, SC. About fifteen years ago, I first tried my hand at woodworking on the back porch of the apartment my wife and I inhabited after getting married. It was a feeble attempt, but the project—crooked corners and all—still hangs on the wall of our house. It’s a shadow box containing various mementos of life together. Building the shadow box was an attempt to carry on something of my maternal grandfather’s legacy. I inherited several of his old tools, which carry with them tangible memories, shrouded in a mist of faint echoes of his voice and dim silhouettes of his person. The handles worn smooth from his hands, and the barely perceptible remains of etched initials and markings in his script resurrect a vivid sense of playing with cousins in his basement shop with some of the same tools that now hang in my shop. Grandpa built that basement shop, and the whole house too, stone by stone and board by board through a near decade-long process. The story lives on in family lore: of the years spent living in a garage divided into rooms by curtains as the main house was constructed—every bit of it by that young family’s own hands as they could afford it. It took a stout and strong pair to build a family and a house at the same time.

It was a unique house with a massive stone fireplace and chimney inimitably designed and built—Grandpa had a knack for such combinations of art and architecture. Above the fireplace, nestled into the stonework was an oak shadow box. I took measurements of it the last time I walked through that house, breathing in as many parting memories as possible, hopeful they would last, now that the house was to be sold. I looked one final time at the wood paneling, harvested, dried, and milled on family property. I gazed through the massive picture window that was so thick and heavy it took a whole crew of co-workers and neighbors to install—I’d heard the story countless times. And I went down the basement steps to be greeted one final time by that distinctive musty cocktail of moisture, sawdust and rust. There were just odds and ends down there now, but a few pieces of wood remained, enough to make a replica of Grandpa’s shadow box. It was some oak, likely off-cuts from the oak paneling that lined the halls of that house.

When I arrived back home with wood and measurements in hand, I used some of Grandpa’s tools to try and make the shadow box: his old drawknife to scrape away the distinctive milling marks on the rough-sawn lumber, his router to make the dados to join the shelves to the sides, and a circular saw to cut the pieces to length. Despite intrigued looks from the neighbors, the project came together satisfactorily—thanks to excessive glue and wood filler. Amateur results notwithstanding, I was thrilled. And so was my wife and other family members who knew the project’s backstory.

Old Tools: Memory and Meaning

I was hooked and now on the hunt for old hand-tools. My wife and I scoured antique stores and yard sales in search of old gems, hoping to give them new life. I cleaned up a Stanley #4 Hand Plane from the 1890’s that was my Grandad’s on my Dad’s side, meticulously removing rust from every little piece, and restoring it to its original functionality and beauty. The process revived recollections of Grandad’s small family farm, always bustling with work to do for the couple and their family. I imagined Grandad’s hands well-worn from work on the farm and in a furniture factory, wrapped around the knob and tote of that plane. To this day, Grandad’s #4 is my go-to smoothing plane. In fact, all of my hand planes are much older than me. To be sure there is some appealing blend of nostalgia and restorative imagination at work in this, but mostly it is because they work so flawlessly.

Scott Russell Sanders in his well-loved essay “The Inheritance of Tools” expounds on the allure of old tools: “All of these tools are a pleasure to look at and to hold. Merchants would never paste NEW NEW NEW! signs on them in stores. Their designs are old because they work, because they serve their purpose well.” Most insightfully, Sanders notes, such tools are a “double inheritance, for each hammer and level and saw is wrapped in a cloud of knowing.” To this I might add that such tools are also wrapped in a cloud of memory and meaning. These tools are symbols, representing more than just utilitarian objects for specific purposes. They tell stories—of previous owners, of design, of art, of culture, of families, of what people value. You can learn a great deal about people and society by studying their tools.

Since the modest shadow box beginning, my tools and skills have improved—the corners are now square and the joints are much tighter—and no wood filler is required. And though my restored hand planes continue to serve me well, moving on to furniture-making required that I augment my hand tools with power tools. Like many folks, I quickly accumulated some of the ubiquitous hand-me-down Craftsman equipment that was sitting in someone else’s basement, unused after their dad or grandpa had died. It seemed cathartic for folks to know the tools would be put back to use, and not taken to the scrapyard. Stories and tears flowed freely as their memories bubbled up to the surface.

Those hobbyist tools helped me build my own house and shop, which now lives on in my family lore. Stories of working as the trim carpenter for our house, putting in 12-hour days all summer long in the heat, so that when I returned to my real job as high-school teacher in the fall, my co-workers asked if I was sick over the summer since I lost so much weight. Stories of my wife and I attempting to contain our six-month old baby on a blanket in the corner of the unfinished house as we worked together hanging doors and trim. Stories of building my workshop a few summers later with rain storms nearly every week and holding on for dear life to the roof-ridge when I ignored my wife’s warnings of a looming thunderstorm.

From Old Tools to Vintage Machinery: Creation and Restoration

Now that the house and shop were built, those hobbyist tools had significant miles on them, at my hands and at the hands of previous owners who have their own stories too. I began to look for better equipment. New machines were out of the question on a teacher’s salary with two young kids. And, if old hand-tools were so well-designed, perhaps vintage machinery would be the same. The search for old equipment began with auctions, Craigslist, and word of mouth. Patience and luck play a big part in such quests, and as it turns out, I ended up with much more than I first bargained for.

What I discovered was a vintage machinery brotherhood of sorts, where the code is to help others along their journey, to always be ready to learn something new, and to tell good stories to boot. The aging auction regulars—who know each other by their first names, and can tell you who is going to bid what for each item—were happy to initiate a youngster into the finer points of their world. Countless folks also find answers to their questions at Old Woodworking Machines, and a massive compendium of old manuals and machinery history can be found at Vintage Machinery, one that ever expands as users upload machinery photos, catalogs, price lists, instructions, and parts diagrams from machines built to last. Keith Rucker’s accompanying vintage machinery YouTube channel has 166K subscribers, not too shabby for Old ‘Arn (translation: Old Iron, meaning machines made of metal and cast iron, not plastic or lightweight materials so common on modern machines).

As I searched for dirt-cheap deals, I found vintage machinery to be not only stoutly built, but also beautifully designed, with graceful lines and pleasing aesthetics. These old machines were made with more in mind than the mere utilitarian functionality prevalent in modern equipment design. They too, were wrapped in that cloud of knowing, meaning, and memory. They whispered their stories. Piece by piece I outfitted my shop with machines twice my age, yet likely to outlive me. All of the machines needed some level of refurbishing to return to their intended purpose, but that is part of what attracts so many folks to vintage machinery. These machines weren’t meant to be scrapped when a part failed, and they certainly weren’t subject to the whims of planned obsolescence. Matthew Crawford picks up on this difference between vintage machinery and modern machinery in Shopclass as Soulcraft, where he explains:

An engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer. (pg. 1-2)

To unpack Crawford’s point, I offer here just one example, tracing design changes to what many consider the classic woodworking machine of the last century: the Delta Unisaw. For nearly sixty years, this table saw model remained virtually unchanged, a testament to excellent design and quality craftsmanship. It was a staple in industry, school shops, and home shops, and it still commands a loyal following of hobbyists and professionals to this day. What is so loved about the machine is not only the combination of elegant styling and high quality, but what the machine represents: the heyday of American manufacturing, the era of things well-made and built to last, the nostalgia of restoring the very tools once used in shop class or in grandpa’s basement.

Key design elements elevated this table saw beyond utility during its mid-century golden era reign. Echoes of Art-Deco styling that Delta held on to for decades were found in the nameplate badge running vertically down the middle of the dust door flanked by flared louvers on either side. Coupled with the sculpted lines of the cast-iron base, this formed the Unisaw’s trademark look of aesthetic beauty and robust quality. The hand wheels were proportioned nicely, and even the motor opening on the side was not an artless rectangle, but an oval of sorts, calculated precisely to accommodate all the possible positions of the motor.

Comparing these vintage Unisaw features (1930s-1970s) to a modern-design Unisaw (1980s-1990s) makes the differences crystal clear. By the 1980s, all efforts at elegant design were gone. Crawford’s creeping concealedness was well underway.

In the last two years, I’ve restored about twenty Delta Unisaws, spanning the whole range of its production. Thus far, the oldest one I’ve rebuilt was from 1945, the year World War II concluded—perhaps it was one of the many machines sustaining the arsenal of democracy. Every one of them tells a different story and requires a different treatment, depending on whose hands have been at the controls. Was it at the mercy of high schoolers’ errant hammers and prying screwdrivers in a school shop? Was it babied along in grandpa’s basement only turned on when a singular board needed trimming? Was it running all day in a cabinet shop churning out parts for the new homes that multiplied so rapidly in the post-World War II boom? In most cases, repair and restoration are possible and make good economic sense (buying a new machine of comparable quality would cost several times more). Moreover, it just seems right to restore such a tool to its original purpose.

Synthesis: Connecting the Desire to Belong with the Desire to Build

My story is by no means unique. The convergence of building family identity and building (or re-building) things is quite common. The internet is awash with rebuilds and restorations of everything from old Weber grills to vintage Barbie dolls. Perhaps the prevalence of the theme of restoration is a residue of some internal, primal urge to reverse the chaos and decay in our present world and to restore things to their proper order as once found in the primordial Garden. Restoring something is a microcosm of the cosmic story of Creation, Fall, and Restoration. Something was once designed and made for a specific purpose and served that purpose for a time (Creation). Then it fell into disuse, was abused, lost, or discarded (Fall). Then it was found and restored to its original purpose (Restoration). Or perhaps that is just my attempt to over-theologize and justify my growing habit. At the very least, building or re-building things taps into deep and elemental desires embedded in the human experience that in some shadowed sense mimic the Creator.

Whether grandma knits in her rocker, a child builds with blocks by the fireplace, or a millennial restores an old rusty piece of equipment, there is something in it that many find profoundly satisfying and richly human, far beyond opportunistic marketing trends with chic adjectives like steampunk, retro, reclaimed, or distressed. The machines I’ve restored have quickly found new homes, ready to serve in grandpa’s basement, garage shops, or cabinet shops for another fifty years. I’ve met twenty-somethings who are trying to recover dying skills and things well-made, retirees who are finally able to set up the shop they want, and full-time cabinet makers who are realizing the value of robust machinery that can run for decades with simple, routine maintenance.

Such building and re-building offers much needed opportunities to treasure the original community of family and the physicality and humanness of embodied work. It also increases one’s adeptness in the wider world as such mechanical know-how and maintenance skills transfer to other fields. Again Crawford is helpful here:

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. (pg. 15)

This kind of manual engagement with material reality keeps us properly oriented towards the world as embodied creatures. Crawford states: “man’s interactions with his world through his hands… [by] building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, [is] an element of human flourishing.” (pg. 63-64)

Retaining this anchored experience of being in the world by participating in tangible work is vital. Such work and skills not only anchor us to physical reality, they anchor us to our stories and to each other. As Cameron LeBlanc notes,

Learning these skills requires adults to focus on their hands, put down their devices, and step away from the striving endemic to their generation. Learning these skills also provides parents of young children, who may be learning with them, to pass down some knowledge they may have not received as children.

Passing down these skills in the context of the family connects two of the most primal aspects of human experience: the desire to belong and the desire to build. This connection is essential and needs bolstering in our day-to-day lives. The fundamental identity found in belonging to a family frequently carries with it modest inheritances of old tools or kitchen gadgets that spur folks on to explore new vistas of creativity and making. Strengthening these connections between family identity and creative making increases the odds of human flourishing as it brings us to engage more fully with our most immediate world staring us right in the face—our families and our things. Uniting the tandem desires to belong and to build can bring us to experience more fully the joys of life together and the excitement of creative energy.

Creativity manifests itself physically in the world in countless ways. In my grandparents, I saw it in the house my mom’s parents built and in Grandpa’s shadowbox. I saw it in the farm my dad’s parents maintained and in Grandad’s Stanley #4. In my parents, I see it in the landscaping, gardening, and music my dad creates, and in the crafts, cooking, and conversations my mom generates. What from my wife and I will combine in our children’s minds as tangible memories? I’d venture to say it will probably be elements of building and belonging that coalesce and form into the substance of their memory. These are the things that outlast us all, draw us up into that exhilarating, yet somehow familiar cloud of knowing, meaning and memory, and initiate the next generation in these human activities.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. If you’re ever near Pittsburgh, take the time out to visit Tom’s Old Country Store in the nearby town of Ambridge. It’s basically an antique store that specializes in old tools and hardware. Very good prices, and the owner’s a joy to talk with.

  2. It’s amazing how divorced we are from the concept of making stuff, and of caring about quality.
    Any idiot can build basic household furniture that will literally outlive their own children for less than the cost of cheap Chinese made garbage from Walmart.
    And you can buy handtools that are literally 200 years old that still work better than the junk you can buy from Lowe’s.

    • Brian,
      I can relate. As someone who makes custom furniture, people will frequently ask me if I can make something for them, and inevitably we get to the question of cost. At which point I have to launch into a long explanation of how I can’t even buy my materials (actual real, quality, hardwood lumber from a lumberyard) for what they could by a piece of particle-board furniture from some big-box store. At which point I either get a response along the lines of “Oh, I see, thanks anyway.” Or, something like, “Yes, I understand it will cost more. I want real furniture that will last and that is made by a real person.” Both responses have their place and purpose, and sometimes we all make those same tradeoffs, without realizing it.
      Cheers,
      Josh

      • To quote Christopher Schwarz, “The only way that most of us can own good furniture is to make it for ourselves.”
        I’m sure it must be incredibly frustrating for you to have people expect to pay Walmart prices for specially made masterworks.
        In between “particle board garbage made in China” and “expertly made work from a local craftsman” there is a very very big space for “stuff you can make yourself that will last for decades.”

    • My dad, who was a pretty good handyman in most other ways, for some reason never did much woodwork. But he was willing to pay higher prices for quality furniture and never bought cheap when it came to that. I still have my parents’ mahogany dining room set, which dates from the 50’s. The chairs are as solid as they were when I was a kid. I don’t recall him ever buying any furniture unless it was solid wood, and well made. No plywood or particle board for him! “Two things you should never skimp on,” he said. “Shoes and furniture.”

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