How Many Tools Does a Man Need?

 

I’ve made efforts to simplify over the past few years. It happens in fits and starts, usually two steps forward and one step back. When I began accumulating woodworking tools, more than a decade ago, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I would ever want to get rid of a tool.

“He who dies with the most tools wins!” “You can never have too many clamps!” Woodworking forums are rife with kind of nonsense – especially those devoted to hand tools. Maybe that’s because hand tools can multiply more slowly and seemingly innocuously than power tools. You don’t need to immediately find a place in your toolchest for that handsaw or chisel you picked up for five bucks. Just drop it in the bucket with all the others, you’ll fix it up…eventually.

But what if you don’t? What if you walk into your shop one day and realize that all of the free time you’ve spent haunting flea markets and antique stores in search of a deal have robbed you of time you could have spent actually building things? How many hours could you have practiced your craft, becoming more intimately familiar and connected to the tools that you already own? What if those forsaken tools yield, not a well-loved and well-stocked shop,  but a shrine of guilt that plagues your conscience ever time you set foot in what should be your place of respite?

I have found myself facing this situation on more than one occasion. I typically deal with it by going on a tool restoration binge. Saws, chisels, and planes get de-rusted, handles get cleaned, repaired or replaced, and blades get sharpened. Slowly, the hours that I spent collecting the tools become insignificant in comparison to the hours that I spend restoring them.

Then comes a decision: Keep, or sell? I am not a collector. I don’t need five 1″ chisels (which is the number I am currently sporting). The problem is, of my five 1″ chisels, I have only ever used one of them on a regular basis. The others were never in proper shape, until this week. My regular user happens to be the ugliest of the bunch – the plastic-handled Irwin in the middle. I’ve had it for 10 years. I know that it’s a perfectly good chisel. But how can I sell the other four (more attractive) chisels without ever giving them a fair shot? What if one of them takes a freakishly keen edge and holds onto it for twice as long? How can I deprive myself of the opportunity to find out which of these chisels is the best?

1-in Chisels
From top to bottom: Henry Taylor bevel-edge chisel with boxwood handle; Charles Buck firmer chisel with octagonal beech handle; Irwin bevel-edge chisel with blue plastic handle; unmarked firmer chisel with elm handle; and Ohio Tool paring chisel with elm handle.

These are the games that my mind plays with me when I have too many tools. Owning too many things (whether it be clothes, shoes, dishes, tools, or toothbrushes) is antithetical to my world view. Yet most of the time, I just live life on cruise control, gleefully indulging my caveman collector instinct. Especially when something is a bargain. And then one day I look up and realize that I’m spending more time accumulating and maintaining my things than enjoying my life. And upon that realization, I begin enjoying life much less, until the balance is restored. I am not a minimalist, by any means, but with each passing year I try to be more fully cognizant of my relationship with my stuff. It has become clear to me that I am almost always happier with less of it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build something out of wood – something that requires a lot of chisel work – so I can figure out which of these beautiful damned things I can be rid of.

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3 thoughts on “How Many Tools Does a Man Need?

  1. The funny thing about hand tools is they are typically cheap if they have a bit of rust on them. I don’t think I’ve ever paid over $20 for a plane. It’s rarely a situation of do I have the money or not. I typically only buy tools if they are practically giving them away on principal and I still find myself in the same situation that you describe. I’ll probably never live long enough to restore them all. I guess where a person probably should break it down is do you love restoring tools, or do you love woodworking? It might just be that simple. I enjoy both so I will continue to purchase tools if I think they will be useful. I’ll still try hard not to buy duplicates though.

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    1. “…do you love restoring tools, or do you love woodworking?” I think that’s exactly what it boils down to, and my answer would be this: I enjoy fixing up old tools, especially when it gives me something that I needed for a good price, but it doesn’t bring me nearly as much personal fulfillment as working wood.

      Given the choice between the two, I’ll pretty much always choose woodworking. I haven’t been nearly as disciplined as I should be about avoiding duplicates, either, which adds to the problem. It’s a lot more fun to restore something that I don’t already own than something that I already have two of.

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