“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.”
I felt like a caterpillar last week. My latest project involves an oak crotch so riddled with cracks and shake that would have been better suited to the firewood pile were it not for the alluring flame figure of the grain. Just making the slab usable involved inlaying a dozen butterfly patches to stabilize the defects. Few people will look at the end result and understand the work involved, but it was enjoyable work nonetheless.
I’ve always found butterflies to be a bit tricky to make by hand. They are small and annoyingly difficult to clamp. The solution is to keep them attached to a larger block for as long as possible.
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?
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.