More in Hand Tools

A Toolish Fella

Does it really matter if our man hammers with a wrench?

wrench man illustration
Illustration by Serge Bloch
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I have never been a "tool guy." I have bought tools, of course, but only with the confidence of a high school senior pinning a corsage on his buxom prom date. "This...feels ...awkward." Some guys are more worldly than me. Some guys love their tools with passion. I have a neighbor whose entire garage is a temple to tools. Table saws and drills and all sorts of impressive, furniture-size equipment, all waiting for him to come along and knock out a bookshelf or a window seat or an ark.

My garage has two overflowing cat litter boxes, five bikes with flat tires, and lots of bins filled with a lifetime of crap, most of it purchased from the local Sports Authority. I have a toolbox in the basement, but my garage has a total of two tools in it: an axe and a ladder, which in the strict sense of the word, probably isn't even a tool. I got the axe because I thought I might have a need to fell trees when I moved to the suburbs. I never use it because my neighbor has a chain saw. The ladder is 10 feet tall and made of wood and weighs roughly 753 pounds. Turns out, only electricians use wooden ladders, and even they have mostly given them up for fiberglass ones. The rest of the world uses aluminum, which is very lightweight. I once asked my electrician if he wanted my wooden ladder, and he looked at me and said, "You know, they make those in aluminum...."

So one day, as I was in the garage with my axe and my ladder, feeling ashamed and thinking I was lucky that my house was still standing given my lack of tool knowledge, I decided to head downstairs to poke around in my toolbox. What would its contents reveal? I knew I couldn't compete with my neighbor, but had a lifetime of stumbling blindly through the tool world taught me anything at all? Here's what I found.
I have never been a "tool guy." I have bought tools, of course, but only with the confidence of a high school senior pinning a corsage on his buxom prom date. "This...feels ...awkward." Some guys are more worldly than me. Some guys love their tools with passion. I have a neighbor whose entire garage is a temple to tools. Table saws and drills and all sorts of impressive, furniture-size equipment, all waiting for him to come along and knock out a bookshelf or a window seat or an ark.

My garage has two overflowing cat litter boxes, five bikes with flat tires, and lots of bins filled with a lifetime of crap, most of it purchased from the local Sports Authority. I have a toolbox in the basement, but my garage has a total of two tools in it: an axe and a ladder, which in the strict sense of the word, probably isn't even a tool. I got the axe because I thought I might have a need to fell trees when I moved to the suburbs. I never use it because my neighbor has a chain saw. The ladder is 10 feet tall and made of wood and weighs roughly 753 pounds. Turns out, only electricians use wooden ladders, and even they have mostly given them up for fiberglass ones. The rest of the world uses aluminum, which is very lightweight. I once asked my electrician if he wanted my wooden ladder, and he looked at me and said, "You know, they make those in aluminum...."

So one day, as I was in the garage with my axe and my ladder, feeling ashamed and thinking I was lucky that my house was still standing given my lack of tool knowledge, I decided to head downstairs to poke around in my toolbox. What would its contents reveal? I knew I couldn't compete with my neighbor, but had a lifetime of stumbling blindly through the tool world taught me anything at all? Here's what I found.
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1. Tape

 

1. Tape

Tape is the tool for men who don't understand tools. In other words, my tool. The other day, I attached a piece of ventilation duct to the back of my dryer and then ran it through a hole in the wall and outside the house, all with tape. It's like a duct tape Habitrail behind my dryer. Instructions said the ventilation hose came with straps and screws, and then there was this thing that was supposed to go on the wall where the hose went in, and...yeah, okay, can you pass me that roll of tape?

2. Levels
Levels are cool. They must be, because I have like 10 of them in all different sizes. I have a plastic level that is 3 inches wide and utterly useless. I have an old wooden level that I bought at a yard sale that has the word "basement" written on it, as if it might complain if I keep it upstairs. I even have a pair of cuff links that are little metal levels with bubbles and blue water inside. I think I like the bubbles. The only thing I ever—and I mean ever—use a level for is hanging pictures. Why would I need 10 levels to hang pictures? It must be the bubbles.

3. Free allen wrenches
Whenever I buy a piece of cheap, mass-produced furniture (I live in a melamine world), it comes complete with an Allen wrench to help me assemble it. For some reason, I have decided that this is a great hidden value in my purchase, that I'm not only getting a new trundle bed, but the manufacturer has generously provided me with a fine new tool that I can keep. And so I do. Of course what they are really saying is that if you bought this piece of crap furniture you probably don't own any tools. I have every free Allen wrench I have ever gotten in a special section of my toolbox. It's the section marked stuff nobody else is dumb enough to save.

4. Old-fashioned tools
I have a wooden folding ruler. I guess I got this to match my wooden ladder. Evidently, they also make a lightweight metal version of this ruler that rolls up. No matter. Somehow, wood just seems right. Unlike most things in my toolbox that I've used at least once, I have never actually used this. Ever. It's like something the Professor invented on an episode of Gilligan's Island. On a slow day. It would be easier to pace off a room and guess than it would be to unfold and refold this turn-of-the-century relic. So why do I keep
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5. A jar of screws and a jar of nails

 

5. A jar of screws and a jar of nails

It took me about five years to realize that I should separate the two. There is a ritual that goes along with having a jar of screws and a jar of nails: First you realize that you need a screw or a nail for something. Then you get the jar and dump it out onto the table. Then you remember that the reason all these screws and nails are in these jars is because they weren't right for some previous job, or else you would have used them and they wouldn't be here. Then you pick one that will kind of work but not really, and you jam it into whatever hole needs it. Wait two weeks; repeat.

6. Expensive stuff
With each new tool purchase comes the possibility of success and the mastery of a skill that has always eluded me. Can I really put a price on something that profound? Actually...I can. A very high price, it turns out. So when I needed a plane to trim a sticky door, I decided I would master the plane! I needed the best one money could buy. I foresaw a future where everything in my house was planed to a smooth and straight line. Crooked doors and stuck windows would tremble when they saw me setting up my sawhorses (which I hadn't bought yet). Did I say one plane? Nay, two or three is more like it, and I would also need extra blades. Eight hundred dollars later, I planed my first and, as it turns out, last door. Not only did I not like planing very much, I also wasn't particularly good at it. I cleared off a shelf in my basement to display my impressive new plane collection.

There were other clues in my toolbox: a bag of rubber bands, a tiny little rusty saw, some picture-hanging wire, three pencils, a padlock with no key, WD-40, and...a quarter.

What else? In my bedroom, I keep a pair of pliers next to the air conditioner because the knob broke last year and instead of getting a new knob, it seems more practical to permanently assign a tool to live next to the AC unit.

And in the end, those pliers really explain my relationship to tools better than the axe, the ladder, or the toolbox itself. Those pliers say to me: I know exactly all I need to know about tools. In a pinch, I will use my axe to cut a piece of twine, especially if it's 10 feet closer than the scissors. If I want to hammer a nail with a wrench, that's my business. Does the nail go in? OK, then. One day, I may really need that strange little screw at the bottom of the jar to stop a leak or help save a man's life. You never know. For me, tools are merely a means to an end. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes they are symbolic, sometimes they're beautiful, and sometimes tools just feel good in my hand. But most times it's the bubbles.
 
 

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