Old Tools: Sacred Family Heirlooms

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Photo By Matthew Stallbaumer
Tools used by three generations of the author’s family.

I remember watching my dad drill a hole in our floor with a brace and bit when I was about 3 years old. As he turned the brace, I listened to the sound of the bit chewing through the lumber. A wooden tendril curled up and away from the plank, and I remember how intensely Dad concentrated on the task. It’s one of only two or three memories I have from that time, and the moment feels solemn and almost ceremonial to me.

My family has never been the kind that passes along tracts of land or rooms full of antique furniture. Our family legacies take shape in more subtle ways — through skills, stories and tools, and through working with our hands. The first installment of my inheritance arrived in the form of a homemade toolbox crafted from a few pieces of 1-by-6-inch lumber and a single bent piece of sheet metal. Its handle was made from a strip of aluminum enclosed in an old piece of garden hose, and I still carry it that way. The wood is worn smooth, the sheet metal rusted. The dirt in the bottom of the box has probably been there for 60 or 70 years.

When I got the box, it contained half a dozen rusty open-end wrenches; a ruined pocket knife; an ancient ice pick; a crescent wrench; two box-end wrenches; a whetstone; four hole punches; several tiny, worn-out screwdrivers; a fine pair of antediluvian lineman’s pliers; and three hose clamps of obsolete design.

The homemade toolbox also held a couple of items I couldn’t identify. One of them was a nut driver of some kind. I still have that, though I haven’t used it because I can’t figure out how it works. There was also a little wooden-handled knife that looked as though it once might have been a farrier’s knife, designed to trim animal hooves. By the time the knife came to me, the end of its blade had been broken, so the tool’s origin was hard to determine. I lost the knife last year, using it to open bales of hay on a snowy day. I used it for all sorts of stuff, although never to trim a hoof, and I miss it.

I first saw that knife in my grandfather’s hand — or it could have been my dad’s. They often worked together, and the tools belonged to both of them, frequently passed down to them from some other relative or friend. I’ve had the toolbox and its cargo since about 1978, when my grandfather died. They’ve ridden with me in about 20 different cars and trucks, and have resided in sheds or garages in a dozen different towns in nine states spread from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic, from Minnesota down to the Mexican border.

Still, the toolbox smells like a particular place: the storeroom in the back of my grandparents’ house. It smells of wet sand and used oil, cobwebs and dry rot. It’s a smell that conjures “home” for me.

My dad recently saw the old toolbox in the back of my car and asked why I was hauling it around. I told him I loved working with tools he and my grandfather had used, and that I was writing about old tools.

“You want our old tools?” he said. “I think I have a bunch downstairs.” An hour later, he called me.

“I have a treasure trove for you. These were all your grandpa’s tools. I can picture him being so happy that you want them. They’re in a box here. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you see them.”

My dad’s excavation had uncovered a sickle with a hand-carved, hand-riveted grip; some harness parts; a 4-foot float level; and a spectacular variety of wrenches, including a leviathan open-end wrench nearly 3 feet long and weighing about 10 pounds.

I’m not a collector — of anything. In fact, I’m generally a bad custodian of physical possessions. I lose stuff. I break stuff. I spill stuff on other stuff. My brother is a collector, and I think he would say I don’t understand the value of physical things. I suspect this may be true. He has some beautifully preserved railroad equipment displayed in his home. I love to see it there, to touch it.

On the other hand, I own a pretty saddle. It’s under an old blanket in my barn, coated in dust and infested with spiders. I like to think I might set it up in the house someday, cleaned and oiled, under track lighting. But it will probably stay in the barn until I get a chance to knock off the spiders and put it on some animal’s back. I just don’t get around to appreciating things I don’t use.

I appreciate objects I can work with — balanced hammers, good wrenches, boots, gloves, hats. And I love the evidence of regular usage — worn handles, scratched metal, dirt and sweat stains. Worn but durable tools are particularly precious to me if they were used by people I knew and cared for — more so if I actually saw those people use the old tools.

Is this an aesthetic appreciation? Nostalgia?

About 15 years ago, I got involved with some magazines about antique machines: Farm Collector, Gas Engine Magazine and Motorcycle Classics. They’re still part of our business. As I started hanging out in this new social circle — a bunch of grease-monkey historians — I soon realized that the primary preciousness of the machines wasn’t in their resale value, their utility or even their scarcity. For the collectors, the principal value of the antique machinery appears to be in the stories associated with an object. Where was it found? Who owned it before? Where was it made? How, precisely, was it used or ridden or driven? And by whom?

And that, I suppose, is the root of my attachment to the old tools that have been in the hands of my great-grandfather, grandfather, my father and all of the other people who used them. Our tools are tribal totems. They symbolize traditions. We’ve conducted ceremonies around them — secular ceremonies of industry and work, but ceremonies nonetheless, though we never called them such a thing.

Some of those traditions are consigned to the past. The harness hames and hitching weights in my barn will probably never be used again. But some of the traditions are still part of our contemporary lives. I clip wire with my grandfather’s pliers. I trim the edge of a door with my dad’s plane.

My family has religious traditions, too, but our lives are mostly lived in the secular temples of the shop, the house and the barn. I remember sitting through church with my parents and grandparents as a child, but I much more vividly recall crouching on the floor next to my dad while he drilled that hole with a brace and bit so we could run some new electrical conduit, and watching my grandfather tack down shingles with the hammer I still carry in his toolbox that has now become mine.

To a little boy, the strength and coordination required to drive a nail seemed superhuman. I was thrilled to watch my father, looking so graceful and powerful, drill a hole. I wanted to be like that.

So I practiced. When I was about 4 or 5, my grandfather was attaching a carport to his house. To keep me busy, he handed me a spare miter saw and laid a 2-by-6-inch piece of lumber across two sawhorses. He showed me where to cut it, and acted surprised and delighted when he came back over and found I’d managed to saw a couple of 1-inch slots in his rafter. He used the lumber in the roof and left my handiwork showing. I was in college the last time he pointed out that board to me, carrying the roof’s weight in spite of my small sabotage.

I eventually developed some of the strength and skill I admired in my mentors. But part of me still idolizes them. When I pick up their tools and put these family heirlooms to work, the act feels mythical, heroic.

Our old tools are sacred relics. Through them we are connected to our work, the world, our ancestors and each other.

Bryan Welchis the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He works with his father’s tools on his farm in eastern Kansas. Connect with him on.

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