Tools are like dogs. Over the course of a lifetime, chances are you’ll have a good many of them. A few will be worse than useless, and you won’t really mind when you lose them. But when you get hold of a really special one, you want to keep it forever.
At the very least, a decent tool has to do its job well. For a tool to be special, it not only has to do the job; it also has to feel perfect in your hand. That means the trick to finding good tools is to put your hands on them, feel their weight and balance. Look at the places where parts join together, and make sure the joints are neat and solid. Check the milling on the metal, and the sanding and finish on the wood. Go over the details the way Ted Williams went over his bats.
Williams, the last major leaguer to hit over .400, once returned a batch of bats to the Hillerich & Bradsby factory because the bat grips didn’t feel quite right to him. The bats turned out to be five-thousandths of an inch thinner than Williams’ specifications.
Let’s say you’re going to paint your dining room, and you need a paintbrush. Let’s say you’re going to use latex paint. The bare minimum, all-purpose paintbrush is a three-inch flat brush with a tapered bottom. Since you’re using latex, it should have nylon bristles, and the ends of the bristles should be “flagged.” (Think split ends.) You ought to be able to bend the bristles back and forth without seeing any thin spots between them. (Think balding). And you ought to be able to pull firmly on the bristles without pulling any out.
A good paintbrush like this one will probably cost about $20. Unlike cheap brushes, it won’t shed bristles all over your new paint job. Assuming you have a steady hand and decent native painting skill, it’ll give you a perfectly good finish. It’ll be worth cleaning and storing, and it’ll be useful the next time you need a paintbrush.
Once you’ve made up your mind to be discriminating about tools, you’ll look for differences in even the most basic stuff. Take, for instance, the lowly flatbar. You need a flatbar for rude, crude, ugly renovation work like prying off old molding and pulling out rusty 16-penny nails. One motivated guy with a flatbar could shred a grand piano into toothpick-sized pieces in about 10 minutes.
If I needed a flatbar tomorrow, I’d get a Vaughan Superbar. It’s milled like a real tool, with sharp, even, burr-free edges. I can look at this basic 10-buck tool and tell that the people on the Vaughan Superbar assembly line take some pride in their work.
Your basic, nail-driving carpenters’ hammers are simple things, but they do important work.
You can pick out the best hammers by looking at the quality of the milling. The head on a worse-than-useless, hope-you-lose-it-soon hammer is bumpy and asymmetrical. A head like that will skip off nails and drive them crooked. After a few good licks, a sorry-ass hammer head will come loose from the handle. But the head on a high-quality hammer is smooth and symmetrical. It’ll let you hit a nail head flush, and it’ll stay tight to the handle.
You don’t really know a hammer until you shake hands with it. Hammer handles come in wood, plastic, and metal. Some handles are straight; some are curved. Each shape and material has its own cheerleading section, but you don’t want to take anybody else’s advice when you buy a hammer. A good hammer feels balanced and comfortable in your hand. As a general rule, I like Estwing hammers. The good ones cost about 40 bucks, as opposed to five bucks for a hammer that’s only worthy of pounding in the tops of paint cans. I promise, the $40 hammer is eight times more useful than the five-dollar hammer.
My own favorite tool is a humble set of blue-handled wire cutters. I used them to clip the strings on my first Gibson E-330 electric guitar, my ’54 Les Paul, my hollow-body Crest, my L5-S, a couple of Telecasters, and my walnut-and-maple Alembic guitar. I used them to build sound systems for my bands, run telephone cable through my houses, and to clean my fingernails. I’ve had them longer than I’ve had any dog, friend, house, car, or job. I know them and they know me. These days, they’re semi-retired. I keep them on my desk, just so I can look at them every now and then.
All tools pictured are available at Walker Lumber & Hardware Co., 527 Thompson Ln. (254-3344).
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