Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tools Make the Man

As both readers know well, I am no master craftsman. Although I own a fairly complete set of tools, it is safe to say that when it comes to using them, I'm fooling myself if I say that I am in any way skilled.

Take something simple, say, like a wrench. Now this is a tool I've used a lot, but sometimes it feels like it's the first time I've ever held one, let alone mastered its use. I routinely look carefully at a nut or bolt, walk back to my tool kit and pick up the wrong wrench. I walk back to my work, discover that it is either the next one up or the next one down, but not this one. Then, I walk back to the toolkit and attempt to chose the right one. Often it is that damn third time that is the charm.

Oh well, at least I'm getting my exercise.

Some tools, however, I use so infrequently that it really is like the first time when I pick it up again. Yesterday, I picked up such a tool, a little 3-inch angle grinder. I've used this little power toy maybe two or three times since I bought it back when the car in my driveway was a partially disassembled MGB.

I used it for the first time in three years just the other day, when I cut down the angle iron that I used to make a frame brace before we lifted the body off the chassis. Yesterday, though, I had some serious work ahead for this tool--cutting the rusty body pans out of the frame--yet my lack of experience was to be no hindrance to the task.

When I first bent to the task, I was hesitant and sloppy. I revved up the cutting wheel and locked in the 'on' position, but when I touched it to the welds, I let it skip and bounce a bit. The result was a jagged line that actually missed the second weld.

Sparks were flying everywhere and I had to stop and wait cautiously for the smoke in the frame tunnel to fade away. A fire inside the frame would have been particularly hard to put out, to say nothing of the damage that it would do.

So, when the smoke cleared, I went back to work, this time resolved to use the tool with a bit more confidence. I began really cutting into the rusty bumpy steel intersection between the pan and the frame. It felt less like steel and more like bread. Instead of a sawing motion that I would use for bread or meat, I began to drawn the spinning blade back in a straight line as I applied downward pressure to the steel. I began to feel the material as something less than steel, more 'cuttable'. Soon a neat line appeared behind the blade and I was making good progress.

Better than that, I was actually learning to use this tool. It felt great.

It wasn't to last too long, however. Depending on how you look at it, the fact that the person who welded in the pans the last time (it was NOT a stock installation) was so unskilled or lazy (or both) with the welder, that half the pan was not even welded in. After I cut through the first half, the pan just peeled back and off the frame. In less than an hour, I had the left floor pan off the car.

The right half will be much easier, of course, because now I have acquired just enough skill with the cutting tool to make it barely so. I will be fooling myself if I allow myself to believe that the skill is anything more than rudimentary. After all, I won't be cutting out floor pans on a daily basis, so whatever skill I manage to develop next weekend will surely be lost before the next task comes along.

In spite of this sober approach to my tools and my skill at using them, I am never so fully engaged, so deeply happy as when I have a tool in my hand and I'm learning how to use it. I think this is a deep, primordial urge, something so basic that it compels me despite my lack of skill and experience. Holding and learning how to use a tool--teaching myself as I go--makes me more than a shade-tree mechanic. It makes me human.

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