I began working wood in earnest when, during graduate school, a discount-store shelving unit nearly collapsed under my growing collection of books. My wife and I went to the lumber yard and came back with a small pile of boards and a handful of L-brackets. We spent the rest of the day measuring, sawing, and driving screws, and soon we had a simple but strong book case. Thus began a long adventure in learning to use my hands to make what I need from wood. I soon found I could get used tools and reclaimed lumber cheaply, so I began to acquire antique tools and scraps of wood.
Salvaging wood and tools began as a necessity, but it has turned into a habit. When I find a forlorn tool in a dusty corner of a junk shop, I will take it home if the price is right and if I think I can get it working again. If I don’t need it myself, I can always pass on to one of my children or to a friend who could use it. Friends and acquaintances now bring me old tools or broken furniture to repair, and I enjoy bringing these things back to life.
As I clean and repair old tools, I learn a little about the previous owners. One of my chisels had many paint splatters and a chip in the edge—a sure sign of its being used to open paint cans rather than to cut wood. A wooden hand plane I acquired has the name “A. Robertson” stamped on it 28 times—either Mr. Robertson was extremely possessive, or he was very excited about his new name stamp. With other tools, I revisit my own past. I have restored a small handsaw that I remember using to cut tree branches as a kid. I don’t know how it survived, but it still cuts well. One day my wife came home from a rummage sale with three grimy hand planes, for which she had paid $2.50 each, and I restored them all. Two I kept—one for me and one for my wife—and one I gave to a friend. Each time I restore a tool, I am amazed there is so much bright steel and beautiful wood underneath all the surface corrosion and grime.
I have also learned how to salvage wood. When a neighbor had to take down a pecan tree, he gave me one of the logs. Some of it I made into wooden spoons, and some of it I used to build myself a large tool chest. I frequently stop by piles of discarded tree limbs to see if there might be some usable wood among the trash, and when I hear a chainsaw in the neighborhood, I come running. I recently cut up a walnut log from a tree that came down in a storm, and some of the wood went into a lyre I built with one of my students. I am dismayed that so much good wood ends up in landfills, but I am glad to rescue what I can.
Recently, I was talking to my five-year-old daughter about tools getting passed down through the generations. I took her over to my workbench and showed her a 120-year-old hand saw that has the initials of her great-great-great grandfather scratched into the handle. The saw is sharp, and it still cuts beautifully. She was pretty impressed. Then I took out an another hand saw that I had recently bought and restored for her to use. I proceeded to carve her initials into the handle. She was ecstatic.
Each time I reclaim good wood from the rubbish heap or restore a dingy tool, it is a small act of redemption. An old tool may appear hopeless when grime covers every visible surface and all moving parts are seized with rust, but with enough time and care, many tools can be brought back to life. Each old tool, each discarded log, is an opportunity to redeem a little piece of creation.
Steve Schuler is an assistant professor of English at the University of Mobile in Mobile, AL, where he lives with his wife Grace and their four children. He works wood mostly with hand tools at a traditional workbench inside the house, and he blogs about woodworking at http://literaryworkshop.wordpress.com/