Aside from eBay descriptions, photographs might be the biggest fibbers in the world of tools.
I’ve just finished judging a toolmaking contest sponsored by WoodCentral and Lee Valley Tools. During two days, I and two other judges examined, used and quarreled about more than 70 amateur-made tools. Our task was to award three prizes: the best-looking tool, the one that displayed the highest craftsmanship and the tool that worked the best.
As the entries came in, Ellis Wallentine of Wood Central posted pictures of the tools that were snapped by the makers (you can see those pictures here). I checked back every week or so to take a look at the entries and get a head start on judging.
Judging this contest, I thought, was going to be a cakewalk. We’d wrap it up in a couple hours and hit the Irish pub near the Lee Valley headquarters and spend the afternoon yucking it up.
It didn’t work out that way. In fact, the Lee Valley folks had to gently push us out the door after the first day of judging.
Here’s what happened: Photos are sometimes deceiving. Though some tools looked as good as they worked, other tools that looked like a million bucks in photos couldn’t cut a soggy toothpick in half. Tools that looked like they came over on the Mary Rose were so sweet they would almost do the job themselves when you went for a bathroom break.
And then there were the “ugly” tools. The tools that looked like they were made in a style that you had to wear either a black beret or Big Smith overalls (and no shirt) to truly appreciate. These tools managed to bore their way into your heart like a tapeworm in an Arkansas rice paddy.
So we argued about the tools. We almost abandoned any hope of awarding a prize for aesthetics. We were just too far apart. The craftsmanship award, however, was a little easier. There were lots of well-made tools, but some required more varied skills to make than others.
And function? That was the easy prize. When the steel hit the wood, it was quick to see which tools cut the mustard and which should be used only for resawing the mustard. In the end, using these tools radically changed my view of them. I didn’t care if the photos looked like junk or they had been professionally shot. When I looked at the pictures I saw only a tool that worked or didn’t work. As a result of all this, I was really pleased that we judged this contest in person and not via the photos. I think we got it right.
I cannot say yet which tools I personally liked or which tools I didn’t, but I’m including a few photos I snapped during the judging to break up the awful grey page generated by my typing prowess. When you take a gander, just make sure that you remember that pixels can be a crock of poo.
— Christopher Schwarz