On the Care of Tools

“…(I)t was a fact that more tools were spoiled through a simple want of care than were worn out by constant use.”

When I teach classes, I have to restrain myself from saying something incendiary to many students who are frustrated with their tools, even precision planes that cost hundreds of dollars. Here’s what I want to say:

“Of course the tool is fighting you. You haven’t shown it any love.”

Even the best and the most pedestrian tools must be cared for in equal measure. Sharpen them before they get dull. Wipe them down with oil after every use. Ease their hard edges and wax their handles.

These things are discussed in this excellent article dug up by carpenter Jeff Burks, who deserves his own blog (hint). This article was originally published in Scientific American. The following scan is from an 1873 edition of The Manufacturer and Builder. Including this nugget:

“Now, one word about lending tools, and that is – don’t! We know of nothing more aggravating than to work nearly a whole rainy Saturday putting tools to order and then be required to lend one to some shiftless mortal whom we are sure will turn the edge, knock the handle off, and probably throw it down wherever he happens to use it.”

Download the entire article here. It’s a good, quick read. Also, a reader has typed in the text into a .doc file that you can download if you prefer that format.

Take Care of Your Tools

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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29 Responses to On the Care of Tools

  1. michael says:

    Chris, This small snippet of text is wonderful. Where can one get the rest of this tome?

  2. Jim Burton says:

    Holy cow…truer words have yet to be spoken. I have a student that comes over every so often, and when she uses my tools, even the slight sin of putting them back in the wrong place…hell, even in the wrong direction…sends me over. It makes my own practice difficult when I can put my hands on a tool right away. I can only imagine if I loaned a tool, or tried to use one not properly fettled.

  3. John Cashman says:

    I had the great pleasure to hear Toshio Odate at WIA a few years ago, and he went on at some length about the plagues that were suffered upon apprentices in Japan who had the temerity to touch the master’s tools. I can’t imagine it happened more than once.

    It surprises me especially when I see the really expensive tools some woodworkers own, and the amount of rust they have started to accumulate.

  4. Tico Vogt says:

    This is good validation. I know that some people of my acquaintance, relatives and friends even, have not been pleased with my “ungenerous” attitude about lending tools. And how about letting someone use your chainsaw? Oh man… what are people thinking?

    Here’s a story: when my son was in high school and had some buddies over, one wanted to play a trick on another by siphoning out his gas tank. This I learned soon after on a cabinet job that involved a level that used water in clear tubing and a bubble (pre-laser). At the job site I went to draw on the end of the tube and got a mouth full of gasoline. And the kid who used it for a siphon… his dad’s a builder.

  5. Eric R says:

    My tools are just that, MY tools…..

  6. Eric Bennett says:

    That guilted me into picking up my tools before bed. I’ll sleep much better.

  7. abtuser says:

    Guess I’ll have to stop using my LN 62 low angle jack plane as a hammer. I mean, it was billed as a ‘good all around tool’.

    Nah, it’s cared for with love. But, a good thing to remember, the person that asks to borrow a tool most often has no concept of what tool use and care is. They’d have one themselves otherwise. And further, they will most likely take no responsibility for replacing it if broken: ‘I saw online somewhere that a lot of these were defective’. Or, ‘Well, you loaned it too me, if you thought I was a bad risk, you shouldn’t have.’. Ugh.

  8. Richard Wile says:

    I have a toolbox full of “lenders”, chisels, planes, saws, screwdrivers, etc. from my early days working the wood. If one of these tools won’t do the job for the neighbour, I will go and do the work myself before loaning aything nice. I do have one good woodworking friend, smilarly afflicted as myself, I would even think of loaning anything to. Every tool has a place (and a job) and should be returned (or used) accordingly.

  9. James says:

    …says the man who smashed a perfectly good plane with a hammer.


  10. When I worked in cabinet shop, I had a small set of cheap tools that were “loaners” when forced to. The cheap tools were expendable but my good tools were kept locked up. Other cabinetmakers would see my good chisels but when they wanted to borrow one, I got out one of the cheap ones. After awhile, they would stop asking.

  11. edreher says:

    Excellent post and wisdom. Impressive to see advice that holds true 139 years, and counting, later.

  12. Ala says:

    “Do this out of doors.” <-This made me chuckle. What did he do to learn that lesson?

  13. Scott P. says:

    This reminds me of a large sign in my Dad’s repair shop that was posted just above the hourly rate sign. It read: “No Tools Loaned”. I’m thinking about making one for my woodshop.

  14. Derek says:

    I agree on the special set of loaner tools. I keep a couple older tools that are in decent condition to loan out as needed by neighbors. If they get dinged up or misplaced, no big deal. That’s why God made yard sale tools, so you can buy and loan them (some times).

    I’ve also been on the receiving end of loaned tools…even a chain saw. But I guess I was raised properly (New England yankee upbringin’)….borrowed tools are returned in better condition than received. That chain saw? It went back with a freshly sharpened blade and a full tank of gas and chain oil.

  15. rdwilkins says:

    Great little article. Just curious about the photo, do you usually hold your plane this way when you’re planing corners?

  16. yaakov says:

    I made mutton tallow, and use that and camilla oil to protect my metal tools from the damp weather

  17. John J. says:

    I need to get my chainsaw back from the guy that borrowed it.

    I am also reminded of the recurring debate about “patina” of old tools. Most often “patina” is grunge from neglect.

  18. smbarnha says:

    Interesting, since Chris is one of the most generous tool-lenders I’ve met…

    • Christopher Hawkins says:

      Last year during a class he led last year, he let anyone (including neophyte me) use his amazingly well tuned tools. Once you feel a well tuned joiner plane in your hands and see/feel the result, you are inspired (and shamed) into raising your game. There is a method to his madness

  19. Kim H says:

    I learned the lesson good on leaving tools. One night a little over 40 years ago I was doing some contract house wiring and left a beautiful finishing saw that my grandfather gave me at the job site. I was half way home when I remebered and thought it would be ok until tomorrow. The next day no one had seen it or knew where it was. I have an idea of who got it, but what can you say.

    I still miss that saw!

  20. David VanVorst says:

    What kind of wax do you use on the handles? I have a bar of beeswax, or should I get out the paste wax?

    • lostartpress says:

      I have a tin of paste wax that I’ve had for a decade. I don’t think it matters at all. The different waxes create the same result (a barrier), but some are harder and more difficult to apply than others. Really, you just want a nice little film.

  21. BR says:

    well…i can clean and sharpen them…but i can’t put them away…nowhere to put them. if only there were some kind of box or trunk designed for tool storage that i could build to put them in.

    oh well…maybe Home Depot has something that will do the job.

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