The Apprentice and His Tools


Now I have the glue on these boards and am ready to drive some brads in and can’t find my hammer. “John, have you got my hammer? I do wish you would try and get some tools of your own; I don’t mind lending mine, but it is such a nuisance and inconvenience to me and takes up a lot of my time.”

“You first started by asking my permission to take them, now you say nothing but come and help yourself; you take them and never think of returning them unless I ask for them, and when I do get them they are in bad order: You borrow my planes, wood bits, chisels, oilstone, and even my pencil. Can’t you scrape up a pencil some place? What are you doing with my inch chisel? You have one of your own; why don’t you use that?”

“I tried to use it, Mr. Martin, but it is too dull and I knew yours would be sharp.”

“John, if you want to learn the trade you must learn to keep your tools in order. You can’t do work without tools, and you can’t do it with dull tools. If you are going to learn this trade you’d better start in at once and buy some. Get a few at a time, what you need most, and be sure and get nothing but the best.”

“Didn’t you tell me you took a piece of calico to a hop last Saturday night and it cost you three bucks? If you had put those three dollars in tools, don’t you think they would do more good and leave you something to show for it? Some fine morning you will wake up and find you are obliged to look for work in another shop; then you will wish you had given more of your attention to your trade and tools, and not so much of your time to calico and money for hops.”

“Journeymen are not obliged to, and do not care to, lend tools to any person, and less so to apprentices because they do not understand how to take proper care of them. When I was an apprentice, I took great pleasure in new tools when I knew they were my own, and they gave me a kind of ambition to care and work with them.”

“Try and keep yourself and your bench tidy. You have had that old, dirty, torn apron on until it can stand up alone. A clean apron don’t cost much, and your bench looks like a pawnshop window. When you lay anything on it you have to get a search warrant to find it; learn to be neat. Don’t forget what I said about saving your money and getting a few tools.”

Mr. Martin

American Machinist – October 2, 1902

—Jeff Burks

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16 Responses to The Apprentice and His Tools

  1. Daniel Clay says:

    “Piece of calico”? Didn’t realize this was that kind of blog.


    • Jeff Burks says:

      …the kind of blog whose readers value the insight that may be obtained by reading uncensored historical texts, while having enough media literacy to understand that the voice of the period author does not necessarily reflect the opinions held by the transcriber…


      • I though tit was great; had to go look it up because I didn’t know what it meant. But then I like learning about words and their use, both in present day and historically.

        One of your better excerpts from the past, Jeff. A lesson in tool care many of us (me included) can learn from to this day.


      • Daniel Clay says:

        Indeed! If you say so, anyway. I’ll see all you media literate types at the hop.


    • Niels Cosman says:

      That’s rich!


  2. Jeff Faulk says:

    Translation for anybody who’s curious about what the poster says: “Only a Nooitgedagt Tool”, or something along those lines. It’s apparently an advertisement for J. Nooitgedagt and Son, Tool-Makers. Personally, that jointer plane intrigues me– it looks very much like the one that EC Emmerich still makes…


    • Andy in Germany says:

      That kind of plane is in regular use on mainland europe even today: I trained with one in carpentry college and I have one of my own now, a lovely Ebay bargin with a Guaiacum sole.


  3. Brian Clites says:

    Jeff – I love these posts. Thanks for finding and sharing all of this excellent material. But I do have a request: Could you please post the source at the BEGINNING of the post? Particularly when reading from a mobile device, its nearly impossible to scroll all the way down. I meant to make this suggestion last week, re: the mill text, but I couldn’t do so from my phone. Thanks again! These are informative, inspiring, and often beautiful reflections.


  4. tsstahl says:

    “…your bench looks like a pawnshop window.”

    BWAHAHAHAHA. I’ll own that one.

    Had to make space on the bench a couple days ago so I could paint a toolbox. Took every bit of 5 minutes to put away the stuff on the bench.


  5. woodworkerme says:

    I also like the pawn shop comment, when working on a project it can get pretty bad. thank god I have a tool tray in my bench to catch stuff.


  6. Reblogged this on Sawdust & Woodchips and commented:
    I can learn from this too – my work bench at the end of a hard day working is a disaster.


  7. Niels Cosman says:

    My father always has always been a stickler about caring for tools and not letting people “borrow” his tools. A very reasonable person, there are few things that get him as upset as folks messing with his tools. When he was running his business he had all of his own tools in his lab and had strict would get furious if someone used or misplaced his tools. The way he saw it, the time saved not looking for his tools or not having the right tool at the right time was far more valuable than value of the tool itself. He was absolutely right.
    One of his first summer jobs as a teen in the 50’s was assisting a cranky old German machinist. At one point, he grabbed a square off of the old machinist bench because he couldn’t find his own. The when the machinist noticed he confronted him and actually gave him a slap across the face accompanied by some colorful Teutonic expletives. The message was crystal clear: don’t mess with a working man’s tools.


  8. I always try to be hard and not let any of the young guys that come through our shop touch my tools…Unfortunately I can’t be a real meany and usually end up letting them try them out. It seems like if your a bit of an ass about it at first, they respect them a bit more. I like to hope it makes them want to get some of their own tools too.


  9. Andy in Germany says:

    I had the opposite experience during my apprenticeship: the tools on my bench were so tatty I started to buy my own, not least a set square after I saw another carpenter ‘correct’ their by hitting it on the floor.

    My employer took it personally and made a real fuss whenever I brought anything in, so I kept them out of the way until my final project…


  10. So what does “calico” mean? Sorry, I was born after Roosevelt was President (both) so I don’t get the meaning at all. I’m assuming hop is a colloquialism for “the beer” or “the booze.”

    Great post though! My workbench looks like it’s been attacked by a gardener gone mad. 🙂


    • Daniel Clay says:

      “Calico” refers to a girl. “A piece of” . . . girl. And a hop is what they used to call a dance. I love these excerpts, not only for the woodworking lore and sentiments of the craft but because occasionally, like in this one, you also get to see that we have inched a wee bit past our insightful forbears, even if some of us still beat the daylights out of our tools and benches 🙂


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