A Workman is Known by His Tools

wedell_boers_1910_aThe saying “A workman is known by his tools” is probably as old as “A workman is known by his chips,” and, while generally speaking it is true, there are exceptions to it. I have seen many excellent workmen who carried very complete sets of tools kept in excellent condition, and I have seen other men with sets just as complete and in as good condition who were not able to do a fairly good piece of turning in an engine lathe.

I have had in my employ men who hadn’t as much as a scale or a monkey-wrench, yet who could work all around some of the boys who had a chest full of the most modern tools. That is, they could for about three weeks out of the month; the other week they were either drunk or getting over it. They had sense enough to keep away from the shop, and the evening before they were ready to come to work they would come sneaking around to the house to see if they could “come in to-morrow morning.” promising all sorts of things if they were given just one more chance, and up to a limit this class generally succeed in getting the chance.

Now, I know every hard-headed employer says “none of that sort in mine.” I have said it many times, but that tale of penitence, full of good promises—which we knew meant nothing—has seldom failed to gain its point, especially as we have known that it would bother us considerably to find a man who would do as much good work in four weeks as this one would do in three.

I do not wish to be understood as advocating the employment of this class of men, neither do I wish to convey the impression that “bums” are the best workmen; they are not. A man whose brain is confused by excess of liquor is not as valuable a man as he might have been had he left the “stuff” alone. But it is an unfortunate fact that many bright workmen have been the victims of drink, and as they have been, as a rule, roving fellows, they have picked up various ways of doing work that have made them valuable men to have around when they were themselves.

The question naturally arises: How could these fellows with no tools, or at least but a few, do good work where it is necessary to work to fine measurements? They cannot work by guess or to their fingers, as a woman measures cloth, but they can borrow from the “boss” or from some good natured workman who takes pity on them.

I remember once working near a fellow who belonged to this class, spoken of as “good men, only they drink.” This unfortunate had, at the time I first met him, a 6-inch scale, a monkey-wrench and a hammer. I have reason to know that he did high-grade work, but after two or three of his “periodical” drunks he was discharged.

A year or so after this I was working in another shop as toolmaker, when in walked “Frank,” looking for a job, and as they needed a good toolmaker right away he was set to work. When he reported for work the next morning the foreman asked him where his tool chest was. He very reluctantly acknowledged that he hadn’t any tool chest, neither had he any tools to put in one if he had such a piece of furniture.

The foreman asked him how he expected to do their work without tools. His answer was, “Ed has got tools enough for both of us”; by Ed he meant me. The foreman told me he guessed he had got a blank this time, a toolmaker that hadn’t even a scale or a pair of calipers. I told him I was willing to supply the fellow with tools and I thought he would be satisfied with him as a workman while he lasted; but as there was but a few weeks’ work to be done, this didn’t matter so much.

Well, Frank proved to be a very valuable man, and kept straight till the work he was hired to do was finished. He was then let go. Needless to say, he indulged in his usual drunk. Shortly after this he contracted pneumonia and died; but many times have I thought what an ideal man he might have been had he been temperate.

Another circumstance I recall transpired shortly after I had been placed in charge of work. A young fellow came along with a very plausible story as to his ability, and told me he thought he could, on account of his vast knowledge of mechanical things, be of great use to me. I thought he talked too much about himself, but as I needed men just then to make tools for a new gun we were bringing out, I set him to work.

That afternoon he came to the shop with an expressman, who brought his tool chest. When it was uncrated it looked like a piece of parlor furniture, it was polished so highly. The next morning he spread a piece of velvet on the bench and proceeded to lay his tools out, evidently with the idea of showing them to the other men, and they were a splendid looking set of tools, not a mark or a tarnished spot on them.

One of the apprentice boys came to me and said, “That fellow is a peach; I can tell by his tools he’s the best man you’ve got working for you.” Well, it developed that the fellow couldn’t do anything; he couldn’t even fit a taper; so he had to go. The tools that he prided himself so much on could not hold the job for him.

Of course I realize that these two cases, which are directly contradictory, do not necessarily prove that because a man is a “bum” and has no tools he is a first-class workman, or if he has a fine kit of tools that he is necessarily a “no good.”

As a rule, a man who is a good workman is a temperate fellow who takes pride in the appearance of his tools as well as in the work he does. And while the tools may show the effects of use, they also show that care has been taken of them. A man who would pile files on his vernier or micrometer would not be careful as to the appearance of his work, and in all probability would be careless as to its quality. So I think that, as a rule, it is safe to say that a workman is known by his tools: not by their number or newness, but by the condition they are kept in.

A few years ago men who were unsteady were tolerated to a greater extent than they are at present. A few years ago everything was not done in such a hurry as it is at the present time. The foreman who knows the peculiarities, the good and the bad points of every man, and who would perhaps tolerate a man who would stay out one week out of four or five under monthly payments, provided he was a valuable man when in the shops, is not allowed to overlook two or three days’ absence every week under weekly payments.

The shop is followed more closely than formerly by the office, and as they do not know or care as much about a man’s peculiarities as the foreman who knows him personally, will not allow such things to be overlooked, and I guess it is for the best, as the example may serve to make the young man whose habits are not fixed more careful. He will be less liable to become intemperate if he sees such men unable to hold positions, no matter how good they may be as men and workmen.

While the latter part of this article may not appear to bear directly on the heading, yet it is in a manner connected with such fellows as the “Frank” mentioned, because they have few, if any tools. They may at times swear off drinking and stick to it for a time, possibly long enough to get a few tools. And right here they prove the truth of our “text,” because as they in a measure become men again they take pride in getting tools. But, alas, they go when the fatal day arrives in which they commence to again take a little.

E.R. Markham

American Machinist – January 7, 1904

—Jeff Burks

Machinist Tool Chest Advertisements c. 1910

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One Response to A Workman is Known by His Tools

  1. woodworkerme says:

    I have seen all of these in my days as a forewoman and as an owner.

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