People, like me, who work with wood have a love affair with tools and live with the motto that we are just one tool away from perfection. Lately, I have cultivated a deeper affection with hand tools, those stately tools that, as they age, seem only to increase in function and beauty – like some people I know.
I was recently bequeathed some hand tools from the family of Doyle Fox of El Dorado. I’ve known him – and his children – for years, but never knew he was a craftsman of fine woodworking until his daughter said he was moving and had some walnut for sale.
The first thing I spotted in Doyle’s garage was the Cities Service green paint job on an old workbench. My father had worked for Cities Service for decades and my childhood toybox was painted that unique green color. It turns out, Doyle and worked with my dad years ago.
I also noticed a workbench which fine woodworkers use. There are a variety of skill levels of woodworkers, but the crème de la crème of the craft the use of hand planes, saws, chisels, and mallets to create exquisite pieces of woodworking art. Once I learned Doyle was fine woodworker, my esteem for him elevated far above the previously high level at which I held him in regard. To a fine woodworker, there is a song a hand plane sings as it glides over a piece of wood, curling a fine shaving of wood with each pass. It’s a sound like no other.
He was moving from his home that he and his wife, Bonnie, had shared for 64 years. She passed in 2017 and now, in 2023, it was time for him to downsize and find new homes for his tools. But not all of them. There are just some things you can’t let go of.
We chatted for a while, he showed me the lumber and, by the time I left, I also bought a couple of workbenches. Yes, even the one with Cities Service green paint chipping away on it; I had to have that one.
He moved to a smaller home but took some of his more prized tools with him. I don’t blame him, for a craftsman like Doyle, tools become a part of your personality, your identity, even your reason for existence. As I gaze lovingly on the tools in my own shop – more than four decades worth of collecting – they are more than pieces of equipment, they are a part of my life’s journey and identity.
Doyle recently passed and the family asked me to come over and browse his tools to see if there was anything I wanted. I smiled as I saw his tools in the spare bedroom where he kept them because he no longer had a shop. They were his favorite tools, the ones which held such sentimental and artistic value to him that he just could not bear to part with them while he was alive.
His children and grandchildren are the proud new owners of many of those tools and I’ve offered to teach any of them how to use them should they want to learn the craft of their grandfather.
I confess, I had a hard time taking any of his tools. Not so much because they held monetary value, but because I know how much a craftsman values their tools. I recently lost a 40-year-old log turner and grieved over it like I lost a pet. I even put out a reward for anyone who found it and, low and behold, someone found it! I got so excited I danced a little jig.
I tried to put myself in Doyle’s place and ask, “Who would I want to have my tools?” Certainly, my family, but for practicality’s sake, I would want someone like me who understands their value and will use them to perpetuate the craft, curling one fine shaving of wood at a time.
For anyone, be it man or woman, who find artistic expression in working with their hands to craft works of art from the materials that Mother Nature provides, there is a bond that is formed with each tool.
Even my power tools hold a sentimental value to me. I have a new wood turning lathe that it is a signature piece of my shop. However, it’s not just the beauty of the beast that I adore, it’s what we can do together that excites me. Currently, I’ve been asked to restore railings, balusters and Newell posts on The Victorian Rose, a gorgeous home built in 1885 in El Dorado, Kansas. Those Newell posts are 48” long, something my new lathe can handle. I confess, as I stood in front of my lathe the other day deciding how to go about turning these big posts, I giggled out loud with excitement at the challenge and the opportunity. That tool is a part of my identity already.
I have built a lot of things in my long-term love relationship with wood and have typically used power tools. However, I’m moving more into the handheld tools and am discovering new ways to love old tools.
I created a space along my tool wall specifically to display Doyle’s tools. A sign will soon hang there so all who enter my shop will take notice and ask the story behind the display. But I know Doyle would not want me to set them there as only a display to collect dust. Rather, he would want me to use them to carry on the tradition of the delicate dance of a craftsman and his tools.
I’ve started working on a piece of furniture with Doyle’s walnut lumber and his tools. I admire the tools on display each time I walk by, but something magical happens when I pick them up and begin using them. Suddenly, I can see his aged hands grasping the plane and humming along with the song it sings as it curls fresh shavings. I hear the rhythmic thump of the wooden mallet striking a chisel, as he peers intently at an invisible line while creating works of beauty for family and friends. I see him run his hands over a piece of his furniture, caressing it as a father would a child or a mate, his lover.
Doyle is now a part of my shop, a part of my story and now, a part of my craft. I will endeavor to bring him honor as I become a part of his woodworking legacy, humming in harmony with the song of the plane as I curl one more fine shaving of wood at a time.