January 18, 2011

What happened to hand tools?

I GET AN UNEASY FEELING when I see how dependent we have become on machines. Have we lost the art of working on boats with hand tools, or have we simply lost the will?

I mention this because I watched with fascination a recent discussion on the Cape Dory bulletin board. A poster wanted to know how best to cut through a small stainless-steel pin, one that looked about 3/16-inch in diameter. Get an abrasive wheel, a fellow Cape Dory owner advised him. Or get a large bolt cutter with hardened steel jaws.

No, no, said another. Get a 4 1/2-inch angle grinder.

I shoved my oar in: Use a hacksaw, I said. It’s simple. It’s easy.

Big mistake. A quick rebuttal followed: Cutting 416 stainless steel with a hacksaw should be incredibly difficult, said a CD owner who appeared to be speaking more from hearsay than experience, and who has apparently invented a new grade of stainless steel. Get a cheap 4-inch angle grinder and some metal-cutting blades. And safety goggles, of course.

No, no, said the next poster in line. An angle grinder can cause a lot of collateral damage. Use bolt cutters.

No, no, came the follow-up. Bold cutters will crush the pin and you may not be able to get it out of the hole.

And so it went on. The collective wisdom of the Cape Dory board grinding away, taking longer than it would have taken me to cut the damn pin with my little hacksaw.

I grew up in an era when boat people used hand tools not only because they were cheaper and simpler but because they would work on boats in mid-ocean as well as they would on boats with umbilical cords plugged in to shore power. It is revealing to me that the first reaction now is to rush out and buy a power tool.

I built a wooden one-design racing dinghy with no power tools whatsoever. I had a beautifully made Stanley hand drill, which I loved dearly, and still have. And I had screwdrivers, saws and planes, files and sandpaper, and a large supply of elbow grease. I’m no shipwright, nor even a good carpenter, but it gave me great pleasure and satisfaction to work simply and quietly with my bare hands; so much pleasure, in fact that I went on to build another three dinghies of the same design — only for those I used just one power tool, an electric drill. I still have that, too.

When I lived in San Diego, I bought a wreck of an International Mirror dinghy that needed a lot of work. The only place I had to work on it was in a garage I rented under an occupied apartment. I rebuilt that boat with hand tools in almost complete silence so that the occupants of the apartment wouldn’t hear me and have me thrown out. I secretly sawed and sanded and repainted and glued and screwed while listening to the noise of the television above, and they never found out.

The famous American round-the-worlder Jean Gau, the Waldorf-Astoria chef, used a hacksaw to clear his stainless-steel rigging after he lost his bolt cutter overboard when his 30-foot Tahiti ketch, Atom, was dismasted while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

My boyhood hero, Henry Wakelam, built himself a small ocean-going yacht, a Thuella design by Harrison-Butler, without any power tools at all. He was working out in the open, in the bush.

More recently, a friend came aboard while I was cutting a large hole in a solid fiberglass bulkhead for a new access hatch. He was almost struck dumb when he saw me using my old Stanley hand drill to bore about 200 1/8-inch holes around the perimeter, each slightly overlapping the last.

“Why not use a power saw?” he asked.

“I’m practicing for one day when I have to do it in an emergency at sea,” I told him.

There is great pleasure to be had in working slowly but effectively. There is deep satisfaction in developing the skills and patience to work with hand planes, knives, saws, and (if you have some toes left) the adze. The smell of curly new wood shavings thrills me still, as does the lack of noise, that infernal, unnecessary noise.

It’s sad that too many people are now scared to do anything by hand, scared even to contemplate cutting a thin rod of stainless steel with a hacksaw. I can only hope this is a passing phase and that sailors will one day learn to use their hands again, just as their ancestors did.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #148
Scientists have discovered that human performance levels drop steeply between midnight and 3 a.m. They peak between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. and then taper off again until 3 p.m., after which there is a gradual improvement to average levels at 5 p.m. The rule of thumb, therefore is to make night watches as short as possible between midnight and 4 a.m.

“Does your husband always speak to himself like that when he’s alone?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been with him when he’s alone.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Aaron Headly said...

How handy would a little hacksaw like this be during a sailing pickle? You could even snap off the protruding part of the blade and make it handier.

I was thinking about this back when you were talking about always having a knife on you for cutting lines in an emergency (you even pondered the hacksaw blade concept). $9.75 including shipping.

jc luddite said...

well said. don't forget to buy a Stanly bit n brace for drilling bigger holes.

John Vigor said...

Got one, jc. Got two, as a matter of fact. Love 'em both.

John V.

John Vigor said...

Great idea, Aaron. It can get into tight spots that a fully-framed hacksaw couldn't reach.

John V.

OZTayls said...

Hi John
I do tend to agree with you. Power tools can stress you out. The thing is, big, bulky power tools are often slower and do a worse job than a hand tool. By the time you've got the thing out of its box and set it up, you could have done the job with the hand tool and be having a beer.

Also, power tools take no prisoners. In the blink of an eye, they can stuff the job and often it means starting over again.

I built my Goat Island Skiff recently with minimal input from power tools, except a small cordless hand drill. They are awesome when driving a screw with one hand and holding the work in place with the other...impossible with a hand drill. I'll challenge anyone with a power tool to cut plywood close to a marked line faster than I can do it with a Japanese hand saw! They are just the beez neez.

One concession though; the new, small, powerful, lightweight LiOn driver drills are simply the best things to have in your toolbox and they don't lose their charge. Just brilliant they are and a huge leap forward compared to the old and heavy NiMH rubbish things.

Micky-T said...

Oh, I still have them and I know how to use them too, but a man has got to get the job done in a timely manner when he's being paid for his skills.

Also, there is much skill to master in using power tools to get all the potential from them, the same as in hand tools.

uurchin said...

I love a guy with a toolbox that has no snakes in it.

mccormj said...

Agreed! The hacksaw is the soul mate of duct tape. In fact, a few turns of duct tape around the last 6" of a naked hacksaw blade to create a makeshift handle will work equally well in waste deep water as it will on the bars of a jail cell! I wouldn't want to rely on my cheapo cordless saws-all under such trying conditions. Aaron, yes! Have one aboard, super handy, even if the flimsy end of the blade binds once in a while, it will reach into the deepest crevasse and is way more comfortable than the tape :). Just need a manual hand drill now to round out my kit.