The other day I was asked a question: “What’s your favorite hand tool?”
For all intents and purposes that question really needs a qualifier. What’s my favorite hand tool today? …this week? …for cutting? …etc.
I find it hard to pick a favorite. It’s usually whichever one is sharp, or in my hand at any given time. I had to pick something though, and I chose my smoothing plane (a Lie-Nielsen 4 1/2 with a York pitch frog). At the time I said that it was my first super high-end tool and something about how it gave me a sense for quality work, and what a really well tuned tool could do.* All of that is true, but there’s more to the story.
I’ve long suffered from something called Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I’m in recovery now, but for a long time this illness manifested itself in my collection of musical instruments – specifically guitars and basses. I would obsess over minute differences between those that I had and those that I was somehow trying to justify adding to my collection. “But that one has humbuckers” I would say, “and I really should have something with humbuckers.” At its worst I could justify a new instrument just by rationalizing that it was a different color (mmmmm… seafoam green….).
This illness meant I did a lot of selling of instruments to afford buying others. I don’t want to think of the aggregate amount of money I lost in the pursuit.
My smoothing plane marks a transition of sorts. I sold a banjo to buy that plane. It was a decent deal, although again, I’m sure I lost money. Regardless, my wife was pretty happy to have the banjo out of the house and I had a decision to make. I began pouring over the Lie-Nielsen catalog with numbers swirling in my brain. Three? Four? Four and a half? I was being strategic with my first big hand tool purchase, and I knew I wanted a smoothing plane, but I didn’t know which one. I read ad copy until my head hurt. I even threw the low-angle smoother into the mix for a minute or two. Minutia wore me down and I finally decided to go for the 4 1/2 based on the description, which read:
No. 4 1/2 Smooth Plane
Solidly built, this is the ultimate smoothing plane. It is longer, wider, and heavier than the No. 4, and its extra thick blade eliminates the possibility of chatter
Yes, I thought. this is the one. When it arrived I opened the package as if I were participating in a religious ritual, and really, I was. I sold my Stanley no.4 (a perfectly good plane) and I set out to make the kind of ethereal shavings that I just knew would satisfy my soul in ways hitherto unknown.
In many ways the plane it has lived up to the dream, although let me tell you there is nothing that can fully “eliminate the possibility of chatter.” I no longer keep it on a pedestal, but it has been solid and reliable. When the iron is sharp it is nearly unstoppable. I’ve used the heck out of it, and I intend to keep doing so.
I should also say that some days it is not my favorite. It gets dull like everything else. Some days I need all of it and some days I’m tired of the extra width (and weight) and I wish it were a no.4. In fact, some days I would happily trade it for a no.4 and keep going. After milling about the Lie-Nielsen stand at Handworks I began to scheme ways to sell this and buy a bronze no. 4 and it was then I realized my old affliction was manifesting in new ways. Gear Acquisition Syndrome was back.
We read tool descriptions and apply Instagram filters as if there were a perfect tool. There is not. Our favorite tools get to be that way not because they are well marketed, but because they are well made and they most effectively answer the problems with which we are faced. My no. 4 1/2 opened my eyes to what a really well-tuned, high quality tool could do, but it also constantly reminds me that I made a decision because of the fear of missing out. I was mired in triviality and I was afraid of not getting some small percentage of awesomeness that kicked the 4 1/2 over into “ultimate smoothing plane” land. That was a rookie mistake, but it can sneak up on all of us.
Here’s the deal: I never became a better guitar player by buying “better” guitars. I haven’t become a better woodworker by buying better tools. The tools make it easier to do what I do, but the skills are hard-won. Sometimes I have to remind myself that there are a lot of ways I manufacture desire for something I don’t have, when I may actually have just what I need sitting in front of me. There are a lot of ways to smooth wood, but a tool catalog is not one of them. There is nothing wrong with buying quality tools but they will only do quality work after spending some time in your hand.
Last night I got my smoother out of the tool chest, sharpened the blade and gave it the royal treatment. As it turns out, it’s still a phenomenal tool. I think I’ll keep it around for a while.
*My first Lie-Nielsen plane was really a 102 block plane – the gateway drug to all things Lie-Nielsen. The above caveat about quality holds true for this plane as well.