I learned a lot about tools growing up on the farm, but I didn’t always know their proper names.
I realized that in eighth grade shop class. I suppose it was called “industrial arts” or something fancy, but it was a place with tools and boards and paint buckets and brushes, so we all called it shop. If I remember the layout, the shop was next door to the ag shop, which was where the kids taking vocational agriculture learned about tools and boards and paint buckets and brushes. A narrow closet of sorts connected the two shops, and it contained the tools shared by both sides. That’s how I recall it.
Well, right off the bat that first day of eighth-grade shop, the instructor decided to test our knowledge of tools.
“Woster,’’ he said, “you grew up on a farm around all kinds of tools and machines. Bring me a crosscut saw from the tool room there.’’
“Right away, sir,’’ I said, trying to sound confident and knowledgeable. I high-tailed it into the tool room and stopped short. A couple of dozen hand saws hung on pegs inserted in neat rows across most of one wall. My heart sank. First day of a new class, and I was about to walk back into the main shop, disappoint my teacher and become the object of a semester’s worth of wisecracks by my classmates. And everybody remembers how gleefully 13 year olds can take shots at one of their own, right?
The thing was, yes, I had grown up on a farm, and I had been surrounded by all kinds of tools and machines. I had used a fair number of those tools. By eighth grade, I had operated a fair number of those machines. But my first informal shop teacher was my dad, and he didn’t bother much with formal names for things when there were chores to be finished. He’d hand me a saw and tell me to cut the dickens out of a stack of siding for the shed we were patching up. Or he’d tell me to “drill a three-sixteenths hole here and here and here,’’ and he’d go off to his own tasks, confident I’d handle it. I knew terms like “saw’’ and “drill’’ and such, but I’d never heard of a cross-cut saw.
I grew up in the infancy of rural electricity out where we lived west of the Missouri River and just south of Medicine Butte. Our tools weren’t powered by electricity. They were hand tools, designed to accomplish their specific purposes if the user applied muscle power. As I think of it, that was actually pretty convenient. Once a guy had a saw in hand, he didn’t have to worry about an electrical extension cord or an outlet. He didn’t have to worry that the battery pack would lose its charge before he had finished the job.
Everyone uses electric drills these days, but when I grew up, we had what was called a brace and bit. The brace was a crank-shaped gizmo that held the drill bit. The operator held the crank in one hand, put downward pressure on the device by holding a wooden knob on top of the brace and turned the crank to drive the bit through the wood. It was inelegant but effective. Just describing it makes a guy want to go back and drill holes in a bunch of boards, doesn’t it? Sure, for about five minutes, then give me the power tool.
But, wait. I left myself in a bit of a muddle there in the tool room with more handsaws than I’d seen in my entire life. I peered at the handles and the blades, hoping to see some writing. I desperately wanted to see “this is a crosscut saw’’ stamped near the handle, but apparently handsaws were part of a secret society. If you had to ask, you probably shouldn’t use one.
In my panic, I briefly considered walking through the Ag shop next door, out of the school and down to the river, to live a hermit’s life, surviving on catfish and berries. Then I thought, “Wait. These saws are all the same. He’s putting us on.’’ I grabbed one and walked back to where the teacher and my classmates stood. The teacher took the saw, inspected it briefly and said, “Well done, Woster.’’ I beamed.
Then he ruined the moment. “Now, can you tell me the difference between this crosscut saw and a rip saw?’’