When is a Tool a Device and When is it the Buyer?

I love to work with my hands. I love tools – the simpler the better. The ratio of a tool’s utility to its simplicity defines a tool’s excellence for me. A simple hand tool like a screwdriver, a trowel, a bit brace, a sharp kitchen knife, or a chainsaw file is a thing of beauty and utility.

But when a tool’s inherent complexity exceeds its capacity to simplify work, the “tool” is the owner for having acquired a perfectly useless object. Said another way, useless when the complexity of learning to use or actually using the tool exceeds the amount of work it’s designed for.

An easy determinant of a tool’s utility is the number of pages in its instruction manual. The perfect tool is largely intuitive to use, needing no manual. And if the manual is more than three pages – less all the “consumer safety warnings” and warrantee boilerplate – I usually won’t buy it.

Case in point: I recently bought a Google Chromecast so I could cast my phone’s emails and texts onto our TV. The manual weighed more than the Chromecast dongle. When I unpacked it, I was ready to throw it all out, but on closer inspection found that the user directions were simple enough, just printed in 26 languages. We live in a globalized world, which I’m fine with.

Then there are tools that are simply dangerous. When the Whole Earth Catalog was the dominant life-style catalog for many of us in the back-to-nature ‘70s, we heated our drafty farmhouse in Lincoln with six cords of wood.  So I was entranced by a hub-mounted large steel screw that one bolted onto the rear-wheel hub of one’s car after removing the wheel. You had to leave the car running in first gear with the rear wheels jacked up off the ground so the spinning screw presumably penetrated and split any log forced against it… IF the log was solidly braced against the ground. If this is hard to imagine, it’s even harder to do.

The first time I used this lethal device, the VW fell off the jack when I jammed the log against the spinning screw and drove off on one wheel into the pasture where it came to rest against a birch tree with its one wheel and splitter-hub still spinning.

More often, the screw would penetrate the log and I’d lose my grip on it, even braced against the ground, and the whole thing would cartwheel dangerously in front of me until I killed the car’s engine.

I soon concluded this was not a tool. I was. And my attempt to sell my new tool to another tool failed.

Since that failed experiment in the ‘70s, I’ve had an ancient hydraulic log splitter that rarely starts and is most efficient when two people use it – one placing the log on the bed and clearing it when it’s split and the other running the hydraulics and watching for misplaced fingers.

But I also have a hand-forged Swedish Grundfos axe I’ve had since I was a teen. It has a three-pound head and a 35-inch hickory handle. It requires no maintenance other than occasional sharpening with a whetstone. I can split more wood faster with this than with any other tool I’ve ever owned. Wanna buy my log splitter?

The money I’ve spent on kitchen appliances I’ve bought and discarded would keep a small private equity firm afloat: automatic popcorn poppers, blenders, hot-dog cookers, crockpots, bread-bakers, waffle irons, griddles, knife sharpeners, etc.

Life has taught me that even enthusiastic cooks need only an array of sharp knives, cooking and measuring spoons, a ladle and large fork, a spatula, a colander, mixing bowls, a sharpening bar or whetstone, an array of cast iron, steel, and stainless pots and pans, a wood or gas stove top and oven, a fridge, a mouse-proof pantry and breadbox, a sink, and a cutting board. The rest is superfluous. Countertop appliances are, with few exceptions, useless junk.

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me the best tool I’ve ever owned – a used 1958 VW Beetle with a 30-horsepower air-cooled engine. It weighed 1600 pounds – five times what I weighed at the time – and I could lift the front end off the ground after a few beers. I loved that car even though the heater box had rusted out and it had no heat. I just dressed warmly in winter. A tractor… it would go anywhere. One could pull a two-bottom plow through a dry field with it. I don’t remember servicing it other than the occasional oil change, lube job, and tire change.

It proved its utility one night when I was trying to get to a winter wedding on the other side of the Green Mountains in Waitsfield. The most direct route, the Lincoln Gap, was closed. I had two choices to get to Waitsfield – over the perilous Appalachian Gap (Rte. 17) or all the way around through Huntington to Route 2 and then back down Rte. 100 from Waterbury to Waitsfield, a trip of some forty extra miles. I decided to chance it with my trusty Bug.

The wet winter snow made the trip up the west side difficult enough on the steep switchbacks, but when I got to the final rise to the summit, bounded on the left by a plunge into a mountain tarn and on the right by a vertical rockface, my rear wheels began to spin and the car stopped cold. I could see the small parking area at the summit just 100 feet ahead and was determined to get there, so, leaving the car in gear and the rear wheels spinning, I hopped out, went around behind, and began to push the empty car.

The tires finally caught and the car motored on up to the top with me trotting along behind. It nosed into a snowbank and came to rest with its rear tires still spinning in the wet snow. I got in, backed out of the bank and descended into Waitsfield in time for the wedding.

Now that was a tool to love. I acquired six more over the ensuing years.

Some years later, I was seduced by form over function and bought a rusty Bill Blass 1979 Lincoln Continental ‘pimpmobile’ for $1500. It came with a resident mouse named Gus who lived in the glove compartment where it chewed my registration and license into nesting material… should have known better. But my glamor-wagon turned off my dates, finally caught fire for some unknown reason, and burned to a crisp.

At 75, I stick with function over form.

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