Monday, June 29, 2009

On Hands, Tools, and the Value of Work

I usually work alone when I work on my bicycles, in part by design because I enjoy the quiet, and in part because it’s not usually a job that requires two people. As a result, I have never put much thought into how I perform the work, or why I do certain things the way I do. I’ve learned to work – or I should say, am learning to work – in the way that best suites me. It’s a process that demands little active self-reflection, just trial and error. And error. And error.

Recently, however, I have been helping a friend work on some of his old bikes, and I find that my work style is under some scrutiny. I’ve been told that I am very “creative” and “inventive” in my solutions to problems, and I have been gently critiqued for the fact that I don’t, as a general rule, use power tools.

While I would like to agree that I am creative in my problem-solving skills, I rather think that my way of working is, in fact, so simple as to be uninteresting, and that my creative problem solving is merely a function of the fact that my tools are often either simple or improvised out of necessity, rather than any great degree of creativity or inventiveness on my part. I can’t afford a lot of expensive or specialized tools, so I only buy tools when I absolutely need them, and I’m always looking for ways to make one tool perform multiple functions.

As I’ve mulled over my friend’s observations and my own reactions to them over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that my way of working is due in large part to watching my father work, and from spending a great deal of time knocking about in my grandfather’s garage. From my father I learned patience and swear words (not mutually exclusive, mind you), and the truism that there is always more than one solution to a problem. From my grandfather’s garage (sans grandfather, who died when I was very young) I learned the value of disorganization, organization, improvisation, and thoughtful planning, all mashed together into a mélange of competence, experimentation, thrift, and precision.

Also from my grandfather, or rather his tools, I learned to be distrustful of anything I don’t power myself. All of the electrical gadgets or power tools in my grandfather’s garage were broken. Motors had burned out, circuits had fried, wires had corroded, switches had broken, etc. All of the hand-powered tools, however, were all still in perfect order. Hammer and axe handles had been replaced, wooden sheaths had been fashioned for handsaws to protect their teeth, moving mechanisms had been carefully oiled and wrapped in rags or plastic bags for storage.

As a kid, I had my own set of hand tools, which I employed on any number of non-threatening and largely non-functional projects, most of which ended in frustration (although I now know how valuable this was). Now as I work on my bicycles, I find myself able to judge the stubbornness of a stuck bolt or screw by applying pressure in just the right way with a wrench or screwdriver. I rarely strip a bolt or screw, and in fact, I find it much easier to ruin a project with a power tool than a hand tool. I can usually tell when I need to let up the pressure, and I can also usually tell when I’m going to need to improvise a solution beyond the simple tool I have in my hand. I have a pretty good feel for when the hacksaw is really biting, and I can usually tell when the file or rasp needs a little more pressure on the outside edge.

Does all this make me a master project-doer? Hardly. But whether it’s bikes or some other project, I know that I feel more connected to my work because I use the strength of my hands and arms, and the leverage of my elbows and shoulders, to accomplish it. And if I can improvise a solution without buying another tool, I won’t deny that I do feel some small sense of pride, and the impression that maybe my grandfather would have approved.

As I mash my way through repairs and restorations, and even basic maintenance on my bicycles, I am constantly grateful for the lessons I’ve absorbed, the mistakes I’ve made, and the modest successes I’ve earned with only my two hands and my small collection of tools. It’s further proof for me that the bicycle, with its relatively simple design, ease of maintenance, and accessibility is not only a machine to move our bodies through space, but a mechanism by which we can move ourselves in perhaps even more fundamental ways. 


  1. You and my husband, James, would get along very well. He is very creative about fixing things and figuring out solutions. He spends hours at a time in the garage taking bikes apart and putting them back together. I was surprised when he bought himself a folder that needed no work.

    We have very few power tools as they were all stolen out of the garage years ago : (

  2. For years I yearned for an older brother (impossible as I'm the oldest), because I thought having an older male figure who I could relate to would teach me things about tools and gadgets. The men in my family aren't very technically oriented. The ones that were, are dead. A lot of what I've learned has been through hours (and years of hours) of pouring through books, books and more books. I've developed this instinct on how to fix things that often impress Mr. Beany after the fact despite the methodology which often brings doubt. I actively avoid power tools (despite my admiration for them) because of their cost and ability to fail (as you've mentioned). For example, I taught Mr. Beany to use butter knives to remove a tire when trying to fix a flat. It's strong and unbreakable (even if a little heavy to carry around) compared with the usual flat pieces of plastic one gets in a fix-a-flat kit.

    I had some point I wanted to make...but forgot what that was...

  3. This resonates 100% with my way of thinking, and it confirms my general avoidance of power tools. I have one cordless drill and a soldering iron, the rest are all non-power, including a very nice set of boot-making tools and some lovely saws inherited from my Grandfather. I expect those will one say go to my grandkids, but the electric drill will long since have died: A carpenter friend says that home tools (as opposed to professional tools) are designed for a few minutes total use, before giving out.
    @Beany I hear you: I grew up in a non-practical family (although my dad is good at other stuff) I often feel embarrassed at my lack of practical skill, which is why I try and fix my own bike. Then at least I've g0ot something that I know I can do, and so that my boys grow up learning a skill from me.

  4. With Mark Twain, I believe that the difference between the RIGHT word and AlMOST the right word, is like the fiffernce between Lightning and the lightning bug. And so is the tool. What distinguishes us from the lower animals are the tools we use. So, I have decided to use the most beautiful tool for the job, the most perfect tool. Spoke wrenches, for example. Bought a set of Avenir spoke wrenches, nice, simple, and complete, and about 9 bucks. And began stripping nipples. (So why isn't it commonly called a nipple wrench?). So I ordered a Stainless Steel, "round" wrench with yet more sizes, It seems to have 6-8 unique openings. But that made it more difficult to strip the nipples, and round them off. So, I ordered the Park Tool, an adjustable tool, NO Sizes! This tool was slower, but failed completely to round off the nipples. It even worked well on those I had rounded off with the other tools, but it cost $38 bucks! Not especially well made or beautifully finished, its just the most functional tool in my increasingly large tool arsenal. Why do I keep the others? To loan to my wife, who like to spend time using tools as well. To loan to friends, you'd be amazed at how often you pull out a fist full of specialized tools and, true to the past, the tool they select is the colorful, vinyl coated, sized to specific nipples, and glowing with outer beauty. If I really like the person, I suggest the $38 dollar tool, over the $5 round tool or the $3 size specific tool. If I like their bike, I insist. But the rare person, more conscious of their work, self selects the superior tool, figuring, quite rightly that they can and will adjust it to the size of the nipples, exactly.
    And thus, call the lightning of just the RIGHT TOOL.

    Now bicyclists, are fans of tools they can take along, and tools made of "alloy" (or aluminum, as the rest of the world calls it). And so this tool is poorly designed, it is not made of alloy but seems to be made of cast stainless steel, and (shudder, twitch) cannot be placed on ones key ring, for convenience. So demon riders can't be bothered.

    I use the perfectly functional tool.

    As did Beany, I started out with a point to make, and got derailed along the way, with "saying something", I'm not sure what. Whi;e I'd like itto illuminate the subject with flashes of brilliance, I'll settle for the gentle glow of the lightning bug...

  5. @ Tinker: Point or not, beautifully written. And I always call it a nipple wrench. It's more fun that way.

  6. I am unfamiliar with these nipples that Tinker and you speak of. Could you point me to a picture?

  7. Oh wow, there's a lot I could say here, but I'll just give a link:

  8. I had no idea those things were called nipples. I will file that bit of info away. Thanks.

  9. I have learned, even with power tools available, that you can fix anything with a hammer.

  10. I once knew an electrician who only carried a hammer, two screwdrivers and a pair of pliers. That's all...everything else was improvised.

    In the east of Scotland, we call a hammer a "Glasgow screwdriver"...certainly the fastest method to drive home screws into wood. The name probably comes from the fact that there's also a "London pattern" cabinetmaker's screwdriver...


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