Learning Curves and the State of the Project: I know now why apprentices are a Thing…

Part One: History and Hubris 

History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of kings’ bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.” – Henri Fabre

That sounds familiar.

That quote, attributed to Henri Fabre[1], sits at the top of page one, chapter one in the book Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History by H.E. Jacob. The book is a vast and noble attempt to fix Mssr Fabre’s problem, and it goes a long way toward doing so. It is the latest of many books I’ve found and wished I had and/or read before we embarked on this journey. At risk of stacking quotes, an old adage that’s often attributed to Abraham Lincoln says that the purpose of reading is to remind us that our original ideas aren’t all that original.

Touché, Mssrs. Lincoln, Fabre, & co. A hit, a palpable hit…

What 6,000 Years of Bread really does well, though, is map out a very reasonable twenty-years spent by the author trying to understand the origins of bread. And it reminds me that what I’m doing here has become less and less about the world, trade, and tools of the renaissance craftsmen and more and more about their tools.

In other words, I’ve gone about this entire thing in entirely the wrong way. 

For instance, when I ventured into the world of the Worshipful Company of Turners, I spent quite a while trying to figure out what kind of lathe to build, how it operates, and how to build one. Then I built one. From scratch.

Now, while I knew this would be part of the process, I wildly under-estimated how long it would take to build all of these tools. (Or perhaps underestimated the size of my own creative ego, you be the judge.)

The next project includes baking and cooking.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my house didn’t come equipped with an Elizabethan spec kitchen any more than it came with a wood shop, which means there’s a cob oven and hob rising from nothing in my back yard. And I’m doing everything myself except baking the bricks.

And I really ought to be baking the bricks except that I haven’t found someone with a large enough kiln yet who will let me near it. 

Which all sort of argues that my project has veered more toward a re-imagining of the renaissance as something that was invented from nothing. Or perhaps springing from some post-apocalyptic hellscape where each piece of technology has to be re-created from stuff I find lying around. 

 Mad Max, circa 1560.

Part Two: Tools and Their Users

Sometimes I feel like I’m not so much learning how an Elizabethan artisan lived his life as reenacting the 1600 odd years that preceded his life as we moved from whittling to bow lathes to springpoles and treadles and onward. Sometimes it’s a bit like studying the lives of Indy drivers and starting by learning how to make tires from scratch…

Because I’m almost literally reinventing the wheel with every one of these projects, it eats into the time I can spend actually learning about the craftsmen and the things they made. Which is fine, studying the tools is a fine thing and I’m learning a mind-blowing amount of information about fabricating my own tools. But I think that the key thing I’m learning is that this should have been two projects: a yearlong preparation stage where I build the tools and then a second year when I learn to use them to create standard period artifacts and study the people who used them.

Which isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had, actually.

There’s an inherent drawback to inheriting your tools. You were either not alive or too young to care when they were purchased. (Actually, in my case, my grandpa was either not alive or too young to care when some of them were purchased.) So you don’t have a really close relationship with that punch to the wallet that accompanies some tool purchases.

Seriously, I bought my first new hammer ever just this year.

When I first embarked on this project, I thought that with easy access to the internet, I could get my hands on anything I really needed to get a project done. Going out into the community to see if I could source things locally was a bit of a lark because I could always just order it online. And that’s certainly true, as it turns out… but there’s a hitch.

Take this adze for instance.

If you’ve never seen one of those before, that’s okay; it’s not exactly a common tool in modern America. An ancient tool, the adze is sort of a sideways axe, used to dig out hollows (as with a dugout canoe) or smooth a surface (as shown above).

The adze in the image above was an adze-shaped ball of rust when I found it in the bottom of a bin at a flea market. The seller thought it was a gardening tool, and priced it at the princely sum of $5.99. In the past couple of months, I’ve procured three adzes in precisely the same manner, and in the same state of disrepair. As followers of the Facebook feed know, I recently spent the weekend bringing them back to life.

That one tool took six hours to bring back to life. I worked the sun into and out of the sky and still wasn’t finished with the smaller of the three, a cooper’s adze.

It was time well spent and it makes my heart glad. This tool is truly a joy to use, as are the other two.

My forbears left me a big box of serious tools because they took their tools seriously. And even if that wasn’t true, standing opposed to the disposable aesthetic is part of maker culture.

Part of what makes me… me.

I also refuse to spend the money on anything that won’t survive regular use. (Except computer equipment, which is a rant for a different time.) There’s no economic sense in spending a $100 for a tool that will last five years (maybe) when you can buy a thirty or hundred-year tool for $200.

This is complicated by the fact that at the outset of this endeavor, I had to agree not to bankrupt us in my quest. The Engineer is smarter than I am and always has been. She’s followed me into many a woodworking store and while I was oohing and ahhhing over the figured cherry, she was flipping price tags. She knew this would not be cheap and extracted a promise from me before I caught on.

See? Smarter.

Everything I could ever possibly need is indeed available to me via the internet, but there’s a catch. Real tools cost real money.

Three: The Internet & the Deep Blue Sea

As we’ve discussed before, when Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose went down on July 19, 1545, she sealed for the ages a time capsule of life in Henrician England. The artifacts preserved included the tools of the ship’s carpenters. Eight chests of period tools, preserved by the waters of the Solent and a strange quirk of unkind fate.

Despite there being eight chests of tools, this is not by any stretch an elaborate or even complete example of a wood worker’s trade. The tools aboard Mary Rose were specific to the task of keeping her upright and fighting. Nevertheless this gives us that rarest of gifts for a project like this one: an intact example of a 16th century tradesman’s tools.

Which made me wonder what it would cost if I just went out and bought the modern interpretations of those classic hand tools. Hewing as closely as possible to their historical counterparts, of course, and bearing in mind the quality standards already outlines, I pretended I had a Hollywood budget under my belt, composed a selected list of key tools from Mary Rose, and went window shopping.

Broad Axe (Woodcraft)…. $300.00

Broad Hatchet (Amazon)…. $125.00

Carpenter’s Adze (Lee Valley)…. $250.00

Hand Adze (Lee Valley)… $50.00

Wimble (A wooden brace or hand drill)… Metal varieties are a dime a dozen. No one seems to sell wooden ones anymore and anyone that wants one, makes one. Antiques are priced from $50 up.

Spoon bits (no spiral bits in the 16th Century – Lee Valley)…. $80.00 for a set of five

Bow Saw (Gramercy Tools)…. $150.00

Wooden Smoothing Plane (Closest I could find to the Mary Rose example – Lee Valley)…. $239

Wooden Rabbet Plane (Or what looks like one in the few pics I can find online – Lee Valley)…. $39.50

Marking/Mortise Gauge (Rockler)….. $49.50

Dividers (Lee Valley)…. $23.00

Ruler (Primitive)…. It’s a stick with marks burnt into it. Can’t imagine buying one from someone.

Draw Knife (Daegrad)…. £ 27.99 (Call it $43.00 at today’s exchange rate)

Handsaw (Northwind Toolworks)…. $275.00

I stopped when the total hit $1600.00 and remember that he would also have had various nippers, pliers, clamps, and miscellaneous whatnot which were made primarily of ferrous metals and therefore lost to time and tides.

I’m not saying that my tool chest is worth anywhere near that much (because it isn’t), or that these are worth that much (though they are) you can see why I rely heavily on the antique stores and flea markets. And why I jumped at a carpenter’s adze for under $6.00, even if it was a lump of ferrous oxide.

Also, bear in mind that this list would just cover tools for the carpenter’s portion of the project. Leaving aside the overlap with the coopers, joiners, and turners which would still add to the total. There’s also cooks and bakers and embroiderers and knitters and spinners and weavers and woolmen…

Thankfully, I am only metaphorically doing this on a stage, so there’s no reason for me to go out and buy the perfectly period versions of these tools unless it genuinely affects the outcome in some way. Even Peter Follansbee, the joiner at Plimoth Plantation advises aspiring joiners to get close and get on with it.

So that’s what I’m doing, but it’s still slow-going.

Which is why a large and growing portion of this project has been about tools. Hunting, creating, rehabilitating, tools. And if at the end of the year all I’ve learned or earned is about the tools and toolmaking, I suppose I’ll just have to spend another year learning about their users.
And I’m going to call that a win.

With that settled, rest assured I will be posting more often in the coming weeks.

See you soon!

– Scott

[1]Though the quote is attributed to Henri Fabre (inventor of the sea plane) in the book where I found it, I suspect that it’s actually attributable to Jen-Henri Fabre, entomologist and social commentator who also said “The common people have no history: persecuted by the present, they cannot think of preserving the memory of the past.” Which I find similarly germane to my mission.

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