Toolmaker’s Tools of the Trade
16 Minute Read
The word "technology" is defined as the totality of the means employed to provide the objects necessary for sustenance and comfort. Although the average person would probably not put a hammer in the same category with the computer, both are items manufactured by man to manipulate his environment and achieve specific goals. Both are tools. It could even be argued that, in terms of its impact, the hammer is the greater innovation, since it has affected the course of human development for thousands of years. In its place in history, it represents no less a leap in conceptual understanding than a guided missile packed with circuitry.
The invention and adaptation of tools have marked the pivotal points of civilization's advancement throughout human history. From the first sharp stone used to cut a skin, the utilization of mechanisms has extended man's capabilities. Man's tools allowed him to survive in competition with more efficient species and gave him the power to dominate his environment. His tools established the foundations for an industrial society—the discovery of steel itself would have been of little use had we not invented the means with which to manipulate it.
Man's tools have always been his own personal survival kit. His defense against aggression and means of livelihood depended upon the selection and quality of his tools; they were a cherished and coveted commodity. But the sheer number and complexity of tools made since the industrial revolution has led to their almost total depersonalization in our work and daily lives. Today's mass-produced, guaranteed-to-break hand tools and kitchenware can readily be purchased at any hardware store, but the common, utilitarian approach of the production line renders the product uniform and impersonal, bearing scant imprint of its designer.
Pride of ownership in a tool recalls a time when all work, including the manufacture of the tools themselves, was done by hand. A craftsman's tools were collected gradually as he became a master—each for a specific purpose and each by a maker who had a face, a particular. style, and reputation. A master craftsman's pride in his own work extended to a pride in owning and using a fine tool.
For generations, toolmakers invariably embellished their work, feeling the job was incomplete without some attention to detail. Decorative filing and engraving on metalwork or the carving and finishing of the woodwork was common—often purely artistic abstractions simply to make the tool a personal and one-of-a-kind object. In this way, the craftsman made a personal statement about his own, or his patron's, views and, perhaps unconsciously, a statement about his society's values as well. Some exceptionally fine tools were signed and dated to identify them for subsequent generations of craftsmen.
The blacksmith is an artist who frequently explores how art and pure function meet. Worked in steel, the product of the forge is often a tool, whether a "throw away" punch or chisel for the shop or a fine knife for the kitchen of a most discriminating buyer. The simplest object and a masterpiece will often require identical materials and techniques, the outcome determined only by the hand and the purpose of the artist.
Phillip Baldwin is a master bladesmith working in Springfield, Missouri. His specialty is the delicate process of laminating "damascus" steel. This ancient technique folds and welds together various kinds of steel to produce a material composed of 2,000 layers or more. Finished objects fashioned from this material have an incongruously refined surface pattern that belies their tremendous strength and durability. The technique itself requires considerable skill, but it is the artist's eye for blending graceful line and contour with functional forms that forges the steel into an artful object.
Quick and precise in his movements, Baldwin works with an almost Oriental esthetic. Every tool has a place and the smithy is clean and organized for uninterrupted work. The metal is not simply a lump of steel to be worked by the maker, but a natural material with strengths and limitations, an animate thing that can be stubborn or sweet. "You have to kind of listen to what the metal wants to do," Baldwin says. "All the technical practice in the world won't help you if you're fighting the metal. lf you believe that you are imparting some of yourself into the work, your energy, your psyche, then it follows that you should approach it with respect. You might say it's Japanese Philosophy, but to me it's natural, self-evident: when you work, do it right, do it with respect."
Like most blacksmiths, Baldwin makes many of his own tools, and, while he takes pride in his carefully selected machines, it is the hand tools that engender his most devout attention. "The machines are almost pure function," he says. "l like to keep them working perfectly, but when one dies, in most cases you can just replace it. A hand tool, however, is not a separate entity—it's an extension of my will. It has an almost kinetic power of its own, a power that lies in the potential of what we can do working together."
The work from Baldwin's forge is as varied as the medium allows, and the tools he creates form a continuum from the simplest shop tools to exquisite ceremonial weaponry. Of the full range of work, it is his kitchen utensils that most strongly suggest the "art tool." Not as esoteric as the weapons, they are intended for everyday use; yet, not meant for the abuse of the forge, they wander away from a strict sense of form following function.
In the kitchen knives and choppers, Baldwin is open to an audience for fine detail such as intricate damascus, gold inlay and exotic woods. This work falls easily into the category of artwork—blades of such quality and grace that it is easy to forget that they were made for use. But they are superbly functional, designed and tempered to slice meat and chop vegetables—some of the oldest tool functions on earth.
That most of Baldwin's work attains an "heirloom" quality is due to the fact that his are serious tools. Close attention to detail goes into every form, whether intended to be artwork or not. The damascus pieces are subject to severe quality control, and even the smallest fault in a weld between layers consigns the piece to be broken and discarded. Baldwin's special attention to form and finish would never be lavished where there was even a possibility that the blade could be structurally unsound. This kind of care insures the tools' function and their likelihood even to outlive their maker. That they are beautiful to look at and a pleasure to hold simply makes them easier to work with.
The perception of the heirloom tool as a symbol of a more quality-oriented time must be tempered by the knowledge that "handmade" does not always imply any particular skill or esthetic sense. Nor does "machinemade" imply that an object was mass-produced without regard to esthetics. A vast number of machine processes are readily available to the modern craftsman, and an enlightened approach to their use can create objects of immense subtlety and individuality.
As an artist, Gary Griffin uses those very tools and techniques held responsible for the bland quality of the objects found in our industrial society. Griffin is an associate professor in the Metalsmithing Department of the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology (R.l.T.). It is safe to say that he has made the esthetic application of machine tool technology his life's work.
Some view the push-button, hands-off aspect of machine processes with suspicion. They see the "instant art" quality of its product as a purely mechanical imprint without intellectual basis. But the physical manipulation of any medium is not automatically artistic; the machine does not make art any more than does a hammer or a paintbrush. Griffin feels that the "hands-off" argument is baseless. "The problem," he says, "is the degree of physical separation between the artist and his work—if you take that argument all the way, it turns out the potters are the only real artists because they use few, if any, tools. In reality, you develop a measure of human sensitivity through your tools, whether it's a hammer, a file or a vertical mill. You can feel what you're doing."
More than in most processes, however, the machine tool leaves a distinct and identifiable fingerprint. The manipulation of the material by machine forces the artist to utilize certain imagery. But again, it is the mind working within that idiom that imposes an esthetic or philosophical value. "The approach to these processes has to extend beyond a superficial application," he explains. "Analysis is very important and an understanding of the essence is primary. In any kind of esthetic undertaking, the premise of the technology as a goal in itself insures the triumph of the means over the end. It is the coalescence of the manufacture of elements guided by esthetic will and the placement of those elements that changes your work into more than simply a record of cause and effect."
His machines and their hundreds of accessories surround Griffin in his shop. He lives within the possibilities and limitations of his chosen tools; yet it is sometimes possible to stretch those limitations by altering the rules. Just as a blacksmith might change the balance of a hammer to make it more personally useful, Griffin designs and manufactures tools that tailor his machines more closely to his specific needs. "Most of these tools are really beautiful," he says. "They're so simple they're elegant—you wonder why somebody hasn't made them before."
He speaks with an engineer's fondness for simplicity and directness. The tools he makes are basic adaptations, such as an attachment for a lathe that allows him to precisely drill a sphere, or a scoring jig that helps cut material for folded assemblies. Yet the machines he relies on are often huge and complex, completely intimidating to the uninitiated. "The basically scary quality of sophisticated equipment is also a myth. People always feel intimidated, but you can understand any of this with a systematic approach. Once you actually use the machines, it starts to become a routine experience."
The fear of machines and mistrust of complicated technology stem largely from an overly romantic view of what constituted life in a world without machines, he maintains. People who profess a suspicion of anything more mechanical than a pair of scissors think of the preindustrial world as somehow more simple and vital than our own. "There was nothing romantic about preindustrial technology," Griffin argues. "The colonials weren't innocents; they were early industrialists. Simple machine tool technology goes back 2,000 years—by the time our romantic pretechnological era arrived, people were constantly inventing new and better ways of doing things. Their early machines were often complex; some of the contraptions they came up with were amazingly complicated."
What began as a search for ways to ameliorate the craftsman's problems at work has evolved into an ongoing process of development and adaptation. The continuing reliance upon tools of ever-increasing complexity has led to a popular conception that our tools are beginning to get out of hand. Many see technology as an impersonal competitor, a relentless force that is gradually reducing man to being a passive spectator of his own world. On the other side of the coin, of course, is the belief that we have never had a tool so great or so versatile as our present state of technology and that the possibilities in that store of knowledge are unlimited.
But what of the toolmaker who does not consciously set out to make art? As any tool lover can attest, a tool does not have to be art to be a thing of beauty. A beautiful tool is one which is really useful, which contributes to the success of the work and receives frequent use. Any nonfunctional embellishment that it has serves only to identify and personalize it, and perhaps say something about the person who owns it.
James Wallace is a practical blacksmith and the director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. With a generous disposition, Wallace has adopted the southern charm of the museum grounds on which he lives. Located on a promontory above a bend in the Mississippi River, the museum radiates a sense of calm, genteel perseverance. Indeed, Wallace fits the environment. For a smith, toolmaking is an almost daily experience, and a very casual attitude about the work pervades the museum shop. "Since we run a production shop, there's precious little time for academic puttering in making tools. Those I make are for specific purposes or simply for expedience—with between 150 to 200 punches, chisels and drifts in the shop, sometimes it's actually easier to make a new one than to find the one I want!"
A few tools are made for the simple pleasure of making and using them. "These aren't show pieces, but very basic tools. Some of them have a short twist which does add a little something—it makes them easier to hold, maybe. Certainly it makes no economic sense to forge, file, finish and put a handle on something that does the same thing as a tool available for a buck. There is, however, the satisfaction of making one which is mine."
The museum frequently exhibits bodies of work which illustrate traditional forms and values. Wallace's goal, both at the forge and through the museum, is to explore the relationships between the historical roots of metalwork and its contemporary trends. One good example was an exhibition called "The Parish Collection," which consisted entirely of old hand tools. Many of the tools in the collection were apparently made by the craftsmen who used them; they had a balance and presence which indicated their purpose and were obviously used and well cared for. Others were examples of early mass production and represented the industrial move toward more standardized, unadorned functionalism. The most spectacular tools were those whose care and attention were especially evident in graceful form and simple embellishment. These were the works that evoked a sense of the craftsman's pride.
Wallace uses the museum as a forum for the promulgation of the craftsman's esthetic. As its director, he has seen a huge amount of work, both historical and contemporary; his experience has given him an overview and perhaps made him a connoisseur of hand-wrought metalwork. "One lesson to be learned from these exhibits is that being 'handmade' did not necessarily insure that the tools were either esthetically pleasing or particularly good."
Technology, like art, is a product of man's intellect and servant to his esthetic. From the moment man realized that wielding a bone would increase his reach, the tool has been not simply an extension of his hand, but an extension of his mind as well.
John Pirtle is an artist living in Seattle who revels in technology; his entire artistic output examines how art interacts with a technological society. A quiet, intense individual, he has an exact and inquiring mind that makes hobbies of such subjects as geology, astronomy and physics. His current passion is computers, and, in many ways, he regards them as the ultimate tool.
Pirtle visualizes an esthetic based on the assimilation of modern technology, information subliminally shared by all of us who live within a technological society. "The springboard of artistic metaphor is not the actual things around us, but the psychic landscape they create," he believes. "We all experience technology as part of a vast collective unconscious; as an artist I attempt to actualize that experience."
Pirtle uses the fruits of technology in his work, from the use of precision machine tools and computer generated designs, to incorporating microprocessors and lasers. Originally interested in electronic jewelry that served some autonomous function besides adornment, he constructed brilliant fantasies of precious metal and microchips. One such piece was a solar-powered bracelet whose miniature infrared lasers functioned beautifully, though without purpose. Gradually, the emphasis of his work shifted to objects with specific functions that could be displayed as adornment. It was in this spirit that 72C-0212, a personal radiometer, was conceived. "I wanted to design a device that would actually monitor radiation levels, be a hard-core, modern hand tool, and yet be personal and esthetically pleasing enough to be a part of your everyday wardrobe."
As his work became more intricate and functionally complex, Pirtle began to use a computer as his major design tool. The computer's three-dimensional graphic capabilities can program an original concept, examine it in detail, rotate it for a complete view and alter it as necessary before the piece is actually executed. In this way, it is possible to "build" an entire series on the monitor, storing only the versions that have particular merit. Pirtle's Apple II and the jargon of wire-frame programming subsystems, pieces of his "psychic landscape," have become integral to his creative process.
Since graduate school at R.l.T., Pirtle has concentrated on the computer as his primary tool. Graphics have almost entirely replaced the physical object in his work. As head of a computer graphics company called Stray Frames, he is doing futuristic computer-generated animation for motion pictures and television commercials. His success in his new medium has been gradual, but he is finding his bearings. He already has a number of visual pieces to his credit, is the art director for a pair of Triad Pictures science-fiction projects and has recently begun to work on graphics for a new release from Paramount Studios.
More a conceptual artist now, Pirtle is as excited by the tools and techniques of animation as by the end result. He can take his original idea, refine it on the screen, generate its almost photographic image and have the computer print it directly onto film. "The possibilities are literally infinite in computer graphics—l can create images of incredible depth and detail with a choice of thousands of color and tone variations. The only limits are the complexity of the program. It's like conjuring something from nothing—giving form and substance to daydreams. The computer is an almost magical tool."
Pirtle acknowledges a degree of give-and-take between his work and his tools. "To the extent that you are influenced by your surroundings, of course you are affected by the tools you choose. More than that, though, you end up taking inspiration from the kinds of things your tools can do." This echoes Gary Griffin's view that "you are drawn to particular processes by what they offer in terms of technical ability and visual stimulus, but once you've mastered them and relegated them to a means of support, they begin to influence you in more subtle ways. It's not all guided by esthetics; it's a two-way street."
Whether the craftsman considers tools an extension of ego or a part of his environment, amplifiers of physical capabilities or an extension of the mind, his interaction with them shapes his work. The tools themselves determine the form of the work, but the attitude they engender and the traditions to which they ascribe affect, to a great extent, the content of the work.
Tailoring tools, both in a straightforward engineering sense and in an esthetic sense, will inevitably lead to more personal and individual work. As for generations of artists and craftsmen past, the skill and understanding we have toward our work shows itself eloquently in the respect and pride we have in owning and using a quality tool.
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