Sunday, November 3, 2013

It's all about the tools

Prompted by a feature story on Oregon Public Television about local toolmaker John Economaki, I visited the Oregon Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland this weekend to see "Quality is Contagious," an exhibition about him and his Bridge City Tool Works.

Economaki's woodworking, accomplished before a severe wood allergy caused him to give up the craft, is widely known and highly respected.  You can get a flavor of it by viewing the video I linked to above.  Of the works on display, the rocking crib and desk were my favorites.  Imagine being this accomplished and having to give up your craft!  Economaki's reaction was to immerse himself in designing outstanding tools and the exhibition includes an extensive display of the tools that he has created.  I had never seen any of them in person before and they are even more awe-inspiring than the pictures you see on the Bridge City Tool Works site, truly extraordinary.  They are quite literally works of art and I have tremendous admiration for the artist.

Funny thing is, I have trouble seeing myself using these tools.  I could not and would not really use them to their best advantage for one thing and for another they seem like art objects rather than tools to me.  Leave them in my garage workshop?  Have them knocking around on the bench while I use them?  Really?

There is also an aesthetic involved.  My favorite tools are old ones that I have restored.  I found them at garage sales and flea markets, paid little for them and spent hours cleaning and tuning them up.  They work well enough.  My skill and ability, not their capability, are the binding constraints on my work.  Vintage tools connect me directly with generations of craftsmen.  There is something doubly pleasing to me about being able to do good work with them.

I do own a fair number of high quality tools from modern makers and I really enjoy using them.  My practice is to buy them when I can't find reasonably priced vintage tools that I think meet my needs.  That's why I have Veritas plow and router planes, for example.  I can't find suitable vintage tools like them where I live and I produce better results because I have them.  Impressive as they are though, my appreciation of them is utilitarian.  I think this attitude is why I can't fully appreciate the Bridge City tools by looking at them: I would need to have them in my hands and use them and, if I did, I might well want to own them.  I have always purchased my Lee Valley and Lie Nielsen tools after trying them out at company-sponsored events for this reason.

It isn't difficult for me to understand that many woodworkers come out 180 degrees from me for a variety of reasons, however.  Having the finest tools available in their workshops can certainly encourage them to produce work that is the best they are capable of, the idea behind "Quality is Contagious."  In addition, having a collection of the finest tools available is extremely satisfying I am sure.

Seeing this exhibition was really impressive but also a reminder that I generally prefer vintage tools.  Not to say that as a fellow Oregonian I don't proudly claim John Economaki as one of our own though and not to say that reaching the conclusion opposite to the one I have is not equally valid!  


  1. Hi Andy,

    I have yet to see the exhibit but it's on my list for one rainy weekend. Bridge City Tools is often at the Lie Nielsen hand tool event at Rogowski's shop each February. They weren't there last year but maybe they'll be back. That would give you an opportunity to see some of their tools in person. They are very nice. Their showroom is also open to the public during the week and you can handle most of the tools there as well.

    Bridge City (and John) get relentlessly bashed in woodworking forums for having such expensive tools. Often the comment goes something like "I can do the same thing with my $5 flea market..." blah, blah, blah. I have no problem with their tools - there is a market for high-end tools just like there is a market for high-end furniture, cars, or whatever. And they aren't just churning out older designs with their name stamped on. There is a lot of R&D that goes into those tools, and who is to say they shouldn't be able to recoup some of that. And I agree with you, as a resident of Portland I like having them here.


    1. Eric,
      I agree with you and there are a number of his tools that are very unique. The HP-6 multi-plane fascinates me and I would really like to try it so I'll be watching for the Lie Nielsen event you mention. Depending on what kind of work you make, it could be an extremely good value. I had always read about the Jointmaker but really couldn't understand it. Seeing it made me understand what an ingenious and useful tool it could be for a woodworker, again depending on what kind of work they do.