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!