Saturday, December 26, 2015

Old Stuff

Like most everyone else, for most of my life I've been sold (and wholeheartedly bought) the idea that newer is better. Most of us still believe that the march of technology is generally a good thing. Sometimes, this idea is based on fact, and sometimes it's not. More often than not, this view is based on ignorance of older technologies, and is almost always supported by a willful ignorance of costs, or a disconnect that makes them difficult to quantify.  I suspect much of the "progress" we've made in recent years is driven more by the profit margin associated with newer goods than anything else.

One great example is that of the traditional straight-edge razor, contrasted with the modern disposable or electric. I've been using a straight-edge for a decade now, and expect that it will most likely last the rest of my life. I've found that I rarely cut myself with it, certainly far less than I ever did with a "safety" razor. Yes, it requires occasional stropping (taking perhaps a minute every other month) and sharpening (about 5 minutes every 6 months), but that's a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a new razor every month and then tossing is in the garbage. Unlike multi-blade safety razors, the blade is *incapable* of plugging, which is a big plus when shaving near a beard or when shaving off some multi-day stubble. Unlike electric razors, they actually work as advertised!

Standing in an antique shop once, I overheard a teenage boy looking at a straight edge razor in the display case, and asking his dad about them.  "Looks like a good way to cut yourself to pieces!" was the response. He'd obviously never used one. I decided to bite my tongue, and didn't enlighten them.

Bit brace
Yet another discovery is that of the old fashioned bit-brace. Folks that use the modern equivalent on a regular basis, the cordless electric drill, find that they have to replace them annually. The last one we used (one of the "good" brands) had a battery go bad within the first month, and the charger went belly up a couple months after that. When they're not broken, I find that their batteries are invariably uncharged or have lost their ability to hold a charge, whereas the bit brace's battery is always fully charged and hasn't failed me yet. You can also get new attachments for them which will hold any of the bits for driving screws.
Yankee push drill/screwdriver

For smaller jobs, either drilling or driving screws, the yankee push-drill makes an excellent companion to the bit brace, with all the same benefits.

American Scythe
The scythe is another excellent tool that was buried too soon by a public that's forever infatuated with anything motorized. I remember the first time I saw one in use by a groundskeeping crew at a zoo somewhere in Germany. It was fascinating to watch them mow around trees and fences, and the crew certainly didn't choose it because they were masochists. They chose it because it was the best tool for the job. Aside from the fact that they either give you cancer (2 cycle engine exhaust is nasty stuff!) and stink, or have an annoying cord to drag around, weed-eaters simply don't work all that well. A well sharpened scythe can run circles around them, and is far cheaper to purchase and operate as well as being far more pleasant. Yes, they need sharpening, but you'll spend less time with that than you will monkeying with the weed-whacker's string-feeder, cursing the motor for not starting, or wishing you'd been careful enough to not spill the gasoline all over your shoes when filling it.
European Scythes

American style scythes tend to be heavier than their lightweight European counterparts, and are often discounted by homesteaders as a result. They are, however, much more durable. I like to use mine for clearing heavier brush (it can cut small trees up to an inch in diameter), but prefer the European model for mowing grass or trimming around the yard.

Direct usefulness isn't the only measure we should be looking at when deciding what to use for any particular task, however. Everything has a cost well beyond what we paid for it at the store.

With a disposable razor, it's the extraction of petroleum for a plastic handle, burning coal to smelt the iron for the blades, and a greatly increased transport cost (both to the store and to the landfill) due to the large number of units required throughout a lifetime. Though the units required for the electric are fewer, the impact of each is much greater, particularly if it utilizes a battery. Ditto for the electric drill.  Ever seen China's special rare-earth-metals dumping grounds? Or how about their air? Chinese manufacturing isn't just cheap because of lower labor costs, it's cheap because they've decided to sacrifice their country (and planet) for present day prosperity. Their pollution doesn't stay in China, either.  Check out what we recently discovered in our west coast forests.

Older tools were made in and for a world where energy was more expensive and thus used more sparingly, which is exactly the world we're returning to whether we like it or not. It's the reason they were made to last, rather than to catch your eye with their bright colored plastic. Perhaps best of all is the satisfaction of holding a well worn tool that you can pass along to future generations instead of tossing in the garbage when you're done with it.


Myeloman said...

There's a great video of a scythe vs. it's "modern" counterpart on Youtube called "Scythe vs Brush cutter 1" where the scythe wielder finishes a selected section of grass in around half the time as the one using the modern, very noisy, gas trimmer. After receiving a diagnosis of myelofibrosis in December of '07 and undergoing a bone marrow transplant the doctors have advised that I stay out of the sun and avoid things like sawdust. This in essence nullifies all of my skill sets, those being farming and cabinet/furniture making. That said, I have found a "work around" to the sawdust- hand tools! I have also found the new ones to be rather pricey, if one is looking for a quality tool, but used tools, "old" tools are rather affordable and if one is mindful to inspect them prior to purchasing them they can be found in good enough condition to be used straight away, if not with a little TLC. This creates far less "dust" and fine particulates and also makes for a MUCH quieter workshop.

David Veale said...

I'm a big fan of hand tools myself, and to the point that many of my power tools are languishing in states of semi disrepair as I only add to the lot of handtools nowadays. What was once kind of boring Saturday afternoon PBS viewing (the Woodwright's Shop) is now the height of exciting entertainment for me. Paul Sellers has a great woodworking blog if you haven't come accross that yet.