I think our tools have secrets to tell us…
... if we are keen enough to listen to them.
This is one of the reasons why I almost always prefer antique
tools over new ones. Not to say that new tools don’t have
secrets….quite the contrary. Saws in particular seem to have
many little important bits they can whisper in our ears.
Take the much debated nib on a handsaw, for
example. What does this little protrusion tell us about saws? I
think it tells us that tradition is very important when it comes
to tools. Here’s why:
It is generally accepted that the nib is a
decorative element and all that remains from the aesthetic
origins of the modern form. The western handsaw tradition can be
traced back to early Continental saws of the 16th and 17th
century which feature elaborate scroll work on the nose of the
saw plate. Saws at this time were almost completely hand
wrought, and these beautiful designs were the craftsman’s mark
of quality and pride.
Over the next 200 years or so, as steel plate
and saw production became more mechanized, we see these
elaborate designs become less ornate and simpler and simpler,
until their culmination in the vestigial nib that became
standard on almost all 18th and 19th century western saws.
So what does this mean? It means, first, that
tools evolve. Every tool has a predecessor….a very similar
previous form that had something added, or taken away, or both.
And most of the time, for good reason. In the case of the nib, I
think its fairly simple: aesthetic tradition.
As saws became more and more machine made they
became less and less a representation of the craftsman’s
individual skill, and so there was no need, or warrant, for
decoration. And to retain the elaborate scroll work on a more
mass produced item would require an inordinate amount of labor
for almost no return. But, because tradition governed all things
in the trades, it could not be outright discarded. And so the
nib remained as a nod to the saws origins.
OK… so who cares, you say? Well, I say if you’re
going to work wood in any creative way, then you need to
understand and respect tradition. If you want to build
functional, durable furniture or wooden goods, then you’d damn
well recognize that someone of the same basic form came before
you and did it better than you. You can choose to heed their
wisdom and benefit from it, or stray from it at your own peril.
And if you challenge it, then you’d better have a good reason,
because it is very difficult to argue with hundreds or thousands
of years of success. This is one reason I hate power tools; they
isolate me from the wisdom of those craftsmen before me.
So, as far as I’m concerned, the nib is
completely functional: it serves as a visual reminder to me
every time I pick up a saw that there were countless craftsmen
before me who faced the same problems and either succeeded, or
failed, based on their ability to respect the wisdom of their
fathers and mothers.
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