Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blast from the Past: Wire Trick

As I have said in the past, the many volumes of the Popular Mechanics d-i-y Encyclopedia are fascinating to read.  They offer a glimpse into the shops of our fathers and grandfathers, where throwing out even a single useful scrap was frowned upon.  I'm sure that there was more than one basement workbench crowded with jars of bent nails waiting to be straightened.

In between the regular entries in the Encyclopedia, there are pages dedicated to simple tips and tricks.  Some of these "Clever Ideas" are pure gold, and we are starting to see them come back around today during our collective re-awakening to hand tool use.  For example on the page shown below at the 9 O'clock position we see that adding a leather strip to the inside of a vise makes a better working surface.  This trick is repeated even today by the most revered workbench gurus of our generation.

There are a couple other tips on the page that wouldn't be out of place in one of the magazines on today's newsstand.  A modified sawhorse used as a table saw outfeed?  Check.  Add scrap to a shelf to let you easily paint each side?  Check.

Then you get to the last trick on the page, in the bottom right corner.  How to straighten bent wire with an ingenious little jig.  I can imagine my grandfather bent over his bench, pulling a 2 foot section of wire through a few nails.  Many folks would agree that the generations alive in the 1930's adapted these habits out of necessity during the Great Depression.  I wonder though - when did this thriftiness leave us as a nation?  Was it purely generational, like flipping a switch?  Or did it slowly fade away until more and more shop supplies were purchased as needed from the shelves of the big box stores?  I wonder if you mapped it out on a timeline if you would find that in 1983 it was already fine to throw away wire, and we were in the last days of hanging on to bent framing nails.

Today it seems silly to keep those jars full of leftover screws, hinges, razor blades, brad nails, picture hooks, doorknobs, light switch plates, bent springs, washers, non-programmable thermostats, kitchen cabinet handles, rubber feet, and of course wire.  I don't have a whole bench full of the stuff like my grandfather did, but there is that one jar.  You know the one. It's in the back corner of the top cabinet over your bench.  The one that sometimes saves the day with a long forgotten bit of scrap, just the right size and shape.  As if it's been waiting like some little bit of magic for you to remember.  When that happens, I can't help but think out loud "Thanks, Gramp."

What is the weirdest thing you can't throw away? Are you a hoarder or a minimalist in your shop?


Dyami Plotke said...

Contrary to any photos or videos you may have seen of my shop, I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to wood & accessories. I just don't have the room to store them, so at the end of a project I tend to dispose of pieces that could otherwise be useful in the future. The weirdest thing I can't trough away, though not technically a tool, is my super hero suit. It rests on a stud in the wall above my miters saw, still in it's original packaging after 14 years. I hold onto the suit not just for sentimental reasons, but also because I'm never sure when I'll need it. Some day I may actually have to rip a board by hand!

Aaron said...

Super hero suit?!?!? We need a blog post on that, Dyami.

Devin Larsen said...

This is a great post. I think that everyone has that grandpa that saves little thing. The great thing is that they really did use the stuff they kept. My great grandma used to sew up the holes in my dads socks. Today we can be so wasteful. I have often wondered if it has something to do with our attitude toward electronics. How long do we own a cell phone now days? the answer is as long as we have to in order to get an upgrade from our provider. The point is no matter your space use resource wisely. Great post!

Aaron said...

Yeah Devin, I can't imagine how my grandparents would react if they were here today. Throwing away your computer? It's only 3 years old! It works just like it did when you bought it, what the heck?!? Kids today.

Eric said...

My grandpa's basement shop was a wonderland of wizardry, with this & that and all sorts of stuff he found clever ways of using.
Definite Depression era survivor mindset.
I have a bunch of stuff like that as well. Like the bundle of wire coat hangers that have been cut and bent straight. I grabbed one just the other day and bent a hook on the end to retrieve something that fell behind the bench & was unreachable. It worked perfect and I thought, "thanks gramps".

Aaron said...

Nice save with the coat hanger, Eric. Those things seem to multiply in our closets, but I never thought they would have any use in the shop.

Dyami Plotke said...

I don't think I'll blog about the Superhero Suit as I try to stick to woodshops & Woodworking rather than stupid high school inside jokes as blog topics. Next time I'm in the shop though I'll certainly snap an image of the suit (in it's original packaging) and I'll add it to the following post, just for you, my friend.

I hope you had a good holiday, and keep up the good work.