What’s Your “Problem” Tool?

The other day I went to ask Glen Huey a question. He was out in the shop, working on his project for the first issue of 360 WoodWorking, and he kept going as we talked. I couldn’t help but notice that he had three different types of mallets on his bench, and he was using all of them at different times. There was one with a rubber face for gently persuading things, a traditional wooden mallet, and one of the ones that Glen makes that no self-respecting woodworker should be without. I mentioned that I found it interesting that there were so many specialized tools for as mundane a task as smacking things. Like Glen, I have a variety of devices for persuading, tapping, driving, pounding and smashing in a range of sizes, shapes and materials.  An alternate definition of woodworker could well be “easy mark for a tool seller.”

Tools_8057_WSWoodworkers tend to think of tools as possessing magical qualities, “if I only had “X” I’d be able to do “Y” as well as anybody.”  That is most often not the case as there is a distinction between tools that are perfectly suited for a specific task and tools that will actually enable you to do something you couldn’t before. Most of the cool tools have evolved to meet the needs of somebody who does the same thing all the time and is trying to make a living. The danger is seeing a photo like the one at left and thinking you won’t be able to do anything unless you have this many measuring and marking tools. There is a lot of difference between “essential”, “nice to have” and “that might come in handy if I ever do . . .” The essential list is surprisingly small and getting good with the essential tools makes it easier to decide what to get next, and it also makes that next tool easier to learn. We have to watch out for our own weaknesses and be careful that tool sellers (and authors) don’t take advantage of us.

Over in my little corner of the shop I’m still settling in and unpacking things. In doing so I realized that I may have a “problem” with  marking, measuring and layout tools. It’s not the only area I have a problem with, I might also have a chisel “problem” and I could be on the verge of a knife “problem”. I suspect that Glen may have a Unisaw “problem”. I’m defining “problem” here as being at the point where it becomes an effort to get at the tools you really need because all of the “nice to have” and “might come in handy” tools are in the way. Fortunately, as you work the essentials will rise to the top of the heap.

They say that confession is good for the soul and that admitting a problem exists is the first step to getting past it. I feel better, and I’m probably safe until the next time I visit the Lee Valley website and click on “What’s New”. So how about you? Is there a particular type of tool that you always spring for, or are you a general tool addict? Any tools you bought that have barely been used? What are your “essentials? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

— Bob Lang

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9 thoughts on “What’s Your “Problem” Tool?

  1. What’s my problem, eh? According to my wife it’s that I’m a woodworker. As far as tools go, it currently is a toss up between hand planes and vintage folding rules with handsaws not far behind. It’s not that these items don’t get used it’s just that, as you mentioned with Glen, I have several similar purpose items going at the same time. Thank goodness I got over that clamp thing. I still don’t have enough but I can hold off…for now.


  2. “Any tools you bought that have barely been used?”

    I bought a vintage fillister plane about a year ago. I got it because,
    A) there are times when I only need to make one or two rabbets, and it would just be faster to use a fillister plane, rather than my tablesaw or router.
    B) I prefer to use handtools when I can
    C) I’ve used someone elses and it was pretty cool.
    D) I saw it for sale, and I didn’t want to wait for another to come up.

    I haven’t used it yet, because it needs some TLC, and I just haven’t taken the time to get it up and running.

  3. There’s no such thing as a ‘tool’ problem. Only a time and money problem

  4. Bob, I have trouble with that little six inch rule that Lee Valley sells. It’s the one with the sixteenths on the end of the rule. I LOVE that thing and can never find one. I’ve only got about three of them but have just ordered two more to go with that little six inch square under …”What’s new”… in their ad. And they’re not cheap either but they are a bullet proof tool. I was carrying one in my butt pocket instead of my shirt.(My wife had a problem with hugging me with it in my shirt). I carried in by butt pocket until I realized that it was scratching my leather seats in my truck. Oh well, back to the shirt pocket only I have to be careful and now I’m waiting for MORE? Give me a break, please! jt

  5. There’s this little thing about all the combination squares laying around here….and oh yeah, all the straight rules…..
    Alright, and every darn kind of pencil (mechanical & otherwise) you can shake a stick at……

    I’ve given up trying to help myself…….

  6. Sometimes, I call this the “Golfer’s Fallacy.”

    It goes like this, “I could make a [better/faster/more beautiful] whatchamacallit if I only had [another/more expensive/higher quality/different] thingamabob tool. It’s like the golfer saying, “I could cut four strokes off my game with that new club.” Often, no it won’t. There comes a point where the limiting factor is “on the wooden end of the hammer,” i.e., the craftsman, or golfer.

    I used to help out a friend with some occasional woodworking. As he’d stand there and watch me, he’d often say, “Boy, having the right tool makes all the difference.” I felt like handing him a Strad and asking him to play some Vivaldi. The craftsmanship is also on the wooden end of the hammer.

    1. Ha, ha… that strikes home. When I was first starting to dabble in woodworking it took a while to realize that the super-duper-doit is no better than the regular doit if i don’t pay attention to how I am using it. I’ve got a few fancy things that just sit now that I figured out how to properly use what I already had.

      1. So true Zoltano.
        I have found the same thing.
        Good observation my friend.

  7. Essentials: measuring,sharpening and in my case, bifocals
    Bought but don’t use as much as I thought I would: mortise guage.
    Sucker for: Things I think I need, but could really live without. Another No. 4 etc.

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