A Case for Embellished Tools

February 11, 2009

“Convictions are more dangerous than lies.”–Friedrich Nietzsche

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it divisive, but too embellishment is a topic that tends to occasion some strong opinions. The might seem odd, but we’re not just talking about surface decoration–we’re talking about how each of us defines a fine tool. Some people have a very singular definition of what constitutes a fine tool. It usually goes something like, “Tools are tools, and serious tools are serious–give me function and traditional details.” It’s not an uncommon attitude, as here in the states, and in Great Britain, our tool making traditions do not involve much embellishment–embellishment is more of a European feature.

My own definition of a fine tool is more fluid than it is singular–in fact I don’t really have a fixed definition. Nothing prescriptive anyway. I rather like to think there is room for creativity, and for additional layers of craftsmanship. It’s not as though there is a fixed amount of care than can go into a tool, and that embellishment must necessarily detract from a tool’s function. And yet it’s not uncommon to encounter attitudes that imply exactly that, that an embellished tool is perhaps not as serious as a tool that sticks to the old formulas, that embellishment necessarily occurs at the expense of function. Thoughts like that can be very ingrained, and perhaps that very fact is why an attitude can persist that makes no real sense once you think about it. Why would embellishment necessarily take away from function? I myself am obsessed with function.

Perhaps you could say that function getting shortchanged is simply what tends to happen. I can’t argue with something like that–maybe it is true, maybe it isn’t. I really don’t know. I can’t argue for all embellished tools from all time. I merely want to speak for my own tools, and to point out that embellished tools are no more identical in their nature than are unembellished tools. In my estimation a tool needs to be judged on its individual merits. Generalizations are rarely actually true, and yet they have a particular allure. Perhaps they reflect our desire that the truth be simpler than it is.

If we value craftsmanship in our tools, then surely there is room to appreciate additional layers of craftsmanship. That’s what embellished tools are to me, additional layers of care and thought built right into the tool. It’s not about glitz–it’s about harmony and satisfaction in one’s work. I love my work. I think we work more carefully with fine tools–I hope in some small way that my work enhances the work of those who own my tools.

So what is a fine tool? It really comes down to a matter of taste and opinion. It’s something everyone must decide for him or herself. No doubt function is foremost–how could it not be? It’s a tool! But beyond that what we have to guide is not nearly so concrete. Maybe that is a little unsettling. Or maybe it is a little exciting. Or maybe it is a little bit of both.

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