The Canadian Art Database

Robert Fones

Hand Tools
19, Oct. 1998

[ 4,516 words ]

If you’ve ever used hand tools—and even scissors, knives and forks are hand tools—you know how integrated they become with your hand and with the work you are performing. Once you’ve acquired a certain degree of skill with a tool, you no longer have to think about it. Aside from fingernails and teeth—the body’s own built-in tools—hand tools represent humans’ first step in using things in the world to get what we want. But our use of tools is so automatic that we rarely stop to analyze what we are doing or to ask how these labour-saving devices got into our hands.

During a recent summer visit to Nova Scotia I had an opportunity to observe a hand tool in use at a pioneer homestead called Ross Farm Museum. A cooper or barrel-maker used a curious, wooden, semi-circular plane called a “double-gear” ­­­to plane the tops of assembled barrel staves. Then, he deftly flipped the double-gear over and ran it along the newly formed top edge to cut a V-shaped groove on the inside of the barrel to accommodate the flat, circular wooden top or “head”.

What impressed me was that the curve of the double-gear exactly matched the diameter of the barrel. The tool and the barrel seemed inseparable. How could you make a barrel without this specialized plane? Conversely, why would a tool like the double-gear come to exist without a barrel-making industry already in place? It was hard to imagine one without the other.

I have always been interested in the history and evolution of hand tools and because I had recently seen a group of new works by Murray Favro—a number of which incorporated hand tools—tools were on my mind as I watched the cooper. Three of these recent “tool” works—Tools, Wooden Anvil and Snow Plane— are a continuation of the “painting sculptures”(1), as Favro has called them, that he has been making since 1991. The fourth work, Lever and Wheel, is a mechanical device that reflects Favro’s interest in modified machines as represented by his guitars, bicycles, propellers, engines and turbines. All four works have a connection to industrial technology, a topic Favro explored in the preceding two works, Hydro Pole and Railroad Tracks, both from 1995-96.

My initial impression on seeing the four “tool” works at Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto was that I had stepped into a pioneer museum and was looking at a display of nineteenth century tools. There was an anvil sitting on a two-foot length of log with a hammer tucked into a steel hanging strap; a selection of woodworking tools displayed on a wall of vertical wood planks; and an old wooden ski mounted diagonally on the wall. There were two other objects that didn’t quite fit into this pioneer scenario but their similarity to pieces of old farm machinery meant they also didn’t seem entirely incongruous.

The three tool pieces look like real tools. However, once you get closer to them, it is obvious that they are, for the most part, carved out of wood and painted to simulate metal. It seems odd at first that Favro would make non-functional wooden tools. But it is probably his familiarity and fascination with hand tools that led him to investigate them more fully.

Tools is the most museum-like of the three tool works and the most startling in its verisimilitude. It is a recreation of a photograph taken by Larry Towell of a wall of tools in Nicaragua. Once you are aware of the photographic source, you sense that you are stepping into a virtual space as you approach this work. It has the same supernatural quality as Favro’s only other work to date based on a two-dimensional image, Van Gogh’s Room. Favro first saw the photograph at Larry Towell’s sister’s house and it stuck in his mind. With Towell’s permission (Towell lived just outside London, Ontario at the time), Favro recreated the photograph in three dimensions, meticulously reproducing each tool out of wood.

Tools resembles the wall of tools found in any number of small-town museums throughout North America. However, amidst this selection of woodworking tools that includes handsaw, brace and bit, plane, and hammer, there is also a machinegun. Its inclusion brings up a number of questions that must have also intrigued Favro and attracted him to this photograph in the first place. What does a machine gun have in common with woodworking tools? What kind of trade does the person who owns all these objects practise? Is a machinegun a hand tool in the same sense as all the others? What is a tool?

The definition of “tool” is threefold: it is used by the hands; it is used in connection with a trade; and it performs some kind of work. Certainly, all the objects in Tools are used by the hands. This fact accounts for many similarities of form between one woodworking tool and another and between the tools and the gun. They all have wooden and metal parts, places for the hands to engage (handles) and specific parts—teeth, cutting edges, and bullets— that constitute the working elements.
The close association of tools with the hands and the human body is reflected in the names of various tool parts. The hammer, saw, brace and plane all have handles where they are gripped by the hands. The hammer has a head; the saw has teeth, heel and toe, the brace has jaws and the plane has a toe, heel, sole and mouth. Significantly, the machine gun, even though it is held in the hands, does not have this same repertoire of body part names. Has its more recent invention not given it enough time to develop a close association with the body?

Except for the machinegun, all the tools in Tools are associated with one trade: woodworking. Woodworkers use tools. Plumbers use tools. Mechanics use tools. Even the features in many computer applications that are used to manipulate selected items are called tools. But hockey players use equipment. Doctors use instruments. Soldiers use weapons. There is a distinction between the tools used by a trade and tools used by a profession that goes back to the social structure of Medieval Europe. Someone learning a trade would become an apprentice within a guild. A doctor would learn the profession by academic study. Similarly, weapons would be used by someone in military service. Do the woodworking tools and gun represent a single trade in any sense of the term?

The gun was of course a vital component of every American pioneer’s survival kit, both for hunting and defence. But it was never traditionally hung with woodworking tools; it might hang above the mantelpiece or lean beside the front door. While a machine gun may be an essential tool for a Nicaraguan worker, its inclusion with woodworking tools is unconventional. Furthermore, a machine gun is not the traditional pioneer firearm. It is associated with criminals, mob violence, terrorism and warfare. Its inclusion in the tool group undermines a nostalgic perception of pioneer life, suggesting instead the grittier reality of establishing, keeping and protecting a homestead or parcel of land in the unstable political climate of Nicaragua.

However, both hand guns and hand tools developed out of two aspects of nineteenth-century mass-production that had their origin in the United States: the standardization of parts, and the resulting interchangeability of those parts. This method of manufacture—first used by Eli Whitney in 1798 to produce sets of arms consisting of muskets, bayonets, wipers, ramrods and screwdrivers— assured the buyer of a particular tool that all the versions of that tool would be identical and that replacement parts would always be available and would fit easily into an existing tool.

More importantly, the standardization and interchangeability of parts in American manufacturing fed into the expansionist ethic of Manifest Destiny; the continent could be more easily invaded, settled and exploited if guns and tools could always be repaired with replacement parts available from outpost suppliers. This applied equally to farm machinery, wagons, locks and eventually to appliances and automobiles, all of which adopted the same system of manufacture. Any automaker today knows you can’t sell cars without a system of parts suppliers and service centers to repair them when they break down.

This imperialist manufacturing ethic has never been confined to the United States alone. It has infiltrated other countries as well, particularly those in competition with the United States and those that emulate the American model. Consequently, it is not surprizing to find American-made hand tools and a Russian-made machinegun hanging side by side on a worker’s shed wall in Nicaragua, a country torn by Civil War while being supplied with the tools of both industry and war by two major industrial giants. Furthermore, it is not surprizing to find hand tools that have become, for the most part, obsolete in the United States, turning up in less industrially advanced countries where they still have significant value.

The machinegun bears a striking resemblance to another of Favro’s long-time obsessions, the electric guitar, another American invention that has proliferated around the globe. Both are held by two hands, make a loud noise and can assault an enemy or an audience from a distance. Favro’s all-metal guitars in particular look quite deadly and straddle a fine line between tool, musical instrument and weapon. The similarities between a guitar and a machinegun underlines the fact that technological advances are often applied to weapons as well as more benevolent inventions.

To translate Towell’s two-dimensional photograph into three dimensions Favro had to carry out research into each tool and examine all its component parts. Some tools, such as the handsaw were generic enough that he could use his own woodworking tools as models. Others, like the machinegun, required more extensive research. Except for the crank of the brace, all the tools are made of wood. The small thickness of this part and its complicated bends defeated Favro’s efforts to make it out of wood. Instead, Favro simply bent a piece of metal rod into the desired shape. This practical act confuses the distinction between real and fake, enhancing the illusionism of this work.

In Tools Favro has striven for a provisional simulation of reality. The illusion is absolutely convincing as you approach this work, then at a critical threshold of five or six feet, the effect vanishes as the real materiality becomes apparent: the blade of the handsaw is only painted plywood; the drill bit is carved wood! In his book, Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson explains the effect of trompe l’oeil: “For the split second when trompe l’oeil releases its effect, it induces a feeling of vertigo or shock: it is as if we were seeing the appearance the world might have without a subject there to perceive it, the world minus human consciousness, the look of the world before our entry into it or after our departure from it.” The illusion in these works is only as resolved as any theatrical prop—whatever is needed to create a convincing illusion of reality from a certain viewing distance. In the case of theatrical props, the illusion is maintained because the viewer can’t walk up on stage for a closer look. In Favro’s work, closer inspection is possible.

The evaporation of the mirage is not a disappointment. What replaces it is a new kind of perception, a sense of peeking behind the scenes into the structure and meaning of tool design. In these models, the complexity and ingenuity of each tool becomes much more evident. The machine-made has reverted to the model that often precedes mass-production. (Samuel Colt made a crude wooden model before manufacturing his first hand gun.) By remaking all these tools out of wood, Favro separates the function from the form and allows the viewer to contemplate the latter in isolation.

Like Tools, Wooden Anvil appears to have emerged straight out of our recent colonial past. The anvil is poised on a section of log with a hammer tucked into a metal strap attached to the log. This ensemble evokes the traditional blacksmith’s trade and seems to await the return of the blacksmith to resume his work. In fact, Wooden Anvil is a reconstruction of Favro’s own anvil that he has used for years. I had never really looked closely at an anvil until Favro made this one out of wood. As with Tools the transformation from one material to another isolates the form so that it can be more easily studied, disassociated from its normal associations of handicraft, colonial life, or a sentimentalized past. Favro’s Wooden Anvil is consequently a meditation on an obsolete economy as well as a model for contemplating the forms of the tools used in a particular trade. It is this timeless quality that makes Wooden Anvil so mysterious and engaging.

In spite of its evocation of a handicraft tradition, Wooden Anvil manages to escape an aura of nostalgia. Partly, this is the result of Favro’s decision to stop his recreation short of verisimilitude: knots show through the metal patina and painted colouring of the anvil and hammer; glued joints are visible in the log. Favro’s method of finishing these works by rubbing them with oil colours and powdered graphite gives them a transitory effect quite different from the painted realism of Snow on Steps and the other “painting sculptures”.

There are degrees of illusionism in Wooden Anvil. The handle of the carved hammer is the least deceptive since both its form and material mimics that of the original handle. A log is made of wood and the log section supporting the anvil in this work is made of wood. Even the knots on the log seem natural because they appear where real knots might occur; but the glued joints of the laminated block from which the log was carved reveal Favro’s artifice. Finally, the sight of knots showing through the slight veil of metal that covers the anvil is definitely incongruous. As in Tools, the replacement of one material by another within an object’s given form separates the function of the object from its form, allowing a more objective consideration of both.
The anvil’s transformation from iron to wood creates an uncanny effect, as if the log section under it had returned to life and grown up through the anvil, replacing its molecular iron structure with wood. This organic quality gives the anvil the character of a living form, and permits its curious design to be seen as the result of an evolution in response, not to environmental factors but to technological, economical and social ones.

The anvil has a tail, beak or horn and feet, names suggestive of animal rather than human anatomy. Indeed, it is a kind of beast of burden since it is really a workbench for making tools rather than a hand tool itself. Like any animal, each feature of the anvil has a unique purpose or exists for a specific reason. The anvil’s hornis used for shaping curved metal pieces; its tapering form accommodates curves of different circumference. The splayed feet of the anvil gives it greater stability and allow nails to be positioned to secure it to the log section it sits on. A rectangular steel face—much harder than the wrought iron of the body of the anvil— was normally welded to the top of the anvil, which accounts for the 1/2”-1” drop from the face to the table, the ledge slightly below the main surface of the anvil.

Even the holes in the top of the anvil have names and functions: the pritchel hole is round and is used as a recess for punching holes in metal strips; the square hardie hole is used for holding various shaping and cutting tools all of which have a square peg that fits into the hardie hole. As with most tools (and most animals) the anvil has no extraneous parts and is simply material formed to a specific purpose.

But the anvil in Wooden Anvil is not alone. It sits up on a section of log that raises it to a convenient working height. Its companion is the cross-pein hammer. For thousands of years these three objects have formed the blacksmith’s basic toolkit. Aside from elevating the anvil to a good working height, the log provides a convenient place for attaching the steel strip that serves as a holster for the hammer and also serves to dampen the vibrations of metal on metal. The wooden handle of the hammer serves a similar purpose. Indeed, one can see the metal anvil/wooden log and the metal hammer head/wooden handle as two equivalent components in the blacksmithing operation; the anvil and log situated by size and weight on the ground, and the hammer, hand-held and portable. In spite of dramatic technological developments in the steelmaking industry the blacksmith’s toolkit has survived virtually unchanged up to the present. The trade itself has diminished considerably since the introduction of the automobile, which eliminated the blacksmith’s last community service, that of shoeing horses. But the anvil, old workhorse that it is, still provides faithful service to Favro and other small handicraft practitioners like him.

If the anvil has had an illustrious evolution out of the blacksmith’s hearth and up on to a log where it perches like a faithful pet, the other object in Favro’s tool room is a mutant or hybrid with a less noble evolution. Snow Plane is a conjunction of two found objects: part of an old Stanley woodworking plane and a single wooden ski. The resulting object is slightly surreal and yet entirely plausible. Could this “tool” be worn on the foot to flatten a wooden floor by skiing across it? Could the plane be used by hand to plane extremely long boards? Could a snow-covered field be leveled by skiing back and forth across it? The idea of someone planing snow by skiing across it seem ludicrous, but the image of it is striking and emphasizes the technological novelty of both planing and skiing. Snow Plane also provokes speculation about the morphological evolution of both skis and planes; about the similarities between their function; and the cultural distinction between objects used for work and objects used for play.

Snow Plane is surprizing because it is, I believe, the first time Favro has created a surreal object. It is reminiscent of Man Ray’s Gift, a flatiron with a row of tacks on the bottom. Like Gift, Snow Plane is a serendipitous and humourous conjunction of two objects with two different functions. Both works provoke speculation about their functionality and meaning. By inserting a row of tacks that would shred fabric rather than smooth out wrinkles Man Ray negated the flatiron’s ability to function; at the same time, the tacks playfully suggest the steam jets of modern irons that would eventually make flatirons obsolete. Unlike Man Ray’s flatiron, Snow Plane could theoretically function. However, since the plane’s cutter is only wood (it was missing from the beginning and Favro had to make a substitute) Favro is clearly more interested in imaginative speculation than actual use.

This conjunction of ski and plane could not have occurred if Favro hadn’t acquired a plane at a particular stage in its evolution. The plane in Snow Plane (old Stanley plane designed by Leonard Bailey in 1867) is halfway between the old all-wooden planes and the modern all-metal ones; it has a wooden sole and a metal body. Consequently, Favro was able to remove the cast iron part and mount it on a single ski. The downhill ski was originally painted black, but Favro sanded it down to bare wood and made it look older by darkening its ends with graphite. The aged look is more compatible with the older style of plane while the bare wood echoes the appearance of the original wooden sole. In linking these two objects, Favro may have been unconsciously influenced by the morphological similarity between a plane and a foot (a plane does have a heel, toe and sole.).

While the conjoined objects spawn a new hybrid invention that is not immediately useful or practical, it does generate interesting speculation about its possible application and about the similarities between the creative and inventive process. Conjunction —a common occurrence in design evolution—results when two devices with parallel development suddenly merge to form a new invention. The fusion of typewriter and television in our own computers is a perfect example. One wouldn’t expect skis (2)and planes(3) to cross paths, but there is a point where they do.

At some point in the evolution of skis and planes, the two would have met since planes would have been used to plane the strips of wood used to make skis. Eventually this task would have been taken over by the electric jointer—essentially a huge plane turned upside down, motorized and mounted on the floor. The plane that is integrated into Snow Plane is consequently, symbolic of the tool used to make part of itself. This conceptual irony reflects the nature of tool development, since existing tools are often used to make new tools as well as copies of themselves.

The title, Snow Plane, rather than being simply descriptive of the two conjoined objects (Favro could have called it Ski Plane), suggests that Snow Plane could be used for planing snow. Other conjoined objects have produced useful devices: Ski Planes, Snowplows, and snowmobiles. Snow Plane is an example of the many inventions that have been ignored, shelved or abandoned because they didn’t have an immediate application. However, Snow Plane epitomizes that spontaneous and irrational impulse athat so often leads to the great breakthrough inventions. And Snow Plane has another positive effect: like the machinegun mixed in with the woodworking tools, Snow Plane sends a mixed signal, prompting a re-evaluation of our society’s division between work and sports, labour and play.

As if to further pursue the question of what constitutes a tool, Favro exhibited another work with the three I have been discussing entitled Lever and Wheel, which does not appear to be a familiar or recognizable tool. It looks like a mechanized version of Marcel Duchamp’s famous bicycle wheel. It is crudely constructed out of wood but the rim, spokes and axle are from an actual bicycle wheel.

Duchamp’s wheel was turned by simply spinning it with a finger. Favro has given himself the task of mechanizing this operation. Consequently, Lever and Wheel has a handle, which pulls on a short section of bicycle chain that in turn engages with the sprocket of the bicycle wheel. By pulling on the lever, the wheel can be made to rotate. By repeatedly pulling the lever, the speed of the wheel can be accelerated.
Unlike the hand tools in the other three works whose function must be conceptualized or conjectured, this device can be used. A few quick pulls of the lever is as addictive as cranking the arm of a slot machine. The reward is not spinning lemons or quick cash but the hypnotic spin of the bicycle wheel, obviously as mesmerizing for Favro as it was for Duchamp. And the effort expended seems so slight, compared with the rapid acceleration of the wheel. Herein lies the technological wonder of this work.

Lever and Wheel demonstrates the effectiveness of the lever(4) in concentrating and transmitting effort. If you’ve ever tried to move a large boulder by sticking a smaller rock beside it and pushing down on a long pole wedged between the two, you’ve used the principle of the lever. The lever in this work is pinned at its lower end attached to a wire cable several inches above that. The cable pulls on the piece of bicycle chain that engages with the sprocket on the axle of the bicycle wheel, which moves the wheel(5). A spring on the opposite end of the cable pulls the lever back into a vertical position ready for another pull. If you imagine trying to pull on the piece of cable by holding it between your fingers, you can appreciate how much easier this task is with the lever.

The wheel would not continue rotating quite so easily if Favro hadn’t increased its weight by replacing the inflated tire with a solid wooden one. This extra weight at the rim turns the bicycle wheel into a sort of flywheel, conserving energy and maintaining the wheel’s momentum. From the sawdust remaining on the spokes and axle it is obvious that Favro used his device as a lathe to sand the wooden tire to its final desired shape. This fact makes Lever and Wheel a functional tool because it was used to perform work. The irony is that the turned wooden tire is now an integral part of the machine and so the ability of Lever and Wheel to perform work is finished.

However it still works mechanically, just as an idling car engine works even though the car isn’t moving. But without the active involvement of a participant as a source of power, the device cannot operate. Once someone grasps the lever and pulls it back and forth, they become connected to the machine as an integral part of its operation, their arm functioning as an additional jointed lever to provide the motive power(6).
Having experienced mechanical principles in operation, one can look at the hand tools in Tools, Wooden Anvil and Snow Plane in a new light, recognizing their relationship with the body, their reliance on us for their source of power and their similarities with and differences from our own bodies. The crank handle of the brace and bit, for example, while bearing some resemblance to the jointed structure of the arm, does what the human arm cannot do: rotate in a complete circle. The two or three-jaw chuck that holds the drill bit is the equivalent of fingers. But unlike human fingers, this mechanical part never tires.

Imagine trying to hammer a nail by holding only the head of the hammer in your hand. The handle acts as a lever with its pivoting point where it is grasped by the hand, thereby increasing the hammer’s striking force. The wedge is concealed in the cutting edge of the plane and in the teeth of the handsaw. The screw is there in the drill bit, in the bolt holding the plane mechanism together and hidden in several other places, holding various parts together. Hand tools would be useless without the “Mighty Five” mechanical principles at work within them.

Favro’s reconstructed tools instill an appreciation for the ingenuity and complexity of these seemingly simple devices. By making hand tools by hand, Favro removes the anonymity of mass-produced objects and makes them singular; worthy of the attention accorded any hand-made object. He restores tools to the tool-making process that started their long evolution toward industrial technology. These tools are part of his continuing investigation of mechanisms that extend the scope of human activity: bicycles, guitars, airplanes, trains, even perception.

Text: © Robert Fones. All rights reserved.

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