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Rick wrote in with a question which really got me thinking this morning.  He writes: “Here’s the deal:  The wife bought me the 137 piece Craftsman Mechanic’s Toolset.  (Don’t ask how I know.)  She actually paid $86 something as there was some promotion going the day she bought it.  That said, It’s now $99.  But I noticed that also for $99 they have a 155 piece set.  Now I’m not usually one to go by the number of pieces solely, but I did notice that the 155 piece set had a more complete 6-point metric socket set (6-18mm instead of just 6-15mm) as well as twice as many combination wrenches (12 versus 6) and I figured — for the same price — I may as well get the bigger set.

“So last night I went and bought the 155 piece set — I figure she wasn’t going to have time to exchange it, and they’re both charged to our Sears card, so it makes no difference.  My idea is that after the holidays I’d return the 137 piece set for a full refund as she still has the receipt (I hope).

“Now you know the background, so here’s my question:  I noticed that the 137 piece has something going for it — the fact that it’s got the new ‘higher visibility’ laser etching versus the 155 piece kit’s standard hard-to-read engraving.  My question to the Toolmongers out there is: Would you take the 137 piece with the easier to read sizes, or the larger 155 piece set with the harder to read, but “old reliable” engraved sizes?”

I’ll admit that as a Toolmonger, my first thought was, “I have some of each of these sockets, and I don’t really see that much difference.”  But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help thinking that I have far better advice to give Rick than “don’t worry about the engraving.”

Some of the most special tools I have were tools that were given to me.  Some of them are great and some of them are mediocre, but they all have a special place in my toolbox.  When someone gives you tools, they’re giving you more than just one present; they’re giving you the ability to do new things — to expand your horizons.  And in many cases, they’re giving you something you’ll have for the rest of your life and possibly pass on to your children.  You’ll think of that person every time you use the tool.

In between that last paragraph and this one, I stared at the screen for about ten minutes trying to think of a way to describe this concept to someone who’s already judged, replaced, and pre-returned a tool gift before Christmas.  Since I’m better at talking about tools than feelings, I think I’ll try by describing some of my special tools and why they’re special to me.  I apologize in advance if I miss the mark.

My Mid-Range Craftsman Metric Wrench Set (8mm-19mm)
This set was a gift from my Father.  Though he gave me quite a few tools before this, I’d lost most of them.  I remember this set in particular, because it’s the first thing he gave me after I realized that a) tools are expensive, b) you can do all kinds of great things with them, and c) tool gifts are special.  I have much nicer wrenches now (like the ones below), but I still use these from time to time, especially since I put them in a nice little plastic rack that makes them easier to pick up and carry to a job than my bigger sets.

My Full-Polished Craftsman Pro Wrench Sets (Metric & SAE)
I actually purchased these for my Dad for Christmas over the course of three years.  He had more wrenches than he knew what to do with, but he always wanted the full-polish sets, so I saved up for them.  When he opened them, he held one of the big wrenches admiring its shine and told me how they’re so much easier to clean — and how they’d someday be mine.  I didn’t realize at the time that that’d be less than five years away.  Among the many fine tools he handed down to me after he died, these are probably the ones I remember the most.

Pocketknives, Many
When Sean heard me complaining about scaring the crap out of people in an office pulling out my Buck #307 “Wrangler” in offices to cut open boxes, he eBay’d (sorry, they don’t make ’em anymore) a Mini-Buck for me just like the one he carrys daily.  I have it in my pocket most days, though I still carry the “Wrangler” from time to time.  It’s not in production either, and was given to me by my friend Ray, a blacksmith from Mississippi and a friend of my Father’s.  His brother loved them, and he bought a dozen or so to keep him supplied.  His brother’s not with us now, so he gave me one.  He sharpened it for me, and he even carefully wore down the corners with a paper wheel to give it a “pocket-worn” feel from the start.  Good stuff.

Blacksmith’s Tongs
One of the things that’s so cool about blacksmithing is the fact that most artisan blacksmiths start by making their own tools.  My friend Ray gave me a set that he made, since he’s made so many.  These are the long type commonly used to place items in the fire.  Even though I don’t have a forge, I use them for the same sort of thing — holding something in a place I don’t want to put my hand.  Every time I pick them up, I think about him making them in the fire with a hammer.  His touchmark is visible right near the hinges.

Look, I could literally go on all day like this; I have three large roll-aways full of hand tools, numerous power tools, and a storage unit full of tools that I can’t fit in the shop.  Here’s the bottom line: When someone gives you tools — especially quality tools — don’t exchange them, don’t look for a slightly better deal, and don’t agonize over what kind of engraving they have.  Accept them.  Be thankful that someone cares enough about you to give you the gift of tools instead of a tie or a CompUSA gift certificate.

My advice: If your wife doesn’t know about all this yet, return the set you bought and be surprised when you open the set she bought for you.  Take care of them and use them, thinking of her every time you pick one up.  If she does know about all this, return the set you bought and apologize to her.  Tell her it means the world to you that she supports your career/hobby/interest, and that you love the ones she picked out for you.


4 Responses to The Meaning of Christmas, and Why Gifted Tools Are Special

  1. Nick Carter says:

    Great post, and a wonderful lesson about the true meaning of gift giving.

    Several times I have had a relative die and someone says “Is there anything you want of theirs?” And I say, any tool, no matter how insignificant. I have a somewhat crappy screwdriver that belonged to a distant cousin, but when I see it, I remember him, and that’s what matters…

    BTW, the whole “gift card” thing is a blight on society. The point of gifting is the thought, not convenience. It’s not about what you want, it’s about the other person thinking of you.

  2. Ryan Nelson says:

    Bravo. This is probably the best “spirit of the holidays” blog entry I’ve read this year!

    …and now I need to make (with gifted tools) signs for my shop, work desk, and home desk (i’m a computer nerd for a living) that remind me to “Work like a blacksmith”.

    To know your tools, understand them (’cause you made ’em), leave your touchmark on the things you’ve built, and to share those things with people you care about is one of the best metaphors for living I’ve ever come across. Thanks for that.

    Happy Holidays!

  3. Sean O'Hara says:

    One of my most prized possessions is the saw my father gave me for my birthday when I was 9. It’s nothing special just a plain old Stanley hand saw but it was a real tool and it was mine. The teeth are worn down to almost nubs and the handle is shiny from years upon years of sweaty hands sawing back and forth with various degrees of success.

    I’m in my 30’s now and to this day every time I use it I have to smile when I think about those first few times with my dad patiently teaching me how to not mangle myself or the wood with it. Tools like that are special things; treasure them just as you treasure the people who gave them to you.

    Happy Holidays to all you Toolmongers!

    ~ S

  4. Myself says:

    I’m not sure Rick can be “surprised” when he opens the gift; “delighted” might work better.

    My own appreciation for hand-me-down tools didn’t solidify until I loaned out Grandpa’s metal file and it came back broken. I still haven’t figured out what the bozo was trying to pry with the file, but he managed to snap the last inch off the tip. I refrained from biting his head off on the jobsite, but I bought a new file that night. I keep both in my toolbox, but only the cheap one gets loaned out. Grandpa’s file is a finer cut and when I want a smoother finish, I think of how he would have done it.

    Earlier in my tenure with that company, I was using a coworker’s folding wooden ruler and managed to break it, trying to be a hot shot and unfold it all at once instead of one section at a time. I felt ashamed, not only for my stupidity, but also because the ruler I’d just broken looked about as old as me. I ran to HQ at lunch and bought two new ones, one to replace Ken’s broken one, and one for myself. I still use it a lot; there are times when measuring tapes are just a hassle, and every time I do, I think of the stories Ken used to tell and the things he taught me.

    A few months ago I passed a sign that said “Garage sale! Tools!”, and it didn’t take much deliberation before I turned the car around and followed the sign. I’d arrived at a Saturday-Sunday garage sale in the waning hours of Sunday afternoon, so the selection was pretty well picked over. I asked a question or two, and in the ensuing conversation, I realized that the fellow selling his tools wasn’t just looking for buyers, it wasn’t about the money, he was looking for caretakers. Each time I picked up a tool to check it out, he’d explain the story behind it, and maybe I’d share a bit about my own experiences with such a tool. Passing on the history of each piece was as important as the physical article itself. I bought some Vise-Grips and an adjustable wire stripper, and as I was leaving he implored me to take the saw set too, even though I insisted I didn’t have a use for it, as he said I was the only person all day who knew what it was.

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