“Just burn them” he said. “Pile them all in that old dustbin, and burn them.”
‘He’ – was my new boss. ‘Them’ – were old planes. The wooden type used by carpenters. Each with a unique shape, elegant curves and edges of polished wood. Their yellow-brown patina a consequence of decades of use by many calloused work-hard hands, their bases glisteningly smooth from the friction they had once exerted on wood through regular use. Each plane with a heart – a slim piece of steel, itself shaped to match the wooden profiles which held it – and that had been lovingly sharpened again and again, and again.
I picked one plane up. It was surprisingly heavy. I turned it over in my hand, the hand of a novice, but even I could ‘find’ the sweet spot, that place in my fist where it just felt ‘right’. I realized these were not just lumps of wood with a blade, they were precision cutting tools, extensions of a hand that enabled craftsmanship to be expressed for all to see and wonder at.
I dropped it into the bin, the steel removed for scrap. The flames licked around it, warming me on this bitter winter day of sleet and wind.
I picked up another, and another, and another. Stripped the steel, and threw the bodies in the bin to burn. My first job as an apprentice carpenter, my first day of a four year journey, was to light this fire, then feed it until my face glowed red with the heat. The task took more than a day. There were hundreds of planes, each one with a unique shape, intended for a different task than its brethern. The firm I was apprenticed to had built a new workshop, one with power tools that rendered many of the traditional hand tools redundant, and there was no space in the new building to store these old wooden implements.
The smoke still slowly coiled from the bin on the morning of my second day. This time I was not so cavalier as I stoked the blaze one last time. Overnight I’d recalled the differing shapes that had passed through my hands and I thought that I’d ‘felt’ something, unsure what, but I’d resolved to take a few and keep them.
I’m not sure why I picked the ones I did, something about them and their shape that made their ‘fit’ more suitable for my hands. But I chose a few, and kept them from the fire.
I still have them. I’ve used them numerous times over the decades to create things that too few people value these days: unique and unusual moldings for doorframes, ornate and fluted profiles to surround windows. Little bits of magic that often go unnoticed, but which take time and care, and sharpened steel.
I’m not a carpenter any more, well not often, and my hands are softer. But their steel is still hard and keen, their ability to form wood into beautifully elegant shapes is still within them. I only need to hold them, and find that sweet spot, and I know. And when I do use them, it’s hard physical work, and they warm me, again, and again, and again.
But on that cold winter day so many years ago all those other planes only warmed me once.