Canadian Woodworking

Tools We Love

Author: Don Wilkinson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: December 2007

For those of us who work with wood, there is at least one particular tool that is a favourite, a tool that we reach for more than any other.




For a few years when I had my shop in Whitehorse, every summer an elderly gentleman would fly all the way from Germany to rent my shop to build a houseboat in which to float down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea. That had been his lifelong dream and who am I to get in the way. Each year he would haul his chest of tools from Frankfurt and was clearly enchanted with them, no matter that he hadn’t a clue as to how to use them properly.

His clear favourite was an ancient, beech and brass folding ruler, which he was inordinately proud of. Every day he would carefully extract it from its little drawer, reverently unfold it and gently rub his thumb over the polished brass strip. Some days he even managed to take an actual measurement which he would carefully transfer to his board or sheet of plywood. He’d stare at the mark for a while and then erase it and happily start all over again.


In the meantime, I had whipped out my trusty Larkin tape, taken 376 different measurements, crosscut, ripped, jointed and planed 200 board feet of quartersawn white oak and built a roll-top desk, two hutches and a prairie settee. Admittedly he had more fun, but I didn’t care. He was renting my shop by the hour and as far as I was concerned he could take years to build his boat. As it turns out, that was exactly what he did. But, he loved that folding ruler and that’s all that mattered to him.


Before setting up my shop, I had briefly worked for an Italian gentleman who built custom houses. He was slow, he was meticulous and he was completely inaccurate in everything he built. From my first day of working for him, I had noticed that nothing he did was straight. It was always beautifully crafted but it wasn’t square and I wondered how anyone could be so careful and yet end up with crooked shelves, cupboards, walls, and even complete houses. He owned a large wooden tool chest that was a marvel to behold and which he clearly treasured above all else. Nestled carefully inside was a vast assortment of every hand tool known to man, and a few I still have no clue as to what they were. The chest had been passed down from generation to generation, until finally to him when he left the old country to move to Canada.


At the end of each day he would carefully gather the tools, count them, wipe them down lovingly with a linseed oil soaked cloth, and precisely place each and every tool reverently into its custom built drawer, pocket or slot. On my last day of working for him, I had propped up a wall to check if it was square before hammering home the braces. My framing square was across the house so I picked up his. He never minded me using his tools as long as I put them back afterwards. I straightened the wall and nailed down the braces and stepped back.


Something wasn’t right. The wall looked crooked. I went and got my own square and placed it against the wall. Nope, I was right. I got my six foot level and checked again. Definitely crooked! I checked my head, but for once it was on straight. My boss had been watching all this and came over, but clearly did not like my explanations. There was no way his poppa’s and his grandpa’s and his great, great, great grandpa’s square wasn’t accurate. I had shamed not only him but had also insulted and dishonoured his entire family lineage, all his ancestors and every Italian there had ever been or ever would be… forever. I must leave the house forever and never could I work for him again.


I was sad to leave his employ but also strangely ecstatic. I had just solved a mystery that has baffled mankind for centuries: I alone, now knew why the tower of Pisa is crooked.

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