You can polish a piece of timber by rubbing it with a piece of leather. It takes a long time and is a pretty pointless exercise given the world of polishes and other finishes out there, but it can be done. A little oil in the leather will help to seal it too. So rubbing with something soft and a bit fatty will bring up a sheen.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately — as I have been doing the gardening. There is a lot of gardening going on here at the moment. The last time I gardened like this was on a much smaller scale at Mum’s when I was at university. I built a garden of lavender and daisies and tall standard gardenias along the side of the house while I was meant to be writing a film script and studying.
I used the tools that I had always used for gardening. They were the tools that Dad used to carve our previous garden out of the bush at Turramurra. Before that, I think, most of them belonged to Mum’s cousin June and her first husband.
The handles of the tools were dark brown wood polished by three generations of calloused hands and sweat.
One of the things I miss most from home is those tools.
Every time I picked them up the hard wooden handles would fall into the correct grip — subtly re-shaped by years of use. And as the day wore on, and my sweat mingled with the sweat of ages in the timber I felt comforted. I was never alone with those tools. If some gardening challenge presented itself — usually a stubborn tree root — I could always step back and lean on the tool, the wisdom of ages slowly seeping into me from the handle until a solution presented itself.
Of all the tools in the shed, the tool most effective at this is the hand-drill. I got it from Dad and he got it from his Dad, who had got it from his dad, who was an engineer. He made it himself. It is big, has cast iron parts, globs of grease and still works as well as the day it was made. Usually I use power drills when working around the house, but sometimes when the job is small and the day is quiet, I reach for the hand-drill. And each time I use the drill I stand and hold it for a moment before I do the job. And each time I hold it my plans for the job slowly stretch out, predicting potential mistakes, finding new ways to do what needs to be done with minimum effort. It’s the wisdom of ages again.
Although the hand-drill came to the UK, the gardening tools did not. They are still under mum’s house, waiting for one of us to buy a house in Australia. Meanwhile I have had to buy new tools — largely replicating the collection. I have a sharp bladed spade, a long handled shovel, a mattock, a hoe, some rakes and some other bits and pieces. Most tools these days have plastic or metal handles — or even fibreglass ones. Some of the high tech tools are lighter and cheaper than the old wooden ones. They certainly don’t rot — an ever present problem in English garden sheds.
But none of MY new tools have plastic handles. They are all wooden. Every single one of them, no matter how far I have had to travel to obtain them. Because fibreglass may be light and durable, but it is no substitute for the sweat of ages. So now as I use my new, awkward wooden tools, I observe the slow changes. The subtle darkening of the timber. The opening or closing of the grain, the scratches and bumps, and the slowly growing sheen as some young and not very calloused hands slowly sweat their growing wisdom into the grain.
Update, 2008: It just occurred to me that I always think of these tools as having been used by old men, but actually they were all my age when they were using the tools. They were all men carving out something nice from their backyards to impress their wives and families. Young men, looking forward, trying to work things out as they went along.
Update, 2021: I am moving back to London in a few months and will eventually move back into my house there. And, when I do, I will open the shed and find some of the tools, the sweat of my tenants darkening the handles with more wisdom.
Copyright © Damian Clarke, 2021, first posted to the Our Albion blog, May 30th, 2008