In Praise of Simple Tools


My first serious introduction to woodworking came while I was in college working in the theater scene shop. Certainly most of my theatrical creations were little more than exercises in basic carpentry, but I did tackle a few personal projects in my spare time. The most memorable one being a butcher block-style chess board of alternating maple and mahogany squares. Sadly, my plan of making chess pieces to match the board never came to fruition.

What spurred me to essentially waste my precious spare time (I was a full time student and had a full time job) was the availability of the shop tools. I grew up with a Craftsman hand drill and jigsaw being the only power tools needed to hang 70’s era wood paneling and tackle other DIY efforts of the day.  In the scene shop I discovered band saws, table saws, radial arm saws, drill presses, jointers and other devices designed to reduce a 2×4 to dust faster than you can say oops!

By the time I was financially stable enough to consider equipping my own shop, it was the height of Norm Abrams popularity. Routers and air powered brad nailers (“just to hold it until the glue dried”) were all the rage. But I had learned that faster was not always better, and in fact faster was often worse. I began experimenting with hand tools and learned the intricacies of sharpening and the value of an “antique” tool. While I now have a fully equipped wood shop, I still prefer my hand planes to my power planer and I still occasionally cut boards with a Disston saw made in the mid 1800’s. There are several reasons for this; hand tools force me to take my time and think through what I am doing, they are quiet, and more conducive to meditative states of work, and most important for me, they are charmingly simple in their form and function.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I enjoy pipe repair work. The vast majority of what the pipe repairman does is hand work. In repair and restoration work the sanding, filing, and reaming of pipes must be done by hand. The buffer for finishing pipes and the lathe for stem making are the only necessary noise makers. And in my opinion, the most valuable tools are some of the simple shop-made items that I find myself reaching for during just about every job. Here are few of the simple tools that I find indispensable.

Shank Reamers

It is amazing how much material can build up inside the shank of even a well maintained pipe. I’ve heard it referred to as “cake” but in my experience it is not at all like the carbon cake that forms in the tobacco chamber. It is tougher and somewhat flexible leading me to believe that it is a combination of carbon/ash and tar. Regardless of its composition it has to be removed, and I have never had any success with alcohol, bristled pipe cleaners, or tiny scrub brushes. The best option is to ream the shank with a drill bit sized to the original airway diameter. I tried a few different holders for the drill bits I use, but eventually decided that the simplest thing to do would be to turn some hardwood handles and epoxy in the most commonly used bits. I find that a 5/32”, 9/64” and an 11/64” are sufficient for most jobs.


Stem shaping platform

There is no way to get around the fact that when you are restoring or making stems you spend a lot of time filing and sanding. Doing this sort of detailed hand work on something as small as a pipe stem can be challenging, and holding the stem down on the workbench is awkward and does not allow easy access to all parts of the work. I tried several different platforms until I finally settled on the one shown below. It is simply a piece of 2×4 lumber that is sanded to form a rounded top. The leather was salvaged from an old wallet and prides a bit of cushion as well as some traction for holding the stem in place while sanding or filing. I built my workbench to have ¾” dogholes and by drilling a ¾” hole in the bottom of the platform I can use a bench dog to hold it in place on the bench. I drilled this at a slight angle which helps the piece lock into place when it is pushed down into the doghole.



Pipe Work Stands

Finally, the picture below shows a pipe stand that I made years ago to hold the stummel and stem between operations or while I am letting mineral oil or Murphy’s oil soap soak in. I also use it to hold the stummel while stain sets.


You can see from the photo that this stand has been well used over the years and carries the scars of many pipe refurbishments. As I find myself working on multiple pipes at the same time, I decided make a few additional stands. The next picture shows the parts I use ready for assembly. The base is made of some scrap cherry with holes drilled to accept the two dowels. The large dowel for the stummel is a ⅝” oak dowel that I had in stock. The small dowel is actually a piece of a bamboo skewer that is 3/32” diameter and allows most stems to fit on the stand.


I quickly sanded and chamfered the parts on my belt sander (we are making tools not furniture) and used a bit of carpenter’s glue for final assembly. I now have a set of 5 stands which should be more than enough for my needs.


These are just a few of the simple tools that make my work easier. There may be more complex, and possibly better solutions out there, but nothing that that feels better than these simple solutions I discovered myself. I think I’ll continue on with these for many years to come.


4 thoughts on “In Praise of Simple Tools

  1. I can relate. When passion meets imagination, the notion of time simply vanishes. As Mark Twain once put it: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you found out why”. Thanks for taking the time to share.

    P.S. I also fond memories of “This Old House”.


  2. Mortise and Tenon is a heck of a mag dedicated to hand tools and pre industrial revolution furniture. I truly love the back to basics movement.


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