One of the bibles of metalsmiths and jewelry artists is Tim McCreight’s The Complete Metalsmith which became my guide when I started learning to work with gold. I was surprised to find metaphysics in his section about hand tools (which McCreight calls handtools):
Anyone reading this book already knows about tools, knows about the timeless and universal appeal of the Right Tool. You know the way a well-designed tool not only fits into your hand but educates it as well, like a dancer whose nuanced movements turn clumsiness to grace. The handtools of our field — files, pliers, shears and hammers — these and a dozen others have been handed down intact across centuries. They impart a wisdom that traces its roots not to brilliant thought but genius of touch.
McCreight divides value in handtools into several categories: design, quality and, remarkably, spirit.
Of that he writes:
The favorite tool in any shop is rarely the shiniest one on the bench. There is a good chance it will be a hammer with tape on the handle or a graver with a wrap of wire replacing a lost ferrule. Tools gain character through use because of the intimate connection between the work and the hand. This is a subjective matter, crucial to some metalsmiths and less relevant to others, but for those who value the spirit of a tool, each year of use contributes added power and pleasure.
…Duke Ellington said about music, “If it sounds good, it is good,” and the same applies here. If it feels good and works well, it’s the right tool for the job.
It occurs to me that McCreight’s lovely words apply to many of the tools we use in creative work. I think of my favorite cooking tools, which carry with them pleasurable feel in my hand, and memories of many times cooking with them. I cook better when I use them due to a kind of wisdom they seem to hold. I treasure the old silverplate fork my Greek grandmother used daily for everything she cooked, its tines bent to her idea of “rightness” and perfection.
It is a relief to work with the hand tools of goldsmithing, to let my hands feel their qualities, like learning to speak a new language, done by listening deeply, with body, hands, and less tangible parts of myself. They are very different from the digital tools I value — desktop, laptop, smart phone — which daily feed me poetry, ideas, information, delight that is often quite moving but mostly lacking an integration of my physical self, with way less a feeling of their spirit. (Though honing into the idea of the spirit of the digital tool can amplify that feeling in quite an interesting way.)
Hand tools offer a quieter, more tangible, less cerebral, experience of their spirit forged from “the intimate connection between the work and the hand”… a balancing force to the digital.