An updated version of an essay I wrote back in 2009.
I’m a shop person who likes to read and write. My family and friends include plenty of liberal-arts types who wouldn’t know a Torx from a Phillips. This means a lot of questions like, “Why do you spend so much damn time in there?” “What’s so exciting about screw threads?” “What’s the point of all this endless tinkering?”
It’s especially difficult to discuss because the shop isn’t necessarily a place I go to accomplish a specific thing. I might go there to work on one problem but end up working on the shop itself. Sometimes a tool is broken, so I spend an afternoon fixing it, or making a new one. That’s part of the fun.
Not many places are ambiguous in this way. A kitchen is for cooking; a classroom is for learning; a theater is for shows. A shop is for working on things, but that includes the shop itself and everything in it.
Working in a shop can have a reflexive feeling, of constantly re-examining the tools, the process, the shop–even the people in the shop, including yourself.
A shop is a place where all variables are in flux. A mill, for example, could be used to produce a copy of itself. When you’re standing in front of a mill, the question is not “What is possible?” but now “What do I want to make?”.
In the shop, the only limitation is you. What projects deserve your time and effort? It’s a nice metaphor for growing up.
Why machine tools and screw threads and such? What cold, dispassionate things.
It’s funny, because in my mind, these things carry warm emotional significance. There’s a feeling I get after I’ve been using a lathe for a while. I don’t mean any lathe, I mean one specific lathe, because each one has a personality. When I first start using it, I take my time carefully flipping every lever, making sure I don’t make a careless mistake. But over time the lathe and I come to an understanding. I learn its idiosyncrasies. After a few weeks of this, I’m flipping levers without looking. I know every control, every limitation of the machine. The words “sensual” and “intimate” come to mind.
It’s a little like raising a dog. I don’t view my relationship with dogs as one of dominance or obedience. The pinnacle of dog-human interaction is the feeling of partnership and collaboration that comes from working with a dog. Dogs excel at some things humans don’t (smelling things and body language), and we excel at some things they don’t (language and, maybe, reasoning). Similarly, the lathe isn’t entirely a servant but a partner, too.
These tools carry historical significance, too. It honors me to include myself in a tradition that bears includes great people doing great things.
It’s by learning to apply tools well that we have advanced past the stone age. Our survival depends on knowing how to manipulate our world with tools, and on continuing to pass on that knowledge.
By the way, besides being essential to everything we do, screw threads represent the culmination of all human experience. Their development is the result of many tiny decisions made by many people over many centuries. The most recent decisions were based on older decisions, which were based on yet older ones. That legacy goes back to the earliest humans. Without exaggerating, it can be said that screw threading standards have made fortunes and lost them.
In fact, every modern tool is a permutation of some simple, primitive tool. It was when we first started using these simple tools that we became technological–that we began a period of ever-increasing improvement upon what came before, of which we’re all beneficiaries.