Tool Marks

Tool marks

Tool marks bear witness to the work that went in to making something by hand.

When making a forensic study of historic musical instruments it is possible to learn about the tools and methods of work used  in construction by subtle hints left behind.

I have been fortunate to see several collections of early instruments over the years and a few times my enthusiasm led to being admitted to the “inner sanctum” of a museum collection. While working at Elderly Instruments I handled and studied some of the finest vintage fretted instruments made during the last 150 or so years.

The industrial revolution gave the world consistency of reproduction; multiple copies of the same object would look and work identically to any other that came off the assembly line. What was lost was the human touch, the soul that was given to each object by an artisan’s hands.

Many of the fine historic instruments I have studied showed telltale signs of being hand crafted. There were slight inconsistencies in shape and proportion and signs that a skilled hand had executed the work.  These same instruments were not “clean” according to current manufacturing standards. By this I mean the finish did not turn wood into something looking like a laminated counter-top, sound holes and decorative features showed the skill of the maker and not the precision of a cookie cutter.

Tool marks are witnesses and signatures of the hands that made things. I am not referring to careless work or swirls left by machine sanding; I am referring to slight irregularities of cut and line, small marks left in wood by an edge tool showing where parts were hand shaped and fitted, etc.

In my own work as a dulcimer maker I prefer to leave subtle tool marks as they naturally arise.

As an example, the photograph above shows the braces and center reinforcement strip on the back of a dulcimer. I shaped the center strip with a chisel and scraper. Left behind are some slight irregularities in the bevels on the sides of the center strip. I could sand the center strip to perfection but I see no point to it. I am proud of what I accomplished using two simple hand tools and feel no need to hide that in my work by sanding it to oblivion.

Working this way causes me to increasingly develop my skill and confidence using tools. I enjoy that as well.

4 thoughts on “Tool Marks

  1. Kimmer

    A lovely post. Painters talk all the time about “mark-making”, and this feels similar. In 3D work there is always this judgment call on when the marks add to the work; when I am being lazy vs.quite literally polishing the ‘living daylights’ out of a thing.

    On a much coarser scale but to your point: last week a friend came by to cut 2 rectangular prisms out of the center of a pair of 2′ slices of cottonwood, out of which I want to make nightstands. The leftover pieces will make perfect sculpture bases. I have been considering how much to sand these blocks down. The visual record of his sawing is so awe-inspiring to me. Plunge-cuts are difficult, but the marks have a perfect ease, even rhythm and confidence. It’s a chainsaw! not a well-sharpened hand chisel, but there was a calm and masterful human using it.

    1. Beautiful thoughts. I sometimes agonize about what to leave behind and what to make go away. Organic materials always look better to me than anything I can do to improve upon them and I figure my job is to showcase what’s already there.

  2. Bill Allman

    I know what you are saying and agree but I find it hard, almost impossible to not repair a flaw. Keep up the great work.

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