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Trenching shovels and toolmaking

I woke up today thinking about a tool I own called a trenching shovel. Not sure why, but probably because I’ve been planning what to add to the garden this year as spring approaches. Anyways, I thought about this shovel.

The thing with a trenching shovel is that it is perfectly suited for California soil. There is perhaps no better implement for picking away at the rock-hard clay in the summer, or heavy wet clay in the winter. Every other shovel type is inadequate in some way; this one is perfect.

The trenching shovel is not all great though. There are instances of the shovel that you can find at Home Depot, for example, that are clearly low-quality. I once went to pick one up and the only options they had were trenching shovels with plastic handles. Clearly, this was going to be a problem. Sure enough, after hitting the first of what was sure to be many rocks of its life, this trenching shovel’s handle snapped. It turned out it would only hit a single rock in its life.

You really want a wooden handle on these; anything else isn’t really a trenching shovel.

I think as a tool-maker, I should strive to create the equivalent of the trenching shovel. The tool that is just-so. Just-so in it’s design (small shovel head, pointed, light) and just-so in it’s implementation (high-quality steel head made in Mexico, real wood handle.) The two come together to make a tool that fits just perfectly into its context.

Of course the only way to really know if a tool is at trenching-shovel levels of perfection is to try a lot of tools, most of which will not be right. Maybe you discover that the particular combination of traits is perfect for the context.

But maybe there’s another way too–to look at the environment around and distill down the qualities that will be most relevant to creating a tool to interact with it. This is hard, and requires knowing which qualities to look for, as well as the way the interaction will work. This, I suppose, is what they call “intuition.”

The first approach is what I mainly do now. I’m a novice, learning a lot. The second approach is what I strive more towards over time; developing the intuition of a true craftsman.

7:44 AM / 44F / High of 60F / Partly cloudy