In Praise of Power Tools
By David Swenson
Working men and women everywhere owe much of their longevities to the invention of labor saving tools. Watt’s steam engine powered the early industrial revolution. Mills and factories no longer needed to rely on water or wind. Steam machines made commerce possible in the interior, and along with it jobs leading to the industrialization of the Midwest. And later, great electric motors powered machines that led to exponential expansions in worker output and, once collectively bargained for, higher standards of living.
Scholarly works have thoroughly documented the industrial, post-industrial, the information, and the digital ages, most especially the tremendous labor saving advances in each. These are not the focus of this essay, however.
It is Christmas time, and if we are lucky we didn’t get a tie, an Asian cookbook, or a month’s membership to the YMCA. If we are lucky we got a power tool.
Most of us began small, maybe a jigsaw as kids started us out. We accumulated more as our needs and incomes progressed. I still have my first power drill, and I cherish mightily my Skil circular saw Christmas gift of thirty years ago. A while back, after helping a friend build a garage, he offered to replace what he called my “crooked-cutting sidewinder” with a professional-grade worm-gear saw as a reward for my efforts. I declined the kind offer. Mine worked just fine for me.
Along the way a chain saw became essential, as did a table saw, a weed wacker, and a hedge trimmer. Belt and orbital sanders round out my major power tool list. I have all that I desire or require, and enough disposable income to buy nearly anything I might like in the future.
What I couldn’t justify owning outright or simply afford, I rented. My list included garden tillers, lawn aerators and edgers, reciprocal saws, chop saws, cement saws, cement mixers, jack-hammers, air compressors, nail guns, winches, and post-hole diggers. Anyone who has ever built a fence, framed a garage, shingled a roof, cut down a tree, repaired a sidewalk, or tilled a garden without power tools knows their value.
And the things we can do that we never thought we could, or for that matter ought to have tried. One of my most humorous memories was watching my former spouse try to sand a wood floor with a rented rotary buffer. Opting for muscle instead of balance, she tried and tried to make that machine behave. It tossed her to and fro and dragged her across the room over and over again. No advice was welcomed. She fought the power tool, and the power tool won. I ended up doing that floor.
There is a Zen to power tools. Enlightenment happens soon after reading the operating instructions for the first time.
And let’s not limit this discussion to the garage or shop. Our kitchens are full of neat power devices. A blender for Margaritas was an early essential. Now for me it’s a coffee grinder. Not many men can handle an electric knife like my dad – you ought to see him filet a large-mouth bass with one. I am on my second bread-machine. To call them kitchen gadgets simply demeans them. They are power tools.
As nearly my entire collection was the product of necessity or a gift, most hold a memory. The power drill was used first to do body work on a car that was wrecked; the chain saw trimmed my neighbors’ and my downed tree limbs after an awful ice storm; the table saw cut all of the trim to the first (and last) basement I refinished; and the aforementioned circular saw has cut thousands of feet of wood.
Of all, though, one is most special and by far used most gratefully.
People sometimes ask of my favorite event in life. Was it a successful high school athletic career, getting out the army alive? What about graduating from college for the first or the second time? Might it have been buying my first house or getting my first professional job There’s always the birth of children and grandchildren. Running my first marathon and my 100th marathon were important events too. All were important; some brought tears of joy, some just tears.
But not one holds a candle to getting my first snow blower. Nothing else brings me as much joy as the act of firing up that machine after a snowstorm.
It is at that point that I achieve pure power tool nirvana and know deep in my heart that all is right with the world.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and an extension-to-communities economics educator. He also teaches community and regional planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession.