I like simple tools, and the simpler the better. One measure of simplicity is the number of discrete parts the tool is made of. Some relatively simple tools, such as a hand plane or an eggbeater drill, have a lot of parts. Fully disassemble a typical hand plane, and you will have twenty or more parts, depending on how you count the parts for the frog assembly. Some eggbeater drills are even more complex. And I don’t even want to think about how many parts my band saw or my drill press has!
Other tools have very few parts, but even some of the simplest tools often have more parts than we might think. Quick, how many parts does a handsaw have? You might say two–the handle and the blade. True, but what about the nuts and bolts that keep the handle in place? A big handsaw might have a dozen parts total: a blade, a handle, five bolts, and five nuts.
Counting parts is amusing, I suppose, but it also reveals something about your tools. The fewer the parts, the less there is to go wrong, and the easier the tool is to repair if it breaks. So, in honor of simple tools, here are a few of my favorites, in descending order.
My wooden jack plane has five parts: the stock, the wedge, and a three-piece cutting assembly (blade, chipbreaker, and screw). That, at least, is the number of pieces it can ordinarily be broken down into. Looked at another way, there are two more parts: the tote and the strike button. From the point of view of the user the tool has five parts, but from the point of view of the manufacturer it has seven, so I admit I’m fudging this one.
Another tool that really does have five parts is one of my axes. It has a handle, a head, a wooden wedge, and two metal wedges. In use, of course, it’s a one-piece tool. You disassemble it only when you replace the handle–which happens a little more often than I’d like to admit. I need to work on my aim.
My favorite shop-made marking gauges have four discrete parts: the arm, the cutter, the fence, and the wedge. Normally it can be taken apart into three parts, but the cutter is certainly distinct in function (and material) from the arm. So I count this as a four-part tool.
Sharpening stones are tools, too. And my diamond sharpening stone has three parts: the stone, the bottom of box, and the lid. Each part is functional. The base allows the stone to be clamped in a vise when I’m sharpening. The lid protects the stone’s surface, certainly, but it’s also useful for holding small parts like chipbreaker screws while I’m sharpening irons.
My hewing hatchet also has three parts: the head, the handle, and a single wooden wedge. Like an axe, it is a one-piece tool in daily use, but full disassembly yields three pieces.
My two-part tools are among my favorites–and I have a lot of them. My joiner’s mallets, for example, are made up of a handle wedged through a tapered mortise in the solid head. Frequent use keeps the head tight on the handle, though enough pounding on the handle’s end can separate them.
My birdcage awl, my gouges, and many of my chisels are also two-part tools: just a blade and a handle. Ideally, the handles are fixed permanently in place until they need to be replaced–which I hope is seldom or never. I have never yet replaced a chisel handle that I made.
While this ruler is usually used with a combination-square head, it’s useful as a tool in its own right. The tool is built for accuracy, and a single piece is best.
My favorite one-piece tool is a card scraper. I must have a dozen or more in several shapes. They get used on nearly every project I work on, from fine furniture to wooden spoons and spatulas. Once I learned how to sharpen card scrapers, they became absolutely indispensable tools in my tool chest.
I enjoy using complicated hand tools–my joinery planes, for example–but the real workhorses in the shop tend to be my simplest tools, the ones that get used on every project. I’d call myself a minimalist, except that I have LOT of simple tools. (Seventeen handsaws and counting…) And that, I suppose, is another level of complexity to be addressed another time.