Clutter-Creator #4: Stuff of the Past

We woodworkers are a nostalgic lot. Even those who work mainly with modern power tools can ooh and ah over an 18th-century highboy made by hand. Reverence for history is one thing that has kept me working wood primarily by hand. People who know little or nothing of the past are usually lost in the present—whether they know it or not.

But there are unhealthy attitudes about the past, which can lead to clutter building up in your workspace to the point where it’s not really usable anymore. According to Tracy McCubbin, whose book Making Space, Clutter Free inspired this series of blog posts, this is one of the biggest generators of clutter.

A Sense of Obligation

One way that I’ve succumbed to this clutter-creator is allowing myself to be trapped with stuff I’ve been given in the past. I should state at the outset that I am VERY grateful to all the generous people who have given me valuable tools and wood over the years. I bought none of my stationary power tools—they were all given to me over the years. Most of my handsaws were given to me by various people. Quite a lot of wood has been given to me in the form of logs or off-cuts. And that’s not even going into the tools that older woodworkers have given to my children. I am astounded over and over by the generosity of woodworkers.

However, sometimes well-meaning generosity can create unhealthy feelings of obligation on the part of the recipient. And those feelings of obligation can make us hang on to things that are really nothing but clutter.

A case in point was a mortising attachment for my drill press. I was gifted the drill press some years ago by the widow of a local woodworker. The tool itself is a mid-century Craftsman, solid as a rock and endlessly useful. I could not make pipes without it. But it also came with a complicated attachment that turned it into a makeshift mortising machine. Useful in theory—and I’m sure the original owner did use it—but not useful to me. I have other ways of cutting a mortise, and I found myself moving this mortising attachment out of my way every few months.

Finally, I got sick of moving it from place to place and tossed it in the recycling pile. It was a relief. Why hadn’t I done that earlier? I knew from the start I was never going to use it. I knew nobody else who wanted it, and it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth offering for sale.

A lot of people succumb to unmanageable clutter because they are trapped with other people’s stuff. Often those people are long gone. In my case, I saw that I was only keeping this mortising attachment because, at some level, I felt obliged to. In reality, I had no obligation to keep it, and I let it go.

Because It’s Old

My reverence for the past makes it incredibly difficult for me to admit that a lot of old things are not actually valuable just because they are old. This especially goes for things that were made before my parents were born. I don’t even know why, but that’s my emotionally arbitrary standard for hating to throw a thing out. If it’s older than my parents, then I have an irrational need to hang onto it.

For example, I have an old wooden jointer plane sitting up in my attic. I bought it some years ago, and even made a new wedge for it. (So I’m invested—see Clutter-Creator #1.) The body is somewhat cracked, but it’s still usable, I guess. I don’t really know how old it is, but I do know there are hundreds like it in antique shops all over the country. There ones in museums with all-original parts. (There are ones dangling from the ceilings of Cracker Barrel restaurants that are in better shape!) Yet I haven’t parted with it. Why?

Because it’s old, that’s why. And it’s not in the way.

I will hasten to say that there is nothing wrong with keeping a personal collection of well-curated items—whether antiques or collectables or anything else that strikes your fancy—as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your normal functioning. A display wall of vintage braces, all shined up and labeled, can be a thing of beauty. A pile of rusty braces on your workbench is not.

The Antiques Roadshow Problem

A few old things do have historical value, but most don’t. When it comes to vintage hand tools, a whole lot of that history has already been documented and commemorated with examples that are in better condition than yours. There’s nothing wrong with making inquiries into the actual value (historic or otherwise) of the things you have, as long as you are prepared for the inevitable news that these tools are neither as rare nor as valuable as you had hoped.

At this point in my life, I have probably seen hundreds of social-media posts from people showing a bunch of rusty tools and asking “what have I got?” In the best cases, the answer is “a few usable tools, as well as some junk.” Once in a while, there’s one tool that could fetch $50 or $75 on the open market, but most of the time it’s $5-$10 per tool.

Not once—not ONCE!—have I seen a post in which the consensus response was “Holy Cow! Call the Smithsonian! Call Christie’s Auction House! These tools are worth a FORTUNE!”

Doesn’t happen. Even though Antiques Roadshow has convinced us all that it happens all the time. It doesn’t.

In reality, there were a whole lot of cheap, low-quality tools manufactured in this country over the last century and a half. Even the desirable tools were mass-produced by the thousands, often by the hundreds-of-thousands. And like all antiques, their value goes up and down according to market demand. One day, you can’t hardly give away a vintage gizmo in good condition. The next day some hand-tool celebrity (C.S., I’m looking at you.) says it’s a great thing to have and the price goes through the roof. A couple years later, everybody has forgotten about it (except for the die-hard C.S. fans), and they’re selling for pennies once again. That’s economics for you.

My Past Self

One final way that the past can clutter our workspaces is through unhealthy nostalgia for a past life. Maybe you used to be really into a certain aspect of woodworking, but for some reason you can’t do it anymore. The most common reason is a tragic injury or declining health that makes it difficult if not impossible to do that kind of work. But there are other reasons, too. Any major loss (a divorce, a job-loss, a death in the family) that you associate with your workspace can make it just too painful to go out there again. So it becomes a catch-all space for storing junk that has nowhere else to go, and eventually your past self gets buried under the clutter.

De-cluttering the space means going back and confronting your loss, which can be really painful. But it can also be liberating to acknowledge that things have changed, and while you are not who you used to be, that doesn’t mean that who you are now is worthless. It can be therapeutic to let go of the stuff you associate with your past life in order to make room for who you are now—or who you want to grow into in the future.

All this may sound vague, even sentimental, but it’s not. I think it happens to most people at some point in their lives. You take a look around at some of the stuff surrounding you and realize, “This isn’t me anymore.” When that happens, you have a choice. You can cling to your past self, hopelessly wishing that you could somehow recapture that past. Or you can be thankful for the good that was, and accept who and what you are now as a gift, different from what you had before, but a gift nonetheless.

As you clear away the clutter that was (or that has buried) your past self, it’s good to keep some little mementos that are genuinely meaningful to you. Mount them on the wall, or put them where they are visible but not in the way. They will mean all the more if there are only a few, because when you look at them, you will not see a confused mass of clutter but individual reminders of what you have to be grateful for.

In my final post in this series, I’ll offer some practical strategies for de-cluttering a workspace, all while continuing to deal with those pesky, mental clutter-creators.

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1 Response to Clutter-Creator #4: Stuff of the Past

  1. Joe says:

    Thank you for this series. Your past self struck a chord. About two months ago, we had new floors installed (kitchen water leak). All the book cases had been emptied out and it was time to fill then back up. I still had all my chemistry books from under grad, grad school and my post doc. They literally filled a book case. I no longer need them. I think I kept six in total. It felt liberating. If I want to, I can always buy them again.

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