BARBARA HOOKS reports on a surgeon who swaps scalpels for spokeshaves in his leisure time. WASN’T he afraid of hurting his hands?, I asked Frank Ham, plastic surgeon and secretary of the Hand Tools Preservation Association of Australia? “Quite the reverse, that’s why I’m interested in hand tools. As soon as we’re through here, I’ve got to operate on a man who chopped off half his fingers in miter saw this afternoon. Power tools don’t stop when you put your hands in them. Hand tools are much more controllable.
The only power tool I own is a drill. Much as I would love to have all the machinery, I spend my time repairing people who do. Frank Ham began collecting hand tools 14 years ago when he inherited his grandfather’s tool chest, via his uncle. Both were tradesmen who taught him how to use most of the basic tools as a boy. In fact, his grandfather taught at the Working Men’s College, later RMIT. One of Frank Ham’s finest planes, acquired coincidentally, was presented to a prize-winning student at the college in 1891.
The Hand Tools Preservation Association was formed 10 years ago. Today, its 93 members come from a range of occupations and are interested primarily in preserving wood-working tools (timber was the cheapest and easiest material to work with at home). But as their library attests, they are also interested in the tools of many tradespeople, including basket makers, thatchers, mill wrights, glass workers, saddlers, printers, cobblers, clog makers, coopers, wheelwrights, coach builders and textile workers. Members meet six times a year, publish a regular newsletter, and mount displays in conjunction with the National Trust, the Science Museum and various craft groups.
They also hold an annual tool sale (open to the public) where there is a lively trade in tools with names that might have been invented by Lewis Carroll: sash fillisters, trammels, spoke shaves, draw knives, pole lathes, froes, claves and crozes. The names may sound unfamiliar to the lay ear, but even to the lay eye many have a beauty of form that transcends function, with their brass attachments, handles in mellow beech and boxwood, old English stamped lettering, and decorative embellishments of grape-vines, wreaths, and scrolls. Frank Ham has so many planes (some 200 years old) and measures (for just about everything _ paper, rubber, buttons, rope, shoes, iron) he has lost count. But among his more unusual or treasured pieces are an ebony and brass brace, violin-maker’s planes as small as a thumb pad, a folding ivory rule that would have been given to a foreman to check workers’ measurements or as a presentation on retirement (like a gold watch), and an architect’s folding rule with bevelled calibrations for accuracy. He also has an ironmonger’s rule inscribed with weight-by- length tables, a wrench from the tool kit of a Tarrant, one of the first cars built in Victoria, and how’s this for macabre _ a coffin- maker’s ratchet screwdriver with one-way action only! As tools tend to be passed down rather than discarded, Frank Ham finds most of his collection in antique shops, second-hand tool shops, garage sales, and farm clearances.
At one trash and treasure market, he picked up a timber scribe with the few dollars he had left in his pocket. On closer inspection at home, he found that the name John was spelt with an “I”, which put its manufacture in the 18th Century. It was an amazing bargain in light of current prices. At a large international tool auction in London recently, a 100-year-old brace sold for $10,000 while planes sold for $4000-$6000 each. In Australia, quality braces are selling for $600 while the tiny Stanley No 1. plane, of which there are only three known in Melbourne, is worth $1000 in perfect order. Frank Ham also has 200 books on tools and tool collecting and can identify most tools. But he and fellow association members still come across some tools whose purpose and operation have been long forgotten. So how do you know if the back shed harbors a secret fortune? In age, pre-World War II is the cut-off point for tools. And they must be in good condition; no rust or borer. A skilled operator, Frank Ham says, can make a hand tool do a better job than a power tool. “But most people haven’t got the time or the knowledge these days. The association would welcome new members with either at its next meeting on 20July at 7.30pm, at the Meat Market. (Contact: PO Box 1163 Carlton, 3053). If you have an unusual collection you would like to share with readers, contact Barbara Hooks on 601 2494.Read More →