As North Americans, we may have lost our way. The people I see around me on the street are looking for meaning, and most believe that it can be found in consumption and buying more stuff. We have let China become our cheap production method, and few things most of us own were made elsewhere. Our drawers are filled with low-grade metals, woods and plastics slapped together in inhospitable factories. Cheap labour creates shoddy products. Who can take pride in their daily work when it is the work of a slave? North America needs to remember how to lead through action; we need to build our own goods and pay a fair price to the worker.
I also look for meaning. Like everyone else on the street I hope to become more with the living of each day, but perhaps where I have begun to differ is that I aim to surround myself with objects that will support my lifelong growth and learning. Often, those objects are directly related to other people who have come to the same realization and have started building, making and repairing the world around them. Case in point, Bad Axe Tool Works out of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
After serving within the U.S. Army for 28 years, Mark Harrell decided to build and repair handsaws and other vintage tools at the highest level of craftsmanship possible. After buying our house this summer in Toronto, Canada, I also realized that I find great personal satisfaction from working with my hands. As anyone who owns a house may know, there is always work and repair to do on a house, and the tools one owns dictates how well one can do the basic repairs without profanity and needing to revisit the building store because of broken, cheap tools. I value well-made tools, and I see no reason not to buy the best that I can afford so that they will not be tossed in a landfill when I die.
For Christmas this year, the dogs procured what has to be the most beautiful, made-to-order saw from Bad Axe: a hybrid dovetail/small tenon saw with a copper sawback and a Texas Mesquite wood handle. The unboxing left me want to saw into tables, bannisters and random pieces of wood, but I am waiting until next week, when my photography work clears up. For anyone considering ordering from Mark, he was really positive and easy to contact. He followed up about my hand size, and guided me to make a few changes in my original order. He may have forgotten to make a last minute change in the wood material, but was gracious about it, offered either a discount or a rebuild, and, in the end, what I wanted was the exact saw he made for me. I will buy another saw or two from him over the next year for our workshop in the basement. I cannot imagine a more gratifying to spend $300 in a serious way that will offer me a lifetime worth of being about to cut into wood, build furniture for my family and make repairs around the house.
The second object that the dogs purchased for me offered a completely different shopping experience: a Vermonter copper flask from Jacob Bromwell. Now do not get me wrong…this is a gorgeous, traditionally made copper flask made by American workers in Vermont. My issues with this purchase, and where the contrast is clear between Bad Axe and Bromwell, is the nightmare of a shipping disaster I had to deal with to get this simple order into Canada. Four phone calls to different shippers and one pretty useless email left me unsure of where the flask had actually been sent, and with a $120 import bill. Do I regret the purchase? Nope. It is the perfect way to take single malt scotch out of the house and into the woods or on road trips. Drinking from it is a unique pleasure, and the flavour is not impaired in any way. It is backed by a Lifetime Guarantee, which would undoubtedly result in more border shipping disasters, but in the end the flask feels unlike any other item I could have found elsewhere. I will not buy from Jacob Bromwell again, however, which is unfortunate for their customer service and long-term success. So be it.
The next two items were made in Canada. It is hard to find anything that is made in this country anymore. I buy my t-shirts from Ironhead, I bought a Canada Goose parka before it went trendy and I shoot product photography for Paderno Cookeware, whose Canadian made pots and pans beat anything else I have found…period. Tools? Who knew that Lee Valley Tools and their Veritas line were manufactured in Canada? In my pursuit to pick up a modest collection of the best woodworking hand tools I could within the year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get many of the best ones locally. I was fortunate enough to have M. give me a thoughtful gift of the spoke shaves made by Veritas, and my mother sent along a low angle block plane.
These tools are precision-balanced and manufactured in a way that gives them a weight I have never experienced from any tools bought from the big three building supply depots. While they are not bespoke, nor are they particularly inexpensive, these are also tools that will be around in service long after I am not. I might mention that while these tools are made in Canada, not all of their items are. In fact, I ordered an inexpensive table vise last month from Lee Valley, and it must be the worst piece of junky metal I have touched. It went immediately back into the box, to be returned as soon as I find a few hours to drive downtown to return it. Lesson learned: buy the best, buy less, and then act upon your dreams and aspirations. Make things. Lose yourself in the details of your actions. Accept nothing less than the best that you, or those you deal with can do. Firm ideals for the year ahead of us all.