I’m now 73 years old and can’t remember ever not having tools. In my mother’s diary she wrote about little projects I made before I even started kindergarten at the age of four. Some of the tools that I have today were my father’s. These include a hammer and some tinsnips. They outlasted him and those and others will outlast me, if they are maintained properly. This is where most of us fall short, me especially when it comes to tools for tasks that I’m not particularly passionate about. Outdoor yard projects fall into that category. For a tool to do it’s job, it has to be maintained. As someone recovering from health problems once told me, it’s easier to stay in shape than to get into shape.
My dad was a farmer into his early 40s and worked a lot with yard tools. When he visited me and saw that I was putting away a shovel crusted with dried mud I got a lesson on how to clean it, by thrusting it into a pail of sand. I got my pail of sand and have done that, occasionally, but when I went to use it this for the first time after winter I was aghast at its condition as it was put away late last fall in a hurry and was crusted with dried mud and was unusable. It was time I had to stop and do what I should’ve done last fall, clean it up. I’ve got more shovels and rakes to clean up too.
The shovel was encrusted not with a one time’s use of it, but years of never having been thoroughly cleaned up, so it was certainly time to remedy that. I started with soaking it in a bucket of hot soap and water but when I took it out for inspection it was obvious the mud-crusted barnacles were going to need some more serious action. I fiddled around with a wire brush, even a file and a scraper, but I wasn’t winning so I took more drastic action; out came my wire brush attachment for the grinder. This did a remarkably good and quick job and took off not just the barnacles but also some of the non-stick surface. After this, I both waxed and oiled it. Some suggest putting used motor oil in the bucket of sand and stabbing the shovel into it, but I don’t like either the sand or the sand and oil idea, so I’ll use a hand method. I’ll throw in another suggestion; remove adhesive stickers on hand tools. They collect dirt and are hiding places for rust.
JWR Adds: Used crankcase oil has been identified as a carcinogen. So, if you choose to oil-coat your hand tools, then use new oil. The current price of quart bottles of motor oil in auto parts stores is alarming. So I recommend looking for sealed bottles of motor oil at yard sales or garage sales.
But this isn’t about how to clean a shovel, but rather the importance of maintenance. Maintenance should be taken seriously and a schedule made and adhered to, just like the oil change on a vehicle, checkups with the dentist, doctor, etc. I know of a couple of instances where a handy person has picked up tools and appliances out of the dump, garage sales, and curbsides that were thrown out well before their time was up due to a simple lack of maintenance. One example was a discarded riding lawn mower that had a broken drive belt, easily replaced. Some lawnmowers get tossed because they need a new spark plug or the blade sharpened. The high cost and long waits at repair shops might account for a lot of this.
Procrastination and ignorance are the enemies of maintenance. I find that when I become knowledgeable on how to do the upkeep that the attitude of procrastinating lessens; when I see how effortless it is to do, I am more willing to do it. On the other hand, it is tempting to over-maintain some belongings that are better off not played with, such as financial investments. The Internet makes it easy to look up how our 401K is doing every hour or two, but meanwhile rust is eating out the fender of the car. Maintenance is one of the best investments one can make, so prioritize where your attention should be.
But maintenance is more than just an investment; there is a sense of personal accomplishment knowing that a simple task can have such rich rewards. There is a pleasure in knowing how to sharpen the kitchen knives, and that it is being done. The satisfaction you get from having your steak knife cutting through that slab of meat on your plate, seemingly by gravity, makes it taste all the better.
In the book of Proverbs it is written: “He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster”. Some versions say “brother to a master of destruction.” Failing to do maintenance is slothfulness and is a great waste, destructive. How so? It is obvious that the item being neglected is wasted but also one’s personal wealth; an item fallen into disrepair due to lack of maintenance is cast aside, is wasted, but also one’s personal wealth is wasted when a replacement is necessitated. But I am well aware of the giddiness of just chucking it and having the ability to just get a new one. Sometimes that does make sense, but not as often as it happens.
“Planned obsolescence” was an often-heard accusation made against auto manufacturers at one time, which I don’t hear about so much anymore. Perhaps this is because it has been replaced by an intentional design to prevent maintenance from being done by the owner. My mom’s ringer washer could be fixed, as it was many a time, but when we got our automatic washer we were told they were not designed to be maintained or fixed, they were designed to be recycled. Longer warranties have disappeared on many appliances with shorter lifetimes. This is good for the economy, their economy, not yours or mine. There is a significant opposition to this policy for those who want to be able to repair their own equipment, farmers and automobile owners in particular. As an example my tire pressure measurement system needs to be “relearned” but I have to go to the dealership to turn off an idiot light on my dashboard! I know how to check tire pressure. This, by the way, is one of those climate-saving features that the government has decided we need because we aren’t capable of maintaining our tire pressure without their help.
But I want to go back to the importance of knowing how to maintain your belongings. I’ll start with my teeth. I got into the routine of brushing my teeth before a meal instead of after a meal. My dentist asked me if I go to the car wash before I drive it through the mud. Okay, I got it, now I brush after a meal. My dad has always been mechanically-minded and liked to take things apart to figure out how it works and then to put them together when he was growing up on the farm. He told me, and I can’t believe he did, that when he was a teenager he took apart the wheels on the family car to see what was going on in there and noticed the brake pads were very dry; so he greased them, even though they weren’t squeaky. Which is a situation where he had been better off procrastinating instead of proceeding without the knowledge.
I’ve long been aware of the habit-altering effects that cliches can have on one’s behavior, which is another topic, but a few of them are worthy of note here; “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease first”. These both encourage indifference and inattention to necessary checkups and maintenance. Don’t let things break before it needs fixing, don’t let things go before you hear from it. It’s easier to service it than it is to fix it, and if it starts squeaking it might be too late to fix it.
A New-To-Me Ax
I found a nice double-headed Collins ax at a garage sale at a very decent price due to it’s abused condition. But the handle, which was banged up by overshooting the piece to be chopped, was still sturdy enough to use and the ax blade, once sharpened, functioned as an ax should. The seller judged and priced the ax according to its appearance. Yes, it was beaten up, but an ax doesn’t need to be good-looking to do its job. When hitting garage sales, don’t be wary of tools with a roughed-up appearance as long as they can function. But when you get it home, clean it up. Axes, pruning shears and lawn mower blades need so little attention to bring them from junk pile candidates by a little sharpening it is a shame to not do so.
Some maintenance tasks are so incredibly simple and can save so much money it is absolutely ridiculous to not do them, like letting water out of the water heater to remove debris that can corrode it. The reason why that task is neglected is because the water heater is in a room you rarely go into and you can’t see the goo inside of the tank. If it were in glass on your kitchen counter you’d be releasing water from that every day. “Out of sight, out of mind” can cost you.
I’ve used other examples than tools to make my point of the importance of maintenance of tools, but anything you use, including your teeth, to get a job done is a tool. They all have varying degrees of priority and you should be aware of what needs what, how often, and how to do it. Take a look at what you’ve got — even if it ain’t broke and ain’t squeaky.