The Superior Works: C.A.Jewett's Patternmaking Chest

[This story (no names have been changed to protect the innocent) appeared in rec.norm (aka rec.woodworking) on May 22, 1995. The event really happened, and the images are proof of that.]

It all started on a recent trek home from doing the 9-5 selling my soul to the 'man' thing, when I happened to notice a yard sale in my rear-view mirror. I say to myself "screw it, I never find chi-chi at yard sales" (in choicer expletives), and continue home. Besides, it was a Friday and yupster pal was coming over the following morning to play with that bubinga - the wood that launched a thousand slams in rec.norm - and I wanted to get a start on jointing it.

Next week, on Monday, the yard sale is once again going on as I again notice it in my rear-view mirror. This time, however, something told me to turn around. I made a quick u-turn in the Dunkin Donuts pahking lot, and pull into the driveway. My first impression of the wares was that it was the typical tchotchkas one always finds at suburban yard sales, but at least there were no kids' toys or baby furniture. So, I decided to get out of my bubba-mobile and have a look.

I walk into the garage, which right off the bat indicated to me that it wasn't really a yard sale, but a garage sale. Out here in New England, we have several kinds of sales - like tag sales, moving sales, yard sales, garage sales, and I've even seen signs that read "Yard Sale in Basement" (but that was in Fitchburg, so it's no wonder). Anyway, I digress.

Inside the garage, I immediately notice some tools hanging on a pegboard. As I'm scoping them out, the owner of the place comes out and greets me. He's a friendly fellow, in his mid-70's, who, if he lived anywhere near Hollywood, woulda been a celebrity double for Burgess Meredith (but not as the Penguin). He sees me eyeing the tools and tells me that they're not for sale, that they are his users. I'm sorta pissed since there's a nice centering head from a Standard Tool Co. combination square hanging there.

I apologize for checking out his tools, and walk around looking at all the knickknacks of days long past (salt and pepper shakers really do come in an infinite variety) arranged nicely on two picnic tables. I'm about ready to punt, and start to chant my standard mantra "I never find chi-chi at yard sales" when I notice a hollow auger and a wooden tap and die sitting on one of the table's benches.

I asked him how much, and he began asking me questions about them, to see if I knew what they were. I was thinking to myself "hmmmm, he's either starved for company or he must be thinking I'm a total post-Neanderthal maroon what wouldn't know an old tool if it came up and nipped him in the arse." So, I answer his question, and then proceeded to the next round by telling him a bit of the history behind each tools' manufacturer. This is when the game started to get interesting.

For some unknown reason I mentioned the word 'patternmaker'. When I did, it was like correctly answering the Final Jeopardy question of "The profession of my long-dead father". I instantly became his long lost son, as he and I slugged it out trading patternmaker volleys in a game of one upsmanship. He was totally amazed that I, being a 30-something-Chuck-Taylor- wearing-in-sore-need-of-a-shave-who-looks-like-he-oughta-be-tending-a- garbage-scow-for-a-living-'murican-male would have even a remote clue about a trade that's all but dead.

He tells me about all the patternmaking that his father did while employed at a firm just down the road from where he lives. His father made patterns for machinery used to process wool. He then tells me that his great uncle was also a patternmaker. The chat is going back and forth, and I'm thinking "OK, it's time to leave - don't want the poochie tinkling on the Sheraton sofa if I'm not home in time to let him out". I again ask him the price for the two tools that I was interested in, and he says "20 bucks." I counter with "American?" as I whip out a Jackson, and hand it over to him. But, he's not through talking about patternmaking with me. He knows he's got a sucker on the line, and he's playing him for all he's worth.

This is when he decides to tell me that he has a patternmaker's chest that belonged to his father. This is when I decide to say the hell with the dog, my wife can clean up the puddle. I then start to probe him for the particulars, and he responds with vague answers, but he tells me that I can go look at it. I'm starting to get this throbbing sensation in my groin area, imagining what's to come. But it was all premature since he told me that we couldn't look at it then, that he was expecting a phone call, and that I'd have to come back later to have a look. We agreed that it be the following day, and finally bid each other good-bye.

My mind is going nuts, with visions of #56's dancing in my head for several hours, when reality suddenly hits. I tell myself to get a grip, that the chest will be crap, filled mostly with air, and that all he'll have in the way of tools are rusted-solid Coe's wrenches, crappy cherry Stanley levels, taps and dies, and the usual tool detritus I luck into. So, I set my expectations at that level, hoping that finding a #5 will be a pleasant bonus.

I arrive at the guy's place the next day, and he greets me right away. He asks me if I'm ready, and I tell him it's time to rock n' roll. The chest is in the garage down at his son's house, which is a short walk through the woods from where he lives. We're fighting the black flies, chit-chatting about his acreage, when we have to cross a field of dog jigs and the creator of them, right before the garage. We negotiate that successfully (if you're wearing Chuck Taylor's, you learn early on to avoid dog crap), and proceed to the garage, with Fido endeavoring to introduce himself to my crotch and leg.

Inside the garage is a pile of stuff, all arranged about its perimeter. We move to one side of it, and he begins to show me the feared pile of rusted Coe's wrenches, etc. Sure enough, I thought, it's as predictable as stink on crap that I'm gonna be offered rusted Coe's wrenches and cruddy Stanley levels. They were all there, in their filthy glory, before my dejected eyes. The view is salvaged somewhat by my noticing some old patterns hanging on the wall, so I give them a look and comment to the guy about what nice work his father did.

We turn a corner, and there's an oil-covered, beat-to-hell bench piled up with open end wrenches, screwdrivers, and a host of other junk that all belong in the Land of Misfit Tools. But, on the bench is an Emmert's patternmaker's vise. I scope it out, asking him if it's all there, including the near-impossible to find bench attachment which allows it to swing up from the face of the bench. It's there, as he demonstrates. I give the vise a closer look to see if the mounting bracket was broken and repaired, commenting to the guy that most are damaged one way or another. His wasn't broken there, but the face plate was cracked. He didn't know that it was, but it's a no-harm damage. He also has the original instructions for mounting the vise. First time I ever saw them, and he later gave me a photocopy of them.

He then leads me to the other wall of the garage, finally to show me the chest. My eyes are sweeping across the floor trying to beat him to it. Thing is, my eyes shoulda been looking up, since he was fumbling with a lock that was chest-high. It's then when I first noticed the chest - there it was, hanging on the wall, with two raised panels on the front, looking like some 4' x 3' x 1.5' piece of furniture you'd have behind your wet-bar to keep junior outta the drambuie and cognac. This is when it finally dawned on me that there was some real potential here; that this was no John Q. Pattern- maker we were dealing with. More like John Q. Rembrandt, I thought.

The lock was giving him a bit of a hassle, but he finally managed to pop it free. The massive hinges creaked as the front of the chest swung open to the right. I damn near fainted with what treated my eyes! A chest that was virgin, jam-packed with every freakin' tool what ever went into it. A chest that hadn't had a tool added to it in over 75 years. A chest that you only dream about or find on the back page of FWW. To get an idea of what this chest is like, imagine a functional, non-decorative version of the Studley chest. This is it, with perhaps more tools in it than that one has.

This chest wasn't made to be pretentious, just purely functional, with every available space crammed with the tools of the trade - saws galore, 3 sets of chisel (none of which are cranked, strangely enough), machinist's tools, bench planes, shrink rules, trammels, braces, drills, marking gauges, drawers filled with whatever, blah-bity, blah-bity, blah. And get this, there is even a mint Coe's wrench. There are two internal hinged doors that swing open to reveal even more tools. It was tools-a-go-go and I was booga-looing in my drawers.

The chest originally belonged to the current owner's great uncle, who was a patternmaker at Simonds Saw and Heywood Wakefield (the chest even has his 15 year anniversary pin in it). When that guy died, the guy's father inherited it since he was a practicing patternmaker. He used it for years, until he retired in the mid-1960's. He took the chest and hung it in his garage where it remained, mostly unused.

For two hours it was tool-orgasm, as he and I talked about the tools, his father, and the state of the nation. Toward the end of talking, he decides to ask me "well, what do you think about it?" I told him that I was just lucky to be able to see, touch, and experience the tools of his great uncle and father, and that I would kill to own it. He then asked me what it was worth to me. I answered that there are 3 ways to value it - one, which is the way that pains me to witness it as it happens, is the value of the tools as they are thrown to the wolves when the chest is pillaged for profit; two, the value where the sum is greater than the individual parts; and three, the value as a family heirloom, which is impossible for anyone but family to assess. He indicated to me that he did want to sell it, but only for the right price and to the right person. I told him that I would get back to him in a few days with my offer, what it was worth to me, after I had time to stew on it.

When offering somebody money for something that they hold near and dear, you always run the risk of insulting them, if they place a value higher than what you intend to offer. Naturally, we all like to get good buys and I try to make fair offers for stuff that I want to keep. I decide that I'm not gonna mess around, and that I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.

I returned to pay the guy a visit, with cash in hand, a few days later. I tell him that a minute hadn't gone by without my thinking about the chest, and that I was going to be heart-broken if I didn't get it. He asked me what my offer was, and instead of my blurting it out I handed him a fistful of Benny J. Franklin's to let him count it, to let him get the feel of cold, hard cash. He nonchalantly counted it, handed it back to me, and said that it was a fair offer, about what he had in mind. And then he drove a stake in my heart - he told me that two other guys had to look at it over the week- end. I got thinking that I was going to get involved in one of those dreaded bidding wars, where you never know what's going to happen, that even perhaps he was just using me to 'appraise' the value of the chest. All impure thoughts since I was so sure that I was going to go home with it that day.

He told me that he would have the others over to look at it, and that he would get back to me. He re-assured me that my offer was fair, that he had good vibes about me, and that he wasn't so sure about the intentions of the others coming to look at it. This tempered my anxiety a bit, but the pessimist in me had taken control of my mind's jukebox, where the tune "You Ain't Gonna Get It" played over and over and over. I find waiting for some- thing big to be the worst part. My mind races over the shoulda's, woulda's, and coulda's, which had I done them, I might have been able to take immediate ownership. I had a full week of listening to this tune, and I was about to snap, when the phone rings while I'm watching TOH re-runs for excitement. Wifey-pooh answers the phone, as she always does, since she's nice to the unsolicited huckstering of all expenses paid vacations to sunny Sarajevo if only we come to a seminar on home devices for underwater fire protection. I'm summoned to the cordless, and it's the owner of the chest telling me to come n' gits it the next day. I got about 1 hour of sleep that night.

It was a bit over a week ago that I took ownership of it. It was a very emotional time for the owner. As I was jamming it with bubble-pack, to keep the tools in place, he told me that everytime he opened the chest, the smell of it reminded him of his childhood and his father. He only relunctantly parted with it since he was fearful that his children, who had no appreciation for the tools nor the trade, wouldn't take care of it. He wanted it to go to someone who has that same emotion about tools that he, his father, and his great uncle have/had. He later told me that he was looking for the right person to sell it to for about a dozen years, and that he had a chance to sell it for more than I offered. But fate stepped in the way and set a course for he and I to meet years later.

I'm fortunate that he chose me since I must have convinced him of my sincerity to keep it together and to use the tools. I know that he could sense my passion for the stuff - I sometimes wear it on my sleeve (though never in this newsgroup). I reassured him that the chest was going to be well-loved and that he could make the half-hour drive to my place to see and whiff it anytime he wanted.

The final act was played out as I was loading it to take it away. He wanted me to hold the wedding picture of his mother and father and stand behind the chest so that he could take a picture of it. Sounds kinda whacked, but these aren't just tools. They're the legacy of the man's family. He needed the photo to link the past with the present, and the present with the future.

I arrive with chest back at my cave, and a fellow rec.norm'er, who was coming over for a visit, arrived right after me. He, my father, and I carried the chest into the house, and plopped it down on my walnut work- bench. I fumble at the lock to open it, and only one tool falls to the bench, which is a relief since I thought many more would have come free during the trip. Ah, bubblepack, is there nothing it can't do?

Like a proud father, showing off his new John Deere riding lawn mower, I stand there as the crowd of two ooh's, aah's, and gasps at the marvel of 19th century toolchest efficiency that leaves Snap-On in the starting blocks. After the viewing, the throng exits, content that they've gotten their money's worth. I'm left alone and continue to absorb the pleasure of my new toy while thinking about what the previous owners made with it. A spiritual sense overtakes me as I too take in the sights, the smells, and the feel of the tools. I began to think what I'll do with it once I go to that YB-plane in the sky. My only hope is that I, too, can find someone who'll worship it as much as C.A.Jewett, J.A.Crocker, B.Crocker, and P.Leach do.

The end.

pal, April 21, 1998