In the movie Gran Torino, one of the most memorable scenes for me was when Clint Eastwood first introduced his young neighbor to his garage. The young boy is in awe of the rows of tools, neatly stored along the wall, and the bins of hardware, lubricants, and other odds and ends every well equiped garage should have. That scene stuck with me because in my mind’s eye it was what a “man’s” garage should look like, and it is in many ways what my garage is like now. It wasn’t always that way, it took years to become what it is. Clint even points that out to the kid in the movie when he asks where all of the “stuff” came from. Growing up we didn’t even have a garage. I lived in a small row-house not too far from Downtown Philly (or Center City) as we called it. My house didn’t even have room for a workshop. What it did have was a dirt floor basement where our furnace and water heater were located, along with a coal bin, and our clothes washer. My dad had set a small area aside in the back of the basement where he kept a work table, some saw horses, and his tools, and I later on kept my weight bench and heavy bag. You can imagine it was pretty cramped. But, as a boy, something always drew me towards that dingy, dark little area of my house.
My dad had few true woodworking tools, which is maybe one of the reasons I didn’t take up woodworking until I was an adult. He did have some carpentry tools: a few hand saws, an old jack plane (not that I knew what it was called then), an eggbeater drill and corded drill, some clamps, a few hammers, a circular saw, some chisels, a tape measure and a folding rule, a small and large level, and an old wooden toolbox and newer metal one. He also had a set of wrenches and a ratchet and socket set that he used at work as well as for minor auto maintenance. And he had a set of tools for hanging drywall, which he did on the side sometimes to earn extra money. Above his bench he had the ubiquitous row of jars which held assorted hardware: nails, screws, nuts, bolts, and washers. The hardware was what first attracted me as a kid, probably because it was shiny. Sometimes I would go into the basement and mess around with the hardware, or maybe nail a few 2×4 scrap boards together, and later on screw them together when I was strong enough. If my dad heard me down there, which he usually did, he would yell at me to “get upstairs”. My dad had a loud voice, then and now, and I usually would do what he said. But the seed had been planted.
As I said before, my garage began to take it’s shape slowly. I would do projects and end up with extra hardware. Need to replace a plumbing valve? Next thing you know you have solder, pipe dope, plumbers putty, and a mapp gas torch, along with a gaggle of assorted plumbing fittings. Framing out a new wall? Now you have a box of framing nails, wood glue, a hand saw, a framing hammer, and of course a framing square. You’re going to drywall that wall? You have drywall screws, a set of drywall knives up to 10″, a screw gun, and a trough. The radiator hose on your wife’s car has a leak? Now you have extra hose clamps laying around. The spring latch on the hood of your truck broke? Now you have a box of springs. This isn’t even counting the set of mechanical tools I had from my last job, or my electrical tools from when I was a field electrician, or the hundreds of electrical parts and fittings I still have, or my carpentry tools that I used as an electrician and around the house. Now, of course, there are woodworking tools, a table saw, and a workbench as well. Little did I know, but my garage was becoming what my idea of what a garage should be and look like. I honestly didn’t know it until one day my father-in-law had stopped by and asked me if I had a can of silicone lubricant. I keep all of my cleaners and lubricants on two racks I made in the back corner of my garage. I told him where to find it. When he returned with it he asked, “Is there anything you don’t have in there??” I don’t ever recall trying to make it become what it is, but I think that subconciously maybe that was the goal I was striving for, because it’s what I have…not that I’m complaining.
Now my garage is my woodworking shop as well. I allow my little girl to come in with me as long as I’m not running the table saw. She is of course drawn to the hardware, like I was when I was little. I keep all of my hardware in plastic storage containers that look like briefcases with dividers. I also have quite a few PVC fittings: couplings, sweeps, and adaptors that she likes to piece together in strange designs and then send marbles racing through. I have a stool at my workbench that she can sit at and nail finish nails into some scrap wood with a small wooden mallet. I never discourage her, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to yell at her sometimes for doing what she shouldn’t be doing. All little kids are going to try to do something ill advised from time to time. My job is to make sure that she doesn’t get hurt attempting it. But I think it’s important for her to feel comfortable in a shop environment, around tools, and working with her hands. I only wish I had more encouragement when I was her age.
I make my living in tools and hardware. I think the course was laid many years ago in a dingy corner in the basement of the house I grew up in. I hate to use the word expert, but I probably know more about electrical hardware and fittings than most people in the entire country. I’m also not too shabby when it comes to tools. It’s strange and funny how things turn out, and how seemingly minor parts of your childhood can leave such a lasting influence. I’m 39 years old now, doing what I belong doing, earning my living through tools and hardware, woodworking for fun, and trying to show my little girl that she can be at ease around such things, even though she is “just a girl”. I keep my garage as neat and organized as I possibly can for that reason, among others. Somehow I equate having a well organized garage, with hardware in bins, saws in racks, woodworking tools organized and sharp, cleaners and towels and motor oil and washer fluid and brake fluid and wrenches and hammers and scrap wood and a project on the workbench and paintbrushes and paint and stains and shelves and power tools and handplanes and toolboxes and tool totes and boards and scrap 2×4’s…..somehow I equate all of that with being a good man and a good father. I think I’m right; I kind of hope I am.