Cleaning out my desk, yesterday, I came across one of my favorite tools, an antique printer’s loupe. Most folks have seen a jeweler’s loupe, the funny eyepiece that jewelers use to assess the quality of a gemstone. Printers’ loupes are different. They’re used to assess the quality of printing, such as press registration, engraving quality, etc. They sit roughly an inch or so above a printing plate or sheet of paper.
My loupe is inherited. It was my father’s, and I can remember seeing it and playing with it when I was a kid. It has a simple, spring-loaded, brass frame and a magnifying lens. It folds into a nice, compact package and fits into a nifty leather case, the snap for which has been gone more than 50 years. Around the lens, the brass is stamped Bluff City Engraving Memphis 3, Tenn. It’s old. I don’t know how old. The best I can find out is that Bluff City Engraving was founded in 1907 and was still around during 1940s. I have no idea where my father got it, but it’s still useful. Since part of my work often includes supervising printing, I use it, and each time I do, I think of him.
I have a love affair with old tools. Many of them were much more elegantly made than tools today: walnut handles, details added to corners, graceful curves instead of straight lines, brass instead of aluminum, turned cast iron instead of stamped steel. I suppose that when cost is a factor, elegance is one of the first things to go. That certainly seems to be case with architecture. Maybe the simple truth is that the cheap stuff has not lasted, so I just can’t consider it.
My grandfather grew up in West Tennessee. He was naturally mechanical. Family legend has it that he and some friends took apart a Model T and reassembled it on the roof of Peabody High School. In later years, he ran the engineering department for Buring Foods, a large a meat processing company in Memphis that produced King Cotton meats. He died in 1977; I was nine. Now his tools and toolbox sit in my basement next to my own tools and toolbox. His hand tools, particularly wrenches and pliers have his initials, REL, engraved on them.
Perhaps my favorite of his tools is an offset, box-end wrench, with a 1-inch end and a 15/16ths-inch end. I like it because it’s broken in two places. The 15/16ths end is cracked, and the wrench itself is broken right in the middle. My grandfather mended both breaks with spot welds, even though the wrench is a Craftsman and he could just as easily have gotten a new one for free. Maybe that says something about his character. That he was the kind of man who when he broke a wrench by using too much force didn’t think he deserved a freebie. Or maybe simply the urgency of the job meant that welding the wrench was simply faster and easier.
But now, looking more closely at the wrench, I know why he never returned it to Sears. He modified the 15/16ths end. The outside of the box is filed to be thinner, probably to fit into tight space, and overall height of the box has an eighth of inch ground off of it.
To some, the wrench is just a wrench, mostly useless because one end has cracked again. Me, I’ll never know why my grandfather modified the wrench. But I know he touched it and the other tools that say REL. He used it, maybe carried it around in his back pocket. And like the loupe, it fits my hand, and I can touch and use and carry it. If photographs are vehicles for memory, so too, are tools.