Monday, November 29, 2010

Me Tarzan

Right, as promised, the flip side of tool decoration. Anyone easily offended may wish to look away.

Hang around in the world of tool acquisition for long enough, and you'll eventually hear the phrase "The Mother Lode". I'm not absolutely sure who coined the phrase, but the gist is pretty obvious. You've hit the seam. There's gold in them there hills. In short, it's often a lot of particularly lovely tools all at once. If you're good and eat all your greens, you may happen upon one in your lifetime. Nearly eight years ago, I hit mine. And, as is so often the case with a mother lode, the source was a patternmaker.

But I don't want to bore you with that tale now.

It's enough to say that amongst the goodies were some rather nice paring chisels and gouges, including a couple of boxwood-handled examples. Mr Thomas, for such was the name of the patternmaker, had acquired one 1 1/2" paring gouge and one 1 1/2" paring chisel, previously owned by an R G Roberts. Here's the chisel; is it not a thing of majesty?

Mr Thomas was but 18 at the time and keen to personalise his new acquisitions. Naturally enough, being a young man only newly in the working world and tool ownership, he put some effort into it. As it happens, Mr Thomas was one of many millions of gentlemen who followed the adventures of "Jane" in that well-known national newspaper, the Daily Mirror.

For those not in the know, "Jane" was a comic strip in which the hapless, but comely Jane, found herself caught up in all sorts of misadventures. Oddly enough, she often mislaid one or all of parts of her outer clothing while so employed. She never caught on in the States, being considered decidedly too risqué, whereas she was very popular indeed in Britain. Go, as they say, figure. Legend has it that it was Jane losing all her attire lead to a significant 5 mile advance by the British Army in North Africa during WW2, but that's very difficult to prove. Anyway, you get the gist. She certainly captured the embryonic patternmaker's imagination:

And on the gouge, this full height portrait:

Pretty tame stuff by today's standards, but you had to feel for Mr Thomas - naturally enough it never occurred to him, 50 years later, that he'd be explaining this to a potential buyer who also happened to be female. But I was honestly more interested in how he'd done it. Apparently he cut out the comic strip, temporarily glued it to the handle and scratched the lines through with an awl. "How did you blacken them?" asks I, thinking of India ink and such. But no, it was just the accumulated grime from his fingers well rubbed in. Although I think the underwear was probably inked in afterwards...

Now I have to say this wouldn't be my first choice of tool decoration any more than a bunch of flowers, but as a snapshot of that owner of that tool at that moment, it's a little bit of social history. I wonder if there's anything comparable being done now? Anyone installing USB sticks in chisel handles yet? Now there's a marketing idea...


  1. I love when I find personalized items like those. I guess It's why I buy used books -- sometimes there's an invite from the "1948 blah-blah Country Club Dinner Dance." Or the times you buy an old dresser and find the sports page from 1925 as a drawer liner. Great stuff.

  2. Awesome! Thanks for the history. My personal Jane was Maureen O'Sullivan ("Tarzan Finds A Mate"), who has visited my subconscious since age ten. Not too late to carve something in appreciation on one of my boxwood chisel handles...

  3. It's a rare treat to get both the tool AND the story. Usually you only get one or the other.


Owing to vast quantities of spam this blog is getting, I'm afraid only registered users can post. All comments are moderated before publication, so there may be some delay. My apologies.