Our Lady of the Shitty Tools

Anybody who’s ever worked with hand tools will recognize what I’m about to say:

You can buy shitty tools.

I mean, there are companies out there who actually make and sell shitty tools. Tools deliberately MADE to break, or perform badly during use.

It’s a price-point thing, of course.

If there’s a set of characteristics of a good, usable Phillips screwdriver – one of which is steel hard enough to resist the concentrated force and torque on the working end of the tool as you press it into a resistant screw – a tool made that way will cost a certain unavoidable amount. Good hard steel costs. And costs still more, unlike soft iron, when you have to machine it into its useful shape. That cost has to be passed on to the buyer.

But for all those people not willing to pay that amount, there are ways to make a cheaper screwdriver. One of those ways is to make it out of softer metal.

Of course we don’t like to think about a tool designer sitting down and deliberately coming up with a tool that will break under pressure. The rationale of these screwdrivers is really that they’ll perform well-enough in the light use some users, say homeowners, will put them to.

But they really are designing them in the full understanding that the thing will break if put under any greater pressure. They’re designing them deliberately so that they will, in certain circumstances, fail.

You bear down on a screw, twist the screwdriver with your full strength, and rather than the screw turning, the end of the screwdriver will burr off, round out. You end up with a screwdriver that will not only not work in the current situation, but in all future situations. A useless screwdriver.

Which, if you put it back into the toolbox, will be like one of those used-up pens dropped into the pen-and-pencil catch-all rather than thrown away, so it will continue to annoy you by coming to your hand and failing to work every time you need a pen.

If you’re not a frequent tool user, I can tell you exactly where to find these tools: Walk into WalMart, or any big hardware store, and stroll around until you find a big “kit” of tools on display, something that has 8 screwdrivers – Phillips and straight-slots and Robertsons! – plus a complete set of tiny jeweler screwdrivers with interchangeable heads, plus 3 sets of pliers of varying sizes, two sizes of vice-grips, three sizes of crescent wrenches, and ooh!, ratchet wrenches with 24 chrome-plated sockets, all made to fit snugly in a beautiful red, pebble-grained, molded-plastic carrying case. Something to make you think “Wow, this is EVERY tool that I, Handy Homeowner, will ever need! And all for just $19.95!”

That’s them. I guarantee you, if you really use those tools, there will come a time when you say “This screwdriver, this pair of pliers, this ratchet, is a piece of shit! What a rip-off! Why did I ever buy this goddam thing!”

The crescent wrenches, for instance, will absolutely not grip the bolt head onto which you’ve applied them. They will automatically loosen every time you try to turn the bolt, so that you’re forced to try to hold the wrench’s adjustment screw in place while simultaneously trying to torque the wrench handle. After fifteen minutes of this, and ripping the shit out of your knuckles a couple of times when the wrench slips off repeatedly, Mother Teresa herself would throw the thing across the room and scream “FUCKFUCKJESUSFUCKINGFUCK!!”

But oh my god, when you first see the whole set in the store, it is sooo seductive. It’s just very hard to believe that something brand new, right in the store display, can be bad. Decades after I learned the Good Tools lesson – which is basically that good tools are expensive, that there’s no way around that fact, and that if you want good last-a-lifetime-and-perform-every-time tools you have to pay the high price – I still occasionally see those beautiful molded-plastic toolkits with all the gleaming sockets, the colorful handles and machined-chrome perfection, and lust after them.

There was a long period of time, some years back, when soft iron was all anybody had, and they made all the tools out of it, and everybody just had to make do. But at some point, someone discovered how to make hardened steel that could take ten times the stress of the soft stuff. After that, it became known that THIS was what you used to make screwdrivers that would never bend or burr, THIS was what you used to make hammers that would never chip or break. THIS was what you used to make close-tolerance crescent wrenches that would never loosen and slip.

At that moment, soft iron tools became obsolete.

It didn’t mean nobody made them anymore, or that nobody bought them. It just meant that they sucked. Compared to the good ones, I mean.

And so we come – yeah, you knew it was gonna happen – to religion.

There was a time when it was all we had, and everybody just made do. But at some point in history (it was a long, stretched-out span of time, actually, but, hey, I’m being poetic here), someone invented Reason, someone discovered Science, this whole other way of approaching the Big Questions of life and the Little Questions of everyday living.

And at that moment, religion – as a source of true answers, anyway – became obsolete.

And at that moment, religion disappeared, right? Ha-ha, good guess, but no – it stuck around like a fart in a submarine.

Instead of it disappearing, people started trying to fine-tune it. Because really, that was the best idea anybody had. People had been fine-tuning religion for thousands of years, when you think about it. When you realize your old religion isn’t giving good answers, you tweak it a bit and see if you can make things better. You kill the old shamans and appoint some new ones. Pull down that big blue rock and invent an omniscient God of Thunder. Or, wait, no, how about a God of the Underworld, who drags everybody but true heroes down into a pit! Oh, yeah! That way, us True Heroes™ will get respect and hot babes and stuff! No-no, what if we appoint one guy the big daddy, somebody infallible – call him the Pop – so that he can tell people all the answers, and, you know, collect money from people so us priests can all live in a big castle and have cheese and wine and little boys waiting on us – wink, wink – hand and foot.

The problem with fine tuning is that, if you start with shit – something that not only doesn’t work but CAN’T work – no amount of fine tuning will turn it into Shinola.

As it turns out, the GOOD tool – the one that returned true answers and useful tools – is Science.

And Religion? Oh, man, if ever there was a product for WalMart customers, this would be it! It comes in a beautiful package – a soaring castle in every city in the world –  and there are these guys dressed in impressive costumes with tall hats and gold sashes, and there are holy virgins, bloody tortured men hanging by nails, and ceremonies where people sing and wave their arms and cut off parts of babies. And it’s all in this one convenient kit. But wait, you also get Eternal Life! In Paradise! With Virgins! And if you order in the next 15 minutes, you also get absolution and forgiveness! NOW how much would you pay?

But … like that cheap crescent wrench you buy at WalMart, you get it down on the bolt head and start turning it, it loosens itself and slips off. No matter how much you adjust it, you can’t get it to hold. You can’t fine-tune religion so that it works.

It turns out that the REAL fine-tuning, the fine-tuning that worked, was when someone peeled out all the stuff that worked, ONLY the stuff that worked, and took it off to the side so they could see what would happen without all the fantastic mystical stuff. That peeled-out stuff ended up being called Science, and whoo-boy, did it ever work well! In a few years, we were flying like birds, bringing people (some of them) back from the dead, talking to people on the other side of the planet, and making screwdrivers with hardened steel rather than iron!

But like that pen that runs out of ink and gets thrown back into the catch-all, most people never really threw out religion. They kept it. Maybe, well, “just in case,” or maybe because “It might be a shitty tool, Earl, but it was my GRAND-DADDY’S shitty tool, and I’m keepin’ it for sentimental reasons.”

It’s still around, as you well know. Maybe it’s just a problem of too-narrow perspective. The fact is, if you buy a brand new tool, you just naturally assume it works, and works well. If there’s nobody there older and wiser to clue you in to just how bad cheap tools can be (like for instance, a history that records crusades and witch-burnings and stuff), and if you’re in an established, reputable store that sells stuff, gleaming new things that come in brightly-colored packages that shout out to you how wonderful they are … given no other information – and especially if there’s also a legion of recruiters and persuasive salesmen who would never, ever tell you that their tools became obsolete several hundreds of years ago – you are absolutely going to buy it.

All the while, though, just a few shelves over, is this other tool: Science. Maybe — to you — not as shiny. Quite a bit more expensive. And MUCH more demanding – you have to read and understand the big book of instructions, for instance.

But then again, it works.