Over the years, I have collected a fairly large set of tools in order to perform most ordinary (and quite a few out-of-the-ordinary) tasks involving vehicles or metalworking or general repair.  I like being able to solve problems and having the right tools really makes the difference between frustration and success, and I’d always rather pay a few dollars more to buy the right tool rather than do it the wrong way for cheaper.  This collection of tools (and parts, and raw materials, etc.) I consider a collection not of items, but a collection of “capabilities”.  This allows me to call upon one of these varied capabilities when some problem presents itself, and quickly complete the task in order to get back to what I was doing – typically, some larger project.

There is a pleasure in being able to do things myself, and I am finding it more and more rare that I have the time to put into practice some of the capabilities and skills that I’ve been stockpiling.  In recent years, I have found myself pressed for time, unable to accomplish even the most trivial of tasks without deferring to someone else’s expertise – I don’t even change my own oil these days, since disposal is a pain and frankly I don’t have the time.  I used to think that concept was absurd – how could I not have the time to change my own oil?  But it’s true – I find myself doing too much, with too few hours in the day, and I’m substituting dollars for minutes.  I look for phone numbers instead of part numbers.

But every once in a while, it does feel good to get back to the way I once was (and someday will be again) where I’m able to handle almost any repair, fabrication task, or creative solution.  Often this is due not to my desire to spend hours on a project, but by the fact that there is no expert or pre-made solution to my problem, which forces me to downshift from thinking about conservation of time and start thinking about steps to completion that I must take myself.  Today was one of those days, and it made me happy to have to plan and then accomplish what seems like a small but otherwise impossible task with a few of the capabilities that have long sat dusty on the shelves.

In an extremely long chain of interlocking requirements, I needed to shift some stuff around in my basement.   Think of one of those little finger puzzles with the numbers that slide around, with one block that’s empty – remember those from your childhood?  My life is like that, it seems.  But heavier.  So the empty slot this evening was the double-door safe I have in the basement (pre-WWII safe labelled “US Army Department of the Air Force”) which is destined to be the locker for all of the dead weight paperwork in the house that I would want to have preserved in a fire-proof box.  The lock on the safe was getting very touchy, and was close to failing.  After some number of years, I finally found a replacement lock for it (that’s a whole story in itself) and then spent the hours getting the old lock off (another story, a minor success due to having the right tools.)   But I had to saw some old bolts off, and as it happened, they were custom screw/bolts which were made exclusively for these safe lock mechanisms.  Foiled again.  Nobody makes screws like this, so I was again floating in the land of  “can’t-complete-the-task”.  A tiny thing like a single screw was preventing the lock from working, which held up a large number of other dominoes that I was trying to push over.

But… wait!  I have a lathe.  And a mill.  Two items that most people don’t possess, but I determined were part of my “capabilities” toolkit some years ago.  I purchased some bolts that had the same thread, and after about 20 minutes of work on the lathe and mill… presto!  Replacement screw.  It’s so rare these days that I am able to recognize an immediate accomplishment or success – everything seems so long-term, so ethereal.  Having a result that is tangible is a nice change of pace.

This would have cost me at least $100 or more at a machine shop, and that would be after quite a bit of drawing and explaining and driving and phone calls.  Compared to 20 minutes of eyeballing it on the lathe and mill at 10:00 at night.   Everyone should have a decent array of capabilities at their fingertips – even if it’s not quite as dense as mine.  Being able to master or at least battle the problems of the physical world oneself is just as important as knowing the right phone number.

New bolt/old bolt

New bolt/old bolt

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