top of page

There's Something About a Tool...      Andy Cooperman









A well-made tool is a transcendent object: its allure parts functional potential and elegance of form. Even if its purpose is somehow obscure or has become entirely irrelevant it still has value as a reminder of how things were and how things were done. It’s still a compelling and maybe beautiful object.


For a long time we defined our species as the only one to use tools. Then we opened our homocentric eyes a bit and saw that there are, in fact, animals that use tools. Plenty of them. Egyptian vultures hurl stones at ostrich eggs to break the thick shells; sea otters pound open urchins against anvil rocks held on their chests; sea gulls drop mussels and clams on rocks to break them open; and chimps and some finches use sticks or cactus spines to fish out insects from hollow tree limbs. Dolphins have even been known to use scavenged sea sponges to cushion and protect their snouts when hunting in a rocky seabed. These animals, and others, have made the mental and physical leap from seeing something—a rock lying on the ground-- and understanding that it can help them overcome an obstacle and give them something that their unaided bodies never could. They use a simple tool to perform a specific task. So we are not alone in our use of simple tools. But surely we are the only animal that makes tools…


Wrong again: wild chimps and New Caledonian crows routinely alter sticks and twigs to better perform a task, stripping off leaves and bark and then rubbing the prepared sticks on the ground to thin and sharpen them. And captive rooks (corvids, like crows and ravens) in England have even learned —without training of any kind—to select a piece of wire, bend and shape it and then use it to fish out a morsel of food. While it may not be that much of a stretch to imagine chimpanzees--our closest living relative-- twisting and straitening a twig into a primitive poking tool, it gets a bit more interesting to consider that some troops of chimps actually make tool kits, fashioning a set of individually specific tools to perform a complex series of tasks in achieving a goal. Collecting honey or tasty driver ants requires plungers, perforators, pounders, dippers and collectors. I say some troops of chimps because not all make tool kits. It seems that the manufacture and use of tool kits may be a learned behavior, passed on socially within a community: A culture of tool use.


So the ability to use and even make tools is not ours alone. And, like some chimpanzees, our knowledge of tool making and application is handed down through generations. Tools too. Hanging in my studio are pliers and hammers that I have found at yard and estate sales. Small histories are soaked into their handles and grips. These tools come from the benches of smiths I’ve never met. I'm not sure about their gender, their politics, their skill level or what their favorite food was, but I think about these smiths every time I pick up one of these tools and I know that on one basic level we would understand each other.


The Bowerbird: love through architecture.

In a sense, that understanding and shared experience can even transcend species. The male bower bird builds truly beautiful and innovative arbor-like structures, or bowers, decorated with shells, feathers, bits of tin cans, colored paper, cellophane glass or anything that catches his eye—designed to lure a lady bowerbird into a relationship. In building his bower, the male has been reported to create a flattened brush tool by forging and fraying a twig against a rock which it then uses to apply berry juice to parts of the bower. By applying a bright and enticing color to an already extravagant structure the bird is amping things up- gilding the lily, so to speak-- communicating need and desire, maybe even pride, through ornamentation and embellishment. Sure, it’s all about getting some action, but isn’t flirtation and courtship a form of communication; a way to get the point across? And like the bowerbird aren’t we, as art and craft makers, also using tools to court others with our ideas, to share our needs and points of view by making objects that hope to bridge gaps and form relationships? We may be trying to state our case or vent emotion or we may be attempting to stir the pot, change another’s point of view or in some way affect them by sharing what we think is beautiful or compelling. Beauty, creativity, love, communication, society and culture, the continuity of idea and even species, it seems, involves tools.


Getting things done.

I consider a tool to be an extension of my body, allowing me to perform a task more precisely or effectively than I am able to do with my body alone. Think of rosary (tapered, flat needle nose) pliers closing the tiniest of jump rings or a stout, but pointy, pair of watchmaker tweezers pulling out a stubborn splinter. Or think of a scarred pair of vise-grips holding onto the end of a steel rod glowing red and ready to be forged. On the other hand, a tool can also allow me to accomplish something that my body was never designed to do. A torch is such a tool along with its evolutionary cousin the laser. The microscope is an interesting hybrid in that it augments a basic piece of equipment (our eyes) allowing us to work more precisely on small objects and even extending our working lives. But it also allows us to work on a scale that would never have been possible, by enabling us to see things that simply don’t, in a sense, exist without the magnification offered by the tool. Now the tiniest of diamonds can be bead set, encrusting a piece of jewelry in the micro-pave style where, to the naked eye, individual stones become one scintillating carpet. And then there are the new and emerging technologies of CAD, CAM and 3-D printing. And maybe that’s one of the most beautiful things about the metalsmith’s studio; it’s a place where the tap of the hammer can be heard above the soft zap of the laser, where water can fuel a torch and a simple block of charcoal still makes a great soldering surface. The studio embraces it all: from cutting edge to old school.


Sin and Zen

Our use of tools runs from simple to sublime. Sometimes we need a very basic tool to get a job done and we’ll grab whatever is at hand (not necessarily the best practice). But sometimes a tool needs to be altered. In my studio I am constantly seeking a balance between my respectful use of a tool and the potential that it offers. Let’s say that I have an idea for an object and I have a tool in my studio that will allow me to bring that idea to life. But the tool must be altered-- perhaps permanently-- or even entirely consumed in the process. Should I do it? Should I take the risk? The answer is an equation. It depends on what I have to gain and it also depends on the quality, cost and scarcity of the tool, my personal attachment to it and how often I use it. An easily replaceable pair of pliers is a no-brainer, maybe a hammer too. But if I was onto something that could be really big, a new direction or approach that required a major tool sacrifice, say a rolling mill, I just might consider it. While there is no sin in customizing a tool (indeed some hammers and pliers leave the factory with the expectation that they will be “dressed” or refined and even customized) there is Zen in using one tool as widely as possible. Levering the use of a tool, using different parts of a single tool or changing its function by reorienting it or changing how it’s held, can be a beautiful thing.


Cuidado Aqui (Caution)

So it’s no wonder that we collect tools. It’s no wonder that we coddle them and it’s no surprise that sometimes we end up worshiping them. And that’s where the trouble can begin. Certainly we should honor our tools, they provide us with the ability to survive, to manifest our ideas. They enrich our lives. As I’ve said, a well-maintained tool can pass through many hands, bridging generations and linking creative lives. It can be said that it is our duty to respect and care for our tools. (This is especially true of group situations such as the classroom or community studio where standards are set and must be met.) But there is a difference between healthy respect for a tool and tool infatuation. And even though some tools hold a special place and power in our hearts, studios aren’t shrines and benches are not altars upon which to worship tools. When tools are sacred icons they can become obstacles that stand between ourselves and the work that we want to make. We are less likely to push a material --or ourselves --if we are fearful of harming a tool. We can become tight and overly cautious and lose our sense of play, which is never a good thing. 

bottom of page