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Tooled Beauty

Sandor Nagyszalanczy's love of implements goes beyond what he can build with them: He takes joy in their design and delights in the decorations found on antique tools.


There are solid tools for banging, cutting and smoothing rough things. Then there are tools for admiring as something more.

Sandor Nagyszalanczy, a professional woodworker and editor of American Woodworker magazine, appreciates the day-to-day knockabout ones that can finish any project. But his turn-ons combine unexpected beauty with the practicality we count on.

Nagyszalanczy's interest took him around the country on a search for tools held by collectors. He visited galleries, museums, homes and sheds, discovering everything from 19th century steel calipers in the shape of a dancer's muscled legs to ancient warship axes used for splitting wood . . . or the head of an enemy.

Those, among others, are showcased in "The Art of Fine Tools" ($37, Taunton Books, 1998), his tribute to what can only be described as art tools. They go back thousands of years, or only a few. Some are remarkable for their history, others for their craftsmanship.

In the book, Nagyszalanczy puts them in perspective this way: "A well-made tool is a thing of beauty that's a pleasure to use," he says. "But to enjoy a fine tool, one doesn't have to raise a shaving or kick up a cloud of sawdust. Sometimes, it's enough just to sit back and gaze with admiration.

"The figured-rosewood and brass body of a try square, the Victorian lace pattern cast into the handle of an antique scraper, the intricate filigree in the iron base of a scroll saw--these refinements have a universal appeal. You don't even have to be a woodworker to appreciate their inherent beauty."

Nagyszalanczy is aware that veteran woodworkers might snicker at a tough implement all prettied up. But he points out that almost all of the tools in his book were actually used on a daily basis before entering someone's collection.

"Many of the wooden tools show a tremendous amount of wear," Nagyszalanczy says, "and even user-made repairs often visible in the photographs."

But why stylize a tool in the first place? He says the pieces either reflect a time when aesthetics in common items were more important than today or the woodworker wanted to enhance a favorite tool, perhaps by carving a design in the handle.

Chet Clemons, who often works on projects in the garage of his Los Alamitos home, couldn't see himself decorating one of his tools. He just wasn't that close to any of them, not even a jigsaw that had been in the family for years. But Clemons, 42, did think some could be prized as art and was intrigued by the book. "Why not?" he asked. "Many of them are already interesting in terms of shape and uses [so] you can see how people might want to make them different."

Jack Berkow of Westminster agreed. Berkow, 51, mentioned a hammer he owns that has the initials "M.W." dug into the handle. "I don't know who that guy was or even how I got that hammer," Berkow said. "But obviously, someone cared about it enough to do that. I think about that when I use it for odd jobs around the house."

Nagyszalanczy covers hundreds of tools in the 232-page book. In the "Marking and Measuring Instruments" chapter, there's a 12-inch ruler, but it's not close to what we might remember from our school days.

This "ivory rule with gilt frieze," made in Europe in 1849, has ivory edges and a gilt-covered copper center panel depicting men, women, horses and serpents partying together in some mysterious bacchanal. Later in the section is a group of "dancing-master calipers."

"Considered folk art, [they] show the whimsy of their maker," Nagyszalanczy says. "The legs [are] bare or stocking-clad, female or male, elegant or awkward."

The "Tools for Hammering and Drilling" chapter has many of the oldest tools. A pair of Roman hammers, with their worn heads and handles, go back the furthest, to 55 BC. There are others with heads resembling animals, such as the goat-headed hammer made in Europe in the 1920s.

One of the most striking--and sinister--implements is in the "Tools for Sawing and Slicing" section. The "18th Century Boarding Axe" has a decorative face but was as much weapon as tool.

"The beauty of this hatchet belies its hostile purpose," Nagyszalanczy writes. "It was to be used by sailors boarding an enemy's ship to hack through sparks, bulkheads and rigging. . . . It was also handy for other duties as well."

His favorite tool is in the "Handplanes of Fancy" chapter. The author describes this "Miller's Patent No. 50 Plow Plane," as "one of the fanciest woodworking tools every manufactured."

Forged from bronze, its serpentine lines curve from the handle to the sharp planing surface, designed to smooth the hardest woods.

"Every part of the plane has strong lines, appealing textures and visual interest, yet every part is there for a functional reason," Nagyszalanczy explains.

"Its beautiful form wouldn't be out of place as a piece of jewelry--scaled down, perhaps, as a pin for a lady's lapel."

* Available at Barnes & Noble in Costa Mesa and Irvine, Rizzoli Bookstore in Costa Mesa, other bookstores or through Taunton Press at (800) 888-8286 or

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