Some Thoughts on Tools

What follows consists of some rather disorganized musings on the way that goldsmiths understand and use tools.


Tool, tōōl, n. A working instrument, especially one used by hand

Workwūrk, n. Effort directed to an end. (Collins, 1420)

Bodily experience forces us to acknowledge an imposition of meaning which is not the work of a universal constituting consciousness, a meaning which clings to certain contents. (Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception)

I’ll use the word ‘tool’ to mean a hand tool used by a goldsmith in a goldsmith’s workshop. The only motorised tools I’ll include are the flexible-shaft drill and the polishing motor, both of which are used by hand. The goldsmith’s instruments are in this usage precisely tools: used or directed by hand, they direct effort to a goal. A typical small goldsmith’s workshop may have over a thousand discrete objects in it which can be called ‘tools’, each distinct from the others, and each designed to perform a particular kind of work. The tool has a double function. It directs effort, but is itself directed by the body’s action. It stands between the goldsmith and the material, extending and focusing the body’s capacity. Two general classes of tools can be distinguished: what I shall call active tools, tools held in the hand like pliers or a hammer, and passive tools like the anvil, swage and mandrel, whose function is to limit the action of active tools on the metal.

Tools and Meaning

Tools fulfill very specific functions and their presence in the workshop is in answer to very specific needs. These needs arise from the social context: fashion, the form of a particular stone, a ritual or the imaginative desire of an individual require that the metal take a particular form. Though outside my scope, the social aspect of tools’ existence is very evident when we view tools in terms of their information content, or meaning. The tool is a purely cultural object, arising like foam on the social ocean. It is infused with information. The tool’s meaning extends into it’s socio-economic context: The fact of its presence is due to certain types of technological, social and economic organisation. Thus the tool signifies, among other things, these social formations. Canadian systems theorist Anthony Wilden raises interesting points about early tools, of relevance to tools in general and the goldsmith’s tools in particular:

Tools are undoubtedly the first form of lasting mnemonic trace – or WRITING – to appear in prehistory. Like language, their design and use has to be learned from somebody else; like memory they are something that can be ‘recalled’ and improved upon. The most effective tool invented for any particular job becomes ‘grooved’ into the network of traces constituting the memory of the system. And a tool which lasts increases the probablilties of its evolving into something new. All early tools are excellent examples of memory systems subject to non-holonomic constraints: there are always more degrees of freedom in their design than in the use they were probably put to. Tools are artefacts but they are not in essence objects. Since they qualitatively increase a species’ possibility of organising the matter-energy in the ecosystem, their primary characteristic is that of information. They are forms which inform; they are informed because they remember the past and make possible new types of projection into the future. Tools were perhaps the first properly ‘discrete’ signs ever employed by what was later to become man-and-womankind. (Anthony Wilden, System and Structure)

Thus tools are full of information, but only to those who can read them.  The tool comes to life, takes its meaning and its place in the system and flow of the Work in the hand of a practitioner working to achieve an end in changing some material in the spatial context of a workshop. A tool’s meaning emerges in use, in the present moment, in the hands, non-verbally. Lying in a workshop drawer, the hammer is a lifeless thing, and of no particular concern to this enquiry. In my hand, however, it allows me to focus muscular force in a very precise way, a way unique to that tool. In my hand it has potential, and so do I. The two of us converge. When applied to the metal, the tool expresses its potential in altering the metal’s arrangement. According to Tim Dant, “the object itself embodies the intentional actions of human beings that are released in the interaction with the present actor. So, the size and shape of an object, say a bolt, specifies how it shall be interacted with.” He further explains that “[b]oth the purpose of the objects and the way they contribute to the mechanical whole […] are, more or less, embodied within the object; the technician can assume that they were intended to `work’ mechanically in specified ways.”( Dant, 2001:3) The tools with which the goldsmith interacts do indeed ‘embody the intentional actions’ of people, but the metal is only partially thus.


Let’s take a particular tool, say my chasing hammer, and see what it tells us if we can read it skillfully. According to Erhard Brepohl’s definitive work on the trade, Theory and Practice of Goldsmithing, this tool “has evolved since the 18th century to become not only the best tool for this job, but a symbol of goldsmithing hand work.”  It has a steel head which weighs about 110 g. The head has a circular face 30 mm in diameter. The face is curved, not flat, rising gently about 1.5 mm in the centre.  Opposing the face is a ball-peen roughly 13 mm in diameter. The handle is 26 cm long and terminates in a comfortable pistol-grip. It is made of a pale springy hardwood, probably beech, and is a mere 9.8 mm thick  for almost half its length, This gives it some of the springy quality of a drum-stick. So much for what can be derived by measurement. The tool, however, holds still more information if ‘read’ with the hand: It can be comfortably held in the left or right hand and presents only one possible grip for using either face. The head is made of unhardened steel, which softens the blow and gives a microscopic grip to it, preventing slipping. The circular face is intended for striking a punch or other such tool, and gives a generous amount of surface for this purpose, relative to the weight of the head. If the goldsmith’s attention needs to be at the point where the punch touches the metal, then this additional surface is necessary to allow for slight variations in the direction of the blow. The slight curvature of the face allows striking of the punch from a wider variety of angles. Holding the tool and swinging it, one soon becomes aware that the shape of the grip, once comfortable in the hand, allows only one type of swing: the ‘correct’ or most efficient one.  In much the same way that scissors can only be gripped in one way, the pistol grip, by nestling between the ball of the thumb and lightly resting on the curled forefinger, orients the face of the tool with respect to the hand, allowing effective movement of the tool in one plane only. Movement in this plane can only be achieved by a downward rotation of the wrist, by extension from the elbow or from the ball-and-socket joint at the shoulder. The handle also has a feedback device built into it. The skilled goldsmith can tell how accurately the punch is struck without looking – the attention is required at the head of the punch.  This is because the further the blow lands from the centre of the face, the more torque will be generated along the springy handle and to the fingertips and palm. The optimum blow, in the middle of the face, will ‘feel’ the ‘best’. The tool is tolerant roughly 12 mm off-center. Using the ball-peen side of the head, the grip fits inversely in the hand, and develops a springy tension between the ball of the thumb and the forefinger. This tension is useful in delivering a large number of rapid blows to render the hammered texture commonly derived with the ball-peen. Again, only one type of blow is easily possible. From the above, it is clear that the tool, in interaction with the human body, is not a blank upon which we impose our will. We not only ‘use’ the tool, but in a manner it also ‘uses’ us, or constrains the user to behave in very particular ways.

In a later post I’ll say something about techniques – what happens when tools are used.

  1. You might be interested to read “Time and Technics” by Stiegler — he suggests that man evolves in response to hos tools as opposed to the inverse. He offers a lovely argument that I think M-P would support.

    • Thanks for the reference. I’ll look for it.

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