The nails and screws in my dad’s workroom are organized by size and type and kept in plastic jars that once held Skippy peanut butter and Kosciusko mustard.
He has a wide assortment designed for a wide assortment of jobs.
The sizes are indicated with writing on a strip of tape. They range from 2 ½ inch-galvanized nails to 1-inch roofing nails to 3-inch finishing nails, among others.
There are scores of nail jars and an entirely separate jar universe for screws.
Looking at the workbench from a distance it looks haphazard. But when you get close you can see he has a casual, but not random system. It’s one he’s been improving for decades.
When I was a kid the workbench was in the basement and the nails were kept in former coffee cans. Over time he replaced the coffee cans with glass jars because it was easier to see the nails inside. But glass can break, so he switched to plastic.
There were two abundant and easily available sources for plastic jars, Skippy peanut butter (which the kids ate) and Kosciusko mustard (my mother’s favorite.) I don’t think buying receptacles was ever even a consideration.
Preparation being everything, dad harvests the jars when they are empty, washes them out, removes the label and puts them on a shelf to be ready for the nails, screws, mouse traps, hooks, brackets, corks, beach badges or whatever random item that is accumulating.
Until recently, I had never really taken the time to consider the workbench. It was always there in the background. The nails and screws and hammers and saws and wrenches were like ambient noise.
For my dad, though, the workbench was a central organizing place in his life.
This may not be everyone’s experience, but I feel like there has been a general and generational loss of exposure to tools and the culture of building and fixing things.
Dad has lots of tools and uses them to build and repair items. I never used the tools, but I know a galvanized nail from a roofing nail. My kids have no idea that different nails exist.
In part this makes sense as more and more of the consumer items we buy from cars to computers are either too complicated or too inexpensive to be worth fixing.
Until recently my father was using as his workbench a 75-year-old Dewalt 14-inch radial arm saw that was bolted to a 7-foot-long bench. When he gave it away, I was worried he wouldn’t have a place to work.
The next time I visited, however, he had found a solution. He replaced the space where the DeWalt had been with a new, smaller table he built by screwing a piece of plywood on top of two old wooden cabinets. He found the plywood at a construction site down the street.
If you looked at it from a distance, the workbench looked like it had been there 100 years.
You have to get closer to see the traces of sawdust to know it was just built.
(Part of a series based on conversations with my parents about what they do all day and life lessons.)