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The Ultimate Swiss Omni Knife

Always curious (and possibly wacko), I kept track of how many times I deployed my trusty Victorinox Champion Swiss ArmyŽ knife last year. Two-thousand-and-eight. That means it has helped to solve about twenty-six thousand little problems since I hired it in 1985. Yet there have been at least as many times I cursed its liver for not having the blade needed for the job at hand. People have always hungered to correct pesky failures, to implement their inspiration, to physically flaunt their know-how. Is it possible to make a Swiss Army Knife or other tool that can handle any likely situation? We're talking augmented physical capability here, and it's certainly a desirable and even enticing goal for many folk—witness the rising tide of all-purpose belt-sheathed tools flooding the market these days. (All are OK. None are entirely satisfactory, nor can they be.)

Computers also qualify as design tools. With a CAD (Computer Assisted Design) program, for instance, a computer can help the designer by depicting size, shape, and color in easily editable form. Iterative versions can be tried quickly and affordably. CAD eases tiresome chores by calculating and displaying stress and strain, costs, production schedules, for each new version. Widely separated designers can work together online. But electronic tools of analysis and simulation can merely display attributes. Heft, drape, scale, tactility, and wieldliness can only be intimately assessed by engaging a real object. You can't sit, much less get comfortable, in a virtual chair, however nifty it looks onscreen.

In fact, computer representations can mislead—and frequently do. Two-or three-dimensional CAD renderings can neither predict nor project complex and often subtle interactions with the actual world. They can help refine an idea, but they cannot innovate or identify opportunities for synergetic advantage. Intriguing and essential design nuances in computerized representations tend to be reduced to this-or-that choices—abdicating the exactly-right-size and mysteriously exquisite contours that remain unrealized in the artist/artisan's intuitive mind.

Nothing simulated can equal the thrill of taking a design concept from napkin-sketch to physical viability. Even the most electronically sophisticated thing-making corporations have discovered the advantage in moving from keyboard-and-screen to the shop floor as soon as possible. Artists and hand-crafters already know why; they've always been there.

A Crafter's Manifesto

Human handling and manipulating of materials and the tools that work them, as well as making and testing your own prototypes, ensures that nothing gets lost or diluted in the translation from thought to thing. Know-how, and the equally essential know-who, are born and bred at the metaphorical workbench and coffeepot, then spread through trade journals and the Internet.

Human inventions and capability (for both good and ill—as always) are increasing at a furious pace. Managing this torrent in a way that avoids serious insult to society and the rest of nature is proving to be difficult. As awareness of the effects of our actions sharpens, we must now ask an uncomfortable question: can any art or craft be truly worthwhile and wonderful if it engenders an environmental mess and ruined lives elsewhere?

Buckminster Fuller noted that "Good hardware is one of the few irrefutable proofs of clear thought." (Today, he might have included software.) But how much is too much? And the toughest question: should we be doing this at all?

If the answer to 'should we?' is yes, then we need to proceed using the least resources over the lifetime of the product. The same making-things-right principles that apply to industry apply to art, personal do-it-yourself projects, and even to repairs. Fuller also recommended that we consider our proposals comprehensively, anticipating the long future in all we do, always integrating our know-how with good science and deep wisdom.

You might think that this is obvious, but apparently it isn't. Had thousands of computer programmers and designers comprehensively anticipated the future, we wouldn't have those pesky and fearsome prognostications of Y2K disaster coming at us. Comprehensive thinkers attend the connections.

The same narrow-focused designers also missed or ignored the enormous environmental costs of computer-making: a single chip presently involves (among other things) about twenty-five pounds of assorted chemicals, nine pounds of toxic waste, and the pollution of 2,000 gallons of water.

Electronic tools evolve very quickly to become ever more useful. Hand tools evolve more slowly, but evolve they do, as experience continues to accumulate. Hammers don't go obsolete yearly, but they are undergoing further refinement, spurred by a new understanding of ergonomics and the need to reduce crippling "carpenter's elbow." Burgeoning interest in handcrafts is even bringing back forgotten oldies-but-goodies such as the "Cheney Nailer" (from Lee Valley, 800/871-8158), with a grooved, magnetized head that holds nails in place for one-handed pounding (see illustration).

Are Crafts the Answer to Digeritis?

Specialty tool catalogs are getting fatter by the month. Model-making, jewelry, weaving, gardening, auto restoration, wood-and metal-working—just about any handiwork you can name—have their own tools and catalogs, made all the more fascinating by matching catalogs of materials, components, and supplies. See, for instance, the implements of surgery and dentistry offered to model makers, antique-restorers, and electronic experimenters.

The astonishing number of tool catalogs available since the first Whole Earth Catalog is proof that the rise of virtual tools has ignited a similar boom in analog action. If they were added together, you couldn't haul the Noah's Ark of craft tools and small machinery in a fleet of forty-ton eighteen-wheelers, much less on your belt or loose in a flimsy pocket.

You can, however, easily haul know-how, know-who, and the ever-easier, more precise know-where-to-get-it. Besides your head and hands, the most useful all-purpose belt tool is the one that most closely matches the normal negotiations of your everyday life. I have several. One of them is custom-made (by my tool-savvy goldsmith wife, Liz) for my role as land steward. There is no snakebite kit included these days; ranchers have found that the best antidote is a (belt-mounted) cell phone.

Our "Highly Evolved Toolbox" prototype-shop-in-a-truck is really just a belt tool writ large. Like belt tools (indeed, like all toolkits of any size), it has a practical size limitation and is constrained to work within its capabilities.

Nothing new here; 'twas ever thus: The unlucky "Iceman" recently found frozen in the Alps was so equipped—thousands of years ago. Perhaps he just lost or broke something critical. Or maybe, in a fit of hubris inspired by his tool-augmented powers, he was the first to venture into alpine territory, realizing too late that newfound capability without wisdom is not sufficient. Like a young rabbit that doesn't realize there are Great Horned Owls until it feels the fatal talons clench its back, I doubt that we are any less vulnerable.

POSTSCRIPT: What's Happened to JB And Liz's Highly Evolved Toolbox Shoptruck?

This toolbox commenced in 1949 with a lonely Sears hammer, and grew slowly, along with the experience of its builders and keepers. It has become a highly refined and capable collection, living up to my requirements as a design-solution-inspiring "Three-Dimensional Sketchpad." Installed in an unfolding walk-in van, the ton of tools and the compact space to work them in have gone where they're needed for more than twenty years. Whole Earth chronicled the adventure in Issues No. 5 and 9, and in the 1985 Essential Whole Earth Catalog . Always aiding and abetting evolution, the portable toolbox/shop is now virtually bigger and conceptually smaller.

It's serving as the local do-tank parked behind our chicken coop home. The only recent additions are a new Bosch battery drill and a cast-iron Delta scroll saw we needed to execute a complex scale model of a barge-mounted Living Machine. The 1958 walk-in van part is a bit too venerable for highway use now, and tires are no longer available. It'll probably get left behind (minus the tools and benches) on our next move. That will be sad, but it brought tool capability to a variety of experiments going on around the USA in the sixties, seventies and eighties, just as it was designed to do. That need is pretty much gone with the wind. Sigh.

The old beast would still work fine in town; someday we'll probably sell it to a street act needing a portable stage with secret trapdoors.