Some of you have watched my progress through FaceBook and/or my email newsletter as I have cleaned up my act. If there’s a bright side to being stuck at home and deprived of work as a musician, I guess this would be it. The lathe room that you couldn’t walk into without limboing around junk and spitting out cobwebs has become open and passable. The zombie sea urchin of drill bits stuck haphazardly in a hunk of styrofoam on top of the lathe headstock fell into tight ranks in a mahogany rack. Tool drawers that to call random assortments would have been an insult to random assortments are now organized and logical. My habit of cleaning machines just enough to clear space for the job at hand has become a habit of vacuuming, cleaning and oiling every machine after every use.
Amateur shrinks will say to the screen, "Jack, clearly this obsessive activity is a defense mechanism. You've been attempting to shield yourself from uncontrollable external chaos and uncertainty by establishing your little zone of control and controlling the ever-living fork out of it."
You think? Actually, it goes deeper than that.
True, the process of cleaning and fixing and improving and organizing has been good in and of itself, and has helped me make pipes. Although I’ve certainly proved that you can make pipes in a shop that looks like a tornado hit a flea market, it is easier and more pleasant to make them when you don’t have to paw through briar chips and sandpaper scraps to find the drill bit you just put down. But, every drawer and surface I’ve organized, I’ve been hoping and expecting to find something. In fact, just as I typed that, I thought of a drawer in a side table upstairs in the sun room where over the years I’ve sat and worked on dozens of pipes. I headed upstairs with the certainty that I was going to have a quick punch line and . . . nope. Not there.
I’ve been hoping to find a file. A double-ended, Swiss-pattern, half-round Nicholson file. I remember buying it at Rockler Woodworking around 2002. They only had one and I’ve never seen another. I lost it sometime after June 1, 2013. That’s the date of the picture below, of one of the Passion for Pipes 284 POY, at one of many softball tournaments. You can just see the file under the pipe. That’s its last appearance on record, but I don’t think I lost it there, I was fastidious about keeping everything together at the field, and I was going hammer and tongs at the POY. I’d have missed it immediately and headed back with a metal detector. I’d remember that. I think I did something with it at home when my attention was elsewhere. My shop and my practice room have always been together. As my focus lasered on becoming a bass clarinetist and preparing for an audition my pipe making stuff got buried under my clarinet stuff on my workbench like the ruins of a previous civilization, and at some point when I cleared the clarinet layer away to make a pipe the file wasn't there. I looked for it, gave up, picked up the next best file and carried on.
Between its entrance and exit, the file touched every pipe I made. The combination of cut, profile and versatility was perfect. It was the best file for starting the slot that defines the bit on the stem. It cut vulcanite like it was Parmesan cheese, briar even faster, and it was my nip and tuck file. I would sit with this file and a pipe that was almost ready for hand sanding, turning the pipe against the light, easing this line, deepening that curve, no other tools needed. Both ends, fine and coarse, were Nicholson’s Magicut (tm) tooth configuration, which is double cut but with a little extra diagonal serration — sharp and aggressive, almost as fast as a rasp but still very smooth.
It wouldn't be accurate to say that the pipes made with this file were any better or that the pipes made without it were any worse. You use what you have. Still, familiarity and efficiency with a tool grows over time. It's true of most tools, maybe all of them to some degree; many machine shops have a worn, dirty LeBlond or Monarch lathe off in a corner. There was a guy who spent his entire career operating and cleaning and petting that machine and the two of them kept turning out parts bang on spec as they grew old and idiosyncratic together. Then he retired and none of the young guys can make parts for crap on it so it sits in the corner and gets used occasionally for jobs that don't require precision or that might damage a "good" lathe. I may be a little idiosyncratic myself with my files and rasps; I do use a sanding wheel because you don’t want to take all day if you can help it, but most pipe makers use the wheel as much as possible and a file only as much as necessary.
My first woodworking tool as a lad was a file (see my bio if this post isn't long enough already); between slingshots and whistles and limberjacks and knives and clarinet reeds and bamboo rods I made a vast number of linear strokes with files, knives, rasps, scrapers, planes and sanding blocks before pipes came along. Millions? A million anyway, rough estimation would put me at around 200,000 strokes just on clarinet reeds. So once a pipe shape enters the ballpark on the wheel I switch to a pattern maker's rasp, then to files, then to sandpaper. It's what I know. I knew that file pretty well, and if you ask why I didn't try harder to find a backup, I dunno, maybe I just took it for granted. As Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It is admittedly out of character; we clarinetists are notorious accumulators of backups. Ask me how many mouthpieces I have. No, don't.
Google, Ebay, and the Nicholson, Grobet, and McMaster-Carr catalogs have failed to offer a replacement. My wife appeals to St. Anthony, but in my experience the most powerful spell for finding a lost thing is to buy another one. I once spent an hour looking for a plumber’s snake before giving up and driving to Home Depot. Job completed, I went to the garage to put away my new, errr, slightly used snake, and right on the shelf where I was about to put the new one was — the old one.
They say you always find it in the last place you look, har, har, har. This isn’t the first I’ve looked for the file, of course. I’ve looked a number of times in the past seven years, but I’ve never mounted an expedition like this. Maybe my efforts to replace it have lacked the same intensity as my cleanup because I reckon it's got to be here somewhere, right where I put it when I got distracted by something. If I keep cleaning and organizing I’ll stumble upon it — “Why, of COURSE; now I remember.” It hasn’t happened yet, though. I’ve found lots of useful things, but not the file, and I’m running out of frontier.
Zzzzzzip. Hard cut to a few days later.
Ok, I found it. A replacement, anyway. I was going to end it right there on "frontier," but I caught myself admitting to a slack effort a couple of sentences earlier. There’s the determined, sustained effort that turned over every other stone but just missed that last one, and there’s the desultory effort that turned over a couple of stones and then opened a beer and sat down to write a whiny blog post about it. Is it really likely that my file was both produced by a major manufacturer and sold in a national retail chain, AND ALSO so rare and unique that it vanished from production leaving no trace on the internet? No, it is not. I’ve just been doing it wrong. As soon as I post this somebody will point out that all I had to do was search for XXXX. Duh.
So I went back to Google. Back through the Rockler, Lee Valley, Grainger, and McMaster catalogs. I pored over the long list of “files” in the Index of Federal Specifications, Standards, and Commercial Products looking for possible names for my file — partly because it popped up on a search and I had been unaware such a thing existed, and also so I could honestly say, “Why, YES I DID look under ‘files’ in the Index of Federal Specifications, Standards, and Commercial Products.” I looked up contact info for Nicholson (now part of the Apex Tool Group) to try to find somebody to talk to in the morning. These companies all have people who know everything about their products, but you usually have to run the gauntlet to get to them. I put every combination of applicable words I could think of into the search bar and scrolled WAY down the images until I was seeing things that were NOT the kind of "file" I was looking for.
But, finally, there in the last place I looked, many scrolls down in a search window, in a picture of a page from Chapter 4, Filing and Grinding, from an online book from MetalArtsPress, was a line drawing of my file. I'm not proud that it took painting myself into a corner in a blog post to get to this point. Motivation is motivation, I guess.
It is called a Vul-Crylic file, a name which does NOT appear in the Federal Index of Yada Yada Yada. A file made expressly for shaping vulcanite and acrylic. Of course, why didn’t I think of that? “Cut vulcanite like Parmesan,“ I said. Jewelers also use it on wax models, and if I’d looked in the Otto Frei jewelers’ supply catalog right off the bat none of this would have happened. Back up to the search bar armed with my new specific term . . . hmmm, no results for Nicholson but apparently Grobet still makes it. Yay! Wait, what? Are they making it from meteorites? Oh well, nothing like searching for something for seven years to put a price in perspective. Hate to go to the dark side but after waiting this long I want it fast. Amazon has it "In stock, ONLY ONE LEFT, order soon."
That should be olly olly oxen free for the original. I'll let you know where it was.