Recently I received the 2013 Lee Valley Gardening catalogue in the mail and have already perused it cover to cover. I loves getting a new catalogue almost as much as getting a magazine. I guess it goes back to the days of my youth when we got both the Eatons and the Simpson’s Sears catalogues. I would spend hours making lists of the things I wished I could purchase. I would furnish whole houses and dress entire families. I would cut pictures from the pages and glue them into scrapbooks (how I still love the word ‘mucilage’). Once, when I was in my twenties, I ordered any free catalogue I could find advertised in The New Yorker and found that Hammacher-Schlemmer transcended all others, with its robots and gadgets and personal care items. I think that is the first place I ever saw a nose hair trimmer for sale. I encourage you to check it out; you can spend from five to five thousand dollars with the click of your mouse.
My infatuation with Lee Valley catalogues goes back to the seventies when they only sold hand tools. I had a sculptor friend named Jules who worked with an extraordinarily beautiful set of Acorn gouges and chisels. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone exhibit respect for tools. My father, despite his great skill with them, treated them rather carelessly. Jules kept his carving tools honed to a perfect edge and after each use he lovingly slid each into its own compartment of a heavy canvas tool roll. Once he let me use them and I fashioned an indefinable lump from a piece of pine and thought “Hey, maybe I could be a woodcarver too” and asked him where he bought his tools. Lee Valley, he said and I promptly sent for my own catalogue. The chisels were way beyond my means and anyhow, I moved on to other hobbies like weaving and tailoring, and forgot all about woodcarving but I continue to receive the tool catalogues to this day. I once won a Lee Valley t-shirt as a prize for finding a little pink pig which was hidden in the catalogue pages. Fact was, I didn’t even look for it – as I was walking home from the mailboxes and looking at the cover I was intrigued to see a tiny pink pig sitting on shelf. It was later that I discovered that it was actually a contest and I sent of my winning entry.
Since those early days Lee Valley has vastly expanded its range and now they have a whole section of gardening tools and gift items and have even moved into the power tool market. You can buy anything from a nailbrush to a Japanese handsaw to a mobile dust extractor. They have probably spent more money in producing and sending me the catalogues than I have returned in purchases, most of which were random gadgets or stocking stuffers. Once I splurged and bought from them an adze for my brother for Christmas. I wrapped it heavily and put a big “extremely fragile” label on it. My mother was driven to distraction trying to keep it safe – too close to the tree stand and it might get something shoved into it, too close to the edge of the gift pile and it might get kicked. Finally she put up on top of the television set where it sucked all the fun out of watching her seasonal favourites as she feared even the weight of her eyes resting on the package would cause it to shatter. Didn’t matter that the parcel had already traveled by truck almost a thousand kilometres over the rough winter waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then on to the frost heaved roads of Western Newfoundland; that it had received a a constant battering by the corners of seven thousand other Christmas boxes, heavy with fruitcakes and Tonka toys. It was labeled “EXTREMELY FRAGILE” and must be treated as such. If my mother ever used a swear word it was uttered while taking my name in vain that Christmas morning when Pete, oh so carefully, unwrapped his very un-fragile heavy iron and hickory adze.
Yes, the Lee Valley catalogue is always a good read; from the description of the cover photo and the letter from the editor, to the insert with the sale items, tips and news. This past fall I noticed that they were now offering courses at their store in Halifax. The one called “Women and Woodworking” immediately got my attention. I have always wanted to be more proficient with and less afraid of power tools. And what? – lunch is included! I pulled my credit card out of my wallet and made the call.
Why does it have to be for women only, you might well ask. I suppose it could be conceived of as being sexist but it was entirely the reason why I was so keen on taking this particular course. I have a virtual U-Haul of baggage when it comes to working side by side with, and taking advice from men. I have attended classes with men who filled the air with superfluous anecdotes and reams of information not pertinent to the subject and no matter how funny, or smart, it always revved up my impatience as I waited for them to get to the point of the study. Then there would be the fellow who would ask a superfluous question just to show that he already understood the business, sending the teacher off on yet another tangent. Please forgive me boys, for sounding bitter; this does not apply to all men or all teachers and I know plenty of women who are as bad or worse. Why, I may even be myself! I think it mostly goes back to my solo sailing days when I would get a slew of unsolicited advice from people who thought I couldn’t possibly have any understanding of what I was doing. Many times the advice would be grossly inaccurate and I learned quickly whose opinion I could trust. Other advice was offered in such detail as to be absurd; for example I once asked a fellow if he knew anywhere in the area I could buy a transmission linkage and by the time his jaws had stopped flapping he had described in minute detail how to completely lift my transmission from the hull. I only wanted to know where there was a store which sold engine parts! Anyhow, I know it sounds sad indeed but because of this I immediately get my hackles up and the shutters over the hearing parts of my ears come right down when I hear the start of a phrase such as “well now, if I were you….” in a voice anywhere shy of 150 Hz. So “Woodworking for Women” it was.
Thank you a whole bunch, Mom, for giving me the class as a Christmas gift. (No silly, not the whole class as a gift; she didn’t wrap and post a whole houseful of women in canvas aprons waving hand-tools and pine planks, she paid the fee thank you very much). It was worth every penny from start to finish and I have already signed up for another in March. I loved every second of it: the smell of fresh cut pine, the soft feel of the wood after a good sanding, the satisfaction of seating home a screw and finding a nice flush fit. Roslyn Duffus was an extraordinary teacher; the master of delivering concise and succinct content. No long winded narratives, no lists of alternate and complicated methods she didn’t intend to show us, no surplus of wisdom which was above our level of understanding, just good solid information pertinent to the safe use of tools and to the production of our tool boxes. The atmosphere was relaxed and there was lots of ribbing and laughing but not so much that it took away our attention from our work. And that’s saying something because “does not pay attention in class” has always been the negative remark on all of my report cards.
I only have two complaints regarding “Women and Woodworking”. One was that it was not held before Christmas. Had it been, we could have loaded up our letters to Santa with requests for shiny new hand tools. The other was that they served coffee in the morning and there was, amongst other beverages, Coca-cola available with lunch – the fully sugared high-test variety. So when they introduced us to the power tools in the afternoon I was packing almost 600 mgs of caffeine and was as jittery as a bay-boy on prom night. It is only by the grace of God and Roslyn’s great attention to safety that I’m not sporting empty fingers in my gloves today. And as for the box, well, it is now holding my tools, but not those for woodworking – it is full of knitting needles and all the accoutrements of that hobby. Check it out:
(c) Judy Parsons 2013
Catalogue picture from Lee Valley/Veritas