You don't smell a speck of sawdust in the large modern storage room where Tom Tully works at the Museum of History and Technology, amid rows of gray enameled file cabinets. That's good, because Tully, the son of an amateur carpenter and the grandson of a self-taught master carpenter from Virginia, is allergic to the stuff.
Tully was in the fifth year of his carpenter's apprenticeship when he discovered the cause of his sinus trouble. But he liked tools, liked to handle them and knew a lot about them. Old tools, especially - he even had a collection of wood planes manufacturedby an Ohio tool company in the 1800s.
A direct man, Tully approached the Smithsonian. "I told them, 'You need someone to organize your collection of hand tools,' And they said, 'We do?'" As the museum's hand tool specialist, Tully is responsible for over 3,000 chisels, saws, planes, glue pots and other specimens from the tool chests of three centuries of American craftsmen.
Recently, John H. Gerwig Jr., the fourth-generation owner of a Baltimore building firm, gave the museum his private collection of 1,200 vintage hand tools, gathered over a period of 30 years. Today, nine of these tools, dating from the 19th century, will go on display in the "Hall of Everyday Life." The exhibit, to run two months, is titled "An Eye and an Instinct for Tools."
"Mr. Gerwig has a good eye for spotting these tools, in the corner of a barn, or at the bottom of an old tool chest," Tully says. What Gerwig found were artifacts of an era when tools were handmade by master tool makers, or by the workmen who used them. Weathered sculptures in wood and iron, they are solid memories of the diverse skills of generations of carpenters, furniture makers, roofers, brickmasons and others.
Some, like a wooden "froe club," used in splitting shingles, are simple, crude devices of prehistoric lineage. Others marry function with art - a bow saw, for example, with an intricately turned wood frame that Tully thinks "as fine as any piece of furniture."
"It was a common thing for a craftsman who made a Queen Anne chair to make his own saw," he says. "If you had to make your living with a tool to handle it and live with it all day, wouldn't you make it something beautiful? They made these tools to please themselves."
Part of Tully's job is to trace the origins of the tools, from names embossed or incised in the metal, which also bear the names of generations of owners. A mustachioed, squarely made mad of 35, Tully tells you that he "knows every piece in this collection personally," and he will happily draw your attention to a fine steel compass which bears the name and eagle trademark of the Nathan Peabody Ames, a reknowned Massachusetts craftsman of the early 19th century.
The compass is a phony. "That's an innocuous little thing," says Tully. "But you can tell by the way the posts have warped and by the crudeness of the joint. It's a cheap cast-iron imitation that was imported and sold with the Ames name," Someone with what Tully calls a "sensitivity for tools" could have told the difference.
But the exhibition isn't meant to interest only experts. "People will see how important these tools were for making a living. They show the diversity of trades . . . And people who have been exposed to things like these - who've seen them around their grandfather's house, say - they may rekindle an interest in their own history, by recognition."
Most of the 1,200 tools in the Gerwig collection lie in drawers in the gray metal cabinets of Tully's workroom. Tully and an intern will soon begin the research of their histories which, he says, "could go on forever."
One item too big to file away is a ponderous wooden tool chest which belonged to Gerwig's family. Hefting its lid, you face a breath of old air colored, you believe, with the scent of worn iron and wood, and sawdust. There are rows of slits for storing saw blades, drawers for screws and nails and space for a combination plane, a froe club and a froe, a draw knife, a slater's hammer and a carpenter's mallet.
"It wouldn't bother me to just scatter all 1,200 tools over the room and say, 'Here, look at them!", Tully says. ". . . The old "They don't make things like they used to' argument - I don't get involved in that . . . But these are very graceful tools. you don't see such beauty in a hardware store."