"Tools and How to Use Them" is a fascinating testimonial to the ingenuity of men, and one of the most practical books I've come across in a long time. On the usefulness scale, it beats the plethora of books telling us how to achieve perfection by, say, activating the thymus. Doubtless the thymus could use a little toning up but I've lived long enough to know that glands are not the answer. They may even be the problem.

Knowing how to use a soldering iron, a plumb bob or a froe is the answer, at least to specific, limited questions. "Tools" is full of answers to such questions, the only safe kind to ask.

Until I saw this book, I didn't know I needed it. For that matter, I didn't know what a froe was, and I'd found it fairly painless to live without one, perhaps because I don't split much firewood (lacking a fireplace and a stove) or have much cause to make shingles -- its principle functions, as revealed in the entry under the "adze, hooks and scythe" section. The entry, which is of average length for the book, takes up two-thirds of a page and contains three illustrations, two of which show clearly how to use it.

What "Tools" doesn't say is where to buy it, but most fanciers of such implements know that the Brookstone catalogue (Peterborough, N.H. 03458) of hard-to-find tools is the place to look. And yes, there it is, next to the grommet kit and the self-adjusting clamping plier, and only $22.50 and a toll-free telephone call away. All I need now is the stove.

"Tools and How to Use Them" is clearly and precisely illustrated with more than 1,500 drawings. It contains descriptions of and instructions for using hundreds of tools: rules and squares; scribers, punches and jigs; chisels and gouges, routers, knives, augers and gimlets; lathes and sanders, snipe and shears, wrenches and hammers. Any tool you're likely to come across is here and easy to find in this well-organized book, an altogether useful tool itself.

"Man's progress," W. L. Goodman writes in the foreword in that book, "has been largely a matter of inventing new tools and improving the old ones" -- a progress that is beautifully pictured in this one, "American Wood-working Tools." The hand tools of the 18th and 19th centuries turned the forests of this country into houses and clipper ships, farm wagons and bedsteads, highboys and milking stools. They were objects of utility, most of them, and some of them were objects of beauty as well -- like the tools which have been beautifully, sometimes glowingly, photographed by Dudley Witney for this book.

In the age of wood that began with the first permanent settlements and lasted until near the close of the 19th century, woodworkers -- carpenters, joiners, shipwrights, wheelwrights, plowrights and coopers -- made their own stocks and handles to hold the shaping and cutting edges forged by blacksmiths. The tools of the trade were the tools of survival as well, and the most expensive woods were lavished on them -- lignum vitae, fruit woods, boxwood, rosewood -- not simply because those woods were expensive, but because they were the best materials for the job.

Something else their makers lavished on these tools was time and attention, and the objects thus created were treasured not only for their economic function but for their sculptural beauty. One plow plane pictured was carved from rosewood, its threaded arms from boxwood and the adjustment nuts from ivory. Another simple and beautiful plane is made from yellow birch. Altogether, 31 such objects are pictured in color and 142 in black and white. Each of them deserves the reader's careful attention.

There is, of course, an air of sadness about these objects from the past now valued largely for their form rather than their function. It seems preferable, somehow, to think of them in a carpenter's tool chest rather than on a collector's shelf or in a museum display.

"The era when hand craftsmanship was the rule has long passed," author-collector Paul Kebabian writes at the end of "American Woodworking Tools." "The tools of the trades that built our nation have been for the most part treated as curiosities, or worse, gone unrecognized, always in danger of being relegated to undeserved oblivion. Now their purpose, their significance in our history and their honest character and beauty of form are at last being acknowledged and valued." And for this, the book by Kebabian and Witney is a good and useful thing, for which we should be grateful.

But the true fascination of tools lies in using and mastering them, as Goodman, the English authority on the history of woodworking tools, writes in his introduction to "Tools and How to Use Them." And for that, the book he introduces is excellent.

"To paraphrase Dr. Johnson," Goodman writes, "there are few ways in which a person can be more innocently employed than in making something useful himself." These books are almost enough to make one take up the hammer and chisel. Even the froe.