In Praise Of Old Standby

Today I will put on my curmudgeonly engineer hat. This is the same hat I like to wear when I tell the story about how, back in 1992, my response to the World Wide Web was “what’s the big deal?” (it is worth noting that there were then three web servers in the world so perhaps my lack of vision is forgivable).

Any curmudgeonly engineer will tell you that some things have never been bettered. The Vox AC30 guitar amplifier, the Hewlett Packard HP32S calculator, the 6809 microprocessor, the 14-cup Cuisinart, and Ping BeCu Eye2 irons, to name a few.

Each of these, in their niche, offers something that no subsequent device does: a unique tone or user interface, a balance of capability and cost, a feels-just-right appeal, or a adaptability to boundless new roles. They do so without excessive features or filigree. They were classics in their time and remain so to this day.
They are the Old Standbys, the go-to’s that get pulled out when the chips are down, the tools that aren’t replaced even when theoretically obsolete or out of fashion.
Spend a moment and look around your own garden, garage, home, and workplace. What are the personal classics, the Old Standbys, that you have? Think about what makes each of these tools into what it is.
Some of these Old Standbys succeed through simplicity. Simplicity can mean excellence at a single job – a pitchfork for example, a tool that has reached a pinnacle of utility over a few hundred years.
Sometimes simplicity offers malleability that no highly optimized design ever could. One of the most useful devices in the garden is a long, straight, sturdy stick. Designed for anything? No, but usable for any number of things: planting straight rows, pounding stakes, liberating trapped Frisbees, shoring up newly planted trees, herding goats, you name it.
Sometimes once a tool reaches a peak of design, subsequent efforts at “improvement” just muddy the waters. It’d be easy to add a built-in MP3 player, GPS locator, and extension pruner to a step weeder. But would it weed as well as it does right now? Marketing drives feature bloat – the bigger the features list on the back of the box, the broader the potential appeal. Sometimes this feature bloat is innocent (ignore the MP3 player and the thing weeds as well as ever!) but more often than not it gets in the way of an intended function (every time I try to pull a weed, I accidentally cut a tree limb!).
That is not to say that versatility is by nature a sin: Erica’s Leatherman garden tool (clippers, weed puller, small saw, screwdriver) is genius. I have a multi-tool driver that, when feared lost, once sparked a four hour search. The success of these tools is in their balance – neither too big nor too simple, versatile at enough tasks but yet still competent at their core.
Finally some of our Old Standbys are so just because we like them. The handle feels good, the heft is right, the operation is what we are used to. Yes, some might find my beloved HP32S…well…weird. But for me, I’ve been using RPN calculators since I was 13 and the ’32S happens to put the right buttons in the right places for the particular sort of math I do.
An Old Standby, though, doesn’t have to be Old. We’ve all picked up a tool or used a piece of software and said “well this is just right!” and known at that moment that this thing, whatever it might be, was destined to be a faithful companion.
Us gardeners get a bit bipolar when it comes to gear. Each of us has tools that go in the “my grandpappy used it…” category: a step weeder, perhaps, that was salvaged from an estate sale. We also have instant-favorites: a trusted pair of Felco clippers, even if they are only six months old, that immediately felt just right.
But since gardening is hard work, we still look for a way to save some effort. A new invention can have a real appeal: will this save me some time, pain, or expense? So we prowl the World Wide Web (yeah, I was wrong about that one), go to gardening shows, and check our favorite catalogs in the hope of finding something new, novel, and labor saving. We concoct our own inventions from spare parts and hope to add some convenience to our lives.
Yet we are also inherently conservative (even reactionary). When the new gadget fails, it is with a blend of pride and disappointment that we fall back on Old Standby, grumbling that nothing new is under the sun and really none of this modern jib-jab can compare with solid iron and ash wood.
Do you have any Old Standby tools? New but essential discoveries that have earned their place in your tool belt?


  1. Sharon Miro says

    My bro and I just cleaned, brushed, polished & sharpened tools that were meant for other things that I cannot do without when I garden. One is a wide paint scraper that is terrific for cleaning weeds off brick paths. NEVER throw anything away that could adapt itself for future use.

  2. Matt says


    Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one
    That came near to an imagined perfection:
    When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
    It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.

    So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
    Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
    He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
    Grown satiny from its own natural polish.

    Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
    Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
    Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
    The springiness, the clip and dart of it.

    And then when he thought of probes that reached the
    He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
    Evenly, imperturbably through space,
    Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless –

    But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
    Past its own aim, out to an other side
    Where perfection – or nearness to it – is imagined
    Not in the aiming but the opening hand.

    – Seamus Heaney, born 1939, Mossbawn, Co. Derry

  3. Matt says

    For myself, old standbys: a leather belt with a worn brass clasp that has kept my pants up for almost 20 years, a pair of blundstone boots that have kept my feet dry for 7 years and are just now failing, a small Porter-Gable circular saw–left-handed though I'm right-handed–that has built everything I've ever built and was almost lost to my dad, until he got his own.

  4. says

    The pitch fork is definitely one of our "go to" standbys, followed closely behind by the shovel, rake, trowel and clippers. We recently bought a chain saw and I have a feeling it will become a standby since we have lots of big trees that grow into wires and block sun in multiple areas of the yard. We don't get much sun here, so it's a hot commodity and we need to make the most of it!

  5. says

    My steak knife. I bought a cheap set of steak knives at a yard sale. I can use it to transplant new seedlings, lay out a furrow for lettuce seeds, cut string, pull weeds, harvest vegetables, clean out weeds between brick pavers, unclog my pressure sprayer, and even prune with it. I couldn't garden without my steak knife!

  6. says

    Leatherman multi-tool. The one my husband has is permanently attached to him since I gave it to him over 10 years ago. It's is a pretty basic model, but it has bailed him out of many on-the-spot situations and he uses it almost daily. I bought him a new one… but he is just a bit attached to the old one which still works just fine.

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