Offcuts: Random Thoughts on the Departure of Old Blue

The evening started off just like any other in the workshop. The night’s task was finish-sanding a wall clock. Little did I know the tragedy that lay ahead. Suddenly, and without warning, “Old Blue” died.

I quickly deduced that any extraordinary effort at life support would be futile. Time of death was 8:40 p.m. No autopsy would be needed. Old Blue had lived a long, productive life and any further search for the cause of his demise would merely rob him of his dignity. He served me well for more than a decade, becoming a trusted companion in my shop. Old Blue was my oldest, and I could always count on him.

He died in a cloud of dust, a fitting end for a random orbit sander, and I knew he was gone the moment it happened. In retrospect, I suppose the sanding pad breaking free a few minutes earlier and clocking me in the gut had been a cry for help – but now it was too late.

It was time. I pulled the plug, and stood there in silence.
The sadness that ensued was short-lived as flashbacks came forth unbidden of the good times we had together – sanding through the veneer layers on expensive plywood, cluelessly sanding depressions in visible wood surfaces. Ah, wonderful times indeed.

Old Blue was one of those tools you buy when you’re a beginning woodworker, which I was. In other words: Blue was a cheap date. But over the years as my skills improved I came to realize that Old Blue wasn’t the best sander in the world. The action on him was rough, the dust bag stuck way out and kept me from getting in tight places, he sounded like a Harley Davidson, and he belched dust like an industrial smokestack. I preferred to use him in my driveway to avoid emitting sawdust throughout my shop. I also enjoyed annoying my neighbors with the racket.

Okay, I admit: Deep down there were moments when I wanted Old Blue to “go away,” because then I’d have a good excuse to get a new sander. It’s funny how some tools drive you crazy and yet you’re reluctant to replace them until they’re beyond all hope of repair. Yet, year after year, Old Blue would not die!
For a cheap sander, Old Blue was bulletproof. He took numerous swan dives onto concrete floors or the driveway in a way that made Timex watches look flimsy. I never intentionally caused harm to Blue, but after each crash the referee would count to 10 and just when it seemed Old Blue wouldn’t get up, like Rocky Balboa he was back in the fight.

For Blue’s burial, I gently lowered him into my shop trash box, nestling his lifeless body amid a nest of sweetly scented wood shavings. I bore his tomb to the curb and watched as his remains were collected by the undertaker. A tear came to my eye as I stood and watched the hearse grow small in the distance, en route to the county tool cemetery.

It was time to move on. Old Blue would have wanted it that way, so last night I went to the store and spoke to a grief counselor in the tool department. After a little consoling I knew it was time to adopt a new member of the family. I took it home, unpacked it and give it a warm welcome by putting it through its paces.
No cloud of dust, no Harley engine, no bucking bronco – just smooth and quiet. I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.

Of course, now I’ll need to rely on my router to annoy the neighbors.

Thomas Skaggs, an architect and planner with the University of Illinois at Champaign, was profiled in the Jan. ’05 issue of Woodcraft Magazine.



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