We’ve all heard the old saw, “It’s a poor workman that blames his tools.” Let’s think about that for a minute. Does it actual mean that a skilled craftsman can do great work with shoddy implements?
Well, can a chef make a souffle with a skillet?
Can a cabinetmaker round an edge with dull router bits?
I’m not going to rule it out. Perhaps there’s a brilliant chef who—at this very moment—is preparing to introduce the world to the “skiffle.” And, it’s possible that one could coax a dull router into making a better quarter round through care, attention, and good speed control.
Going by the odds, though, I’d bet on scrambled eggs and splinters.
Like a lot of old sayings, this one doesn’t make much sense in it’s usual interpretation. Most people take this proverb to mean that you should be able to turn out top-notch work with whatever tools you’re given. It’s an excuse for bad tools, or lack of interest in improving them.
This homily dates back to a time when workers would bring their own tools to the job, leading to the popular origin story for the phrase “getting sacked”. (No comments about mÃ¸Ã¸se bites, please.) Some crafts have evaded the assembly line, and in those, craftsman still bring their own tools. Chefs bring their prized knives. Fine carpenters bring their own hand and bench tools.
There is a grain of truth in the common interpretation that good tools don’t make a good workman. There’s another level of truth under the surface, though. The 13th Century French version of this saying translates as, “A bad workman will never find a good tool.” I like this version a lot better. Tools cannot make one good, but bad tools can hurt a good worker’s performance. That sounds a lot less like “quit whining and use whatever’s at hand,” doesn’t it?
On the other hand, if you supply your own tools, you’re not as likely to tolerate bad ones, are you? I think this is the most important interpretation. Good workers—if given the choice—will select the best tools and keep them sharp.