A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Giving New Life to Tools

Local tool library seeking tool donations for community.
by Tod Westlake
Libraries have been a part of human culture for close to 5,000 years. From the earliest clay tablets of Sumer to the various classical age libraries, to our own Library of Congress, such public facilities have acted as repositories of our collected wisdom, places where information on virtually every subject is at one’s fingertips if you know how to find it. Libraries have also been a powerful force for democracy. It’s impossible to imagine the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment that followed, without libraries—even though we humans also have an affection for putting them to the torch every now and again.
Libraries and books are undergoing a major change, however. The Internet and the e-reader are changing our relationship with the printed word, turning what used to be a physical artifact into a fragment of electronic ephemera. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, have given up on dead-tree editions and have moved instead to online subscriptions.
But libraries aren’t limited to books and research. In recent years there has been a movement toward using the library model for other applications. One example is what’s known as a tool library. This idea first appeared in the mid-70s when some folks in Columbus, Ohio got together and began a tool-sharing group. Eventually it turned into a nonprofit organization known as Rebuilding Together Central Ohio. In subsequent years, tool libraries have popped up across the country. There are tool libraries in at least 20 states now.
And we’ll be able to add one more to the list in the coming months, as the Ulster County Tool Bank (UCTB) begins operation. A project of Rondout Valley Permaculture, Transition Marbletown, Transition Woodstock, and Sustainable Urubamba Valley, the UCTB will provide local farmers and gardeners with access to gardening tools. Additionally, the group will be collecting old and unwanted non-powered tools that will then be refurbished so that they can be used again, thus preserving dwindling resources and avoiding going into a landfill. Perhaps more importantly, the UCTB will have a social aspect that will, rather appropriately, bring together members of the community in order to share knowledge and ideas.
The project is being coordinated by Wolf Bravo, a farmer and toolmaker who originally hails from Peru. “Both sides of my family were farmers,” he says. “My mother’s family in the north on the coast, and my father in the mountains.”
Bravo’s roots led him into the field of permaculture design, a form of sustainable agriculture in which farms are modeled after the local natural ecosystem. Bravo says that his training has allowed him to gain some perspective on how a group of people putting their ideas together is far more effective than going it alone.
“You see multiple solutions to one problem,” Bravo says. “And if we put too much energy into one thing only, we drain ourselves. But, if we can put a little bit of energy together from many individuals, it’s better for everyone.”
It’s not difficult to see how this philosophy translates into the idea of a tool library. Anyone who has lived in the same house for long enough knows full well how easy it is to accumulate enormous amounts of junk. Broken and unwanted gardening tools no doubt sit in backyard sheds and garages across Ulster County. And then there’s that shovel handle you backed over in your car a couple of years ago, yet you can’t bring yourself to toss it because the good blade is in really good shape. If Bravo has his way, it could live to dig another day.
“I know that there are many people who have a lot of tools, that are old or discarded, that they have no use for, that are broken,” Bravo says. “And then there are many people like Aileah, here (Aileah Kvashay, who runs the Clove Valley CSA in High Falls, out of which the UCTB will be based), whom I met at the permaculture meet-up in Marbeltown last year, and she said that she was borrowing tools.”
Bravo thought that it was a shame that the CSA might be having difficulties obtaining what it needs. Then he saw a message on Freecycle—an Internet-based network for recycling unwanted, but still useable, stuff—in which someone was giving away a number of tools.
“I picked up like ten tools for free,” Bravo says. He eventually gave the tools to a local friend who was putting together her own garden. And in the following months, whenever he would visit the CSA (Bravo lives in Westfield, New Jersey during the week), he would hear the same refrain.
“I kept hearing people say ‘I need tools. I need tools,'” Bravo says. He also notes that this reminded him of his own childhood, and how the life of a farmer can be an arduous one, with long hours, and a livelihood that is subject to the whims of nature.
“I was there,” Bravo says. “I was working in the fields too. All day in the fields. So I know how it is, and I know that people do it because it’s a passion.”
This made Bravo want to do something in support of farmers in Ulster County, an area he has come to love. The concept for the UCTB seemed a natural one. “This way they don’t have to borrow tools, or spend money on tools, money that can be used for other things, like seeds and fertilizers,” Bravo says. “We want to support a safe, local food system, gardeners and farmers alike. Those are our main goals, so the good tools go straight to these folks.”
As a first step, the UCTB is now putting the word out that it’s collecting tools. And so far, so good. The group has been at this for a few weeks now, and Bravo has been pleasantly surprised by the volume of tools that have shown up at the various drop sites.
The next step, and moving into Bravo’s other area of expertise, is the repair phase. Many older tools are of a much higher quality than the ones that can be purchased these days. And modern tools are often shipped half way around the world. Thus putting a new handle on that aforementioned shovel makes good sense from a sustainability perspective. Bravo will also be offering workshops on tool repair, thereby spreading this important knowledge.
“The tools that are broken, or that need repair, we’re going to show people how to fix them,” Bravo says. “I’m going to be teaching a workshop at each drop site, or in each town where we have a drop site.”
Bravo says that the other part of the UCTB is the message regarding sustainability.
“It takes a lot of energy, a lot of oil for transport, a lot of resources to extract the minerals from the earth, to move the minerals to a refinery,” Bravo points out. “And then, when it’s made, to bring it to the end points for sale. We don’t really think about all of this, that the tool we just bought for $30 or $40 might be costing $200 or $300 in lost resources.”
When seen in this light, that hunk of metal in your basement represents a huge amount of energy that can remain untapped, resources to be socked away for the inevitable rainy day that is likely just around the next corner.
“In repairing these tools, we’re educating individuals about how much it costs, about consumerism, about how we’ve changed our mentality to consumers instead of producers, of borrowers instead of savers,” Bravo says. “We used to save everything. Now our economy is based on consumer debt. How did this happen? How did we get to this point?”
If you’re interested in getting rid of your unwanted tools, they can be dropped off through the end of May at the following drop collection sites in Ulster County: High Falls Food Co-op, lower parking lot, corner of Route 213 and Lucas Turnpike, 845-687-7262; Marbletown High Meadow School, 3643 Main Street, Stone Ridge, 845-687-4855; New Paltz, Tweefontein Herb Farm, 4 Jenkins Road, next to front porch of white farm house, call Jens Verhaegh, 845-636-8218; Kingston, South High Street City Farm, 27 South Pine Street, 845-380-9183; Woodstock Library, 845-679-2213. Wolf Bravo can be reached at 973-207-9869, or by emailing wolf.bravo2014@gmail.com.
The group is collecting saws, rakes, shovels, picks, forks, spades, trowels, watering containers, push mowers, scythes, and carpentry tools, as well as buckets, wheelbarrows, and seed spreaders. There is also a need for materials to repair the tools, including wooden handles and hickory, ash, or maple branches or logs. Broken handles will be accepted; however, tools that are rusted through or in need of welding will not be. Again, please note, that the group is not accepting any power tools at this time.