I received a text message several weeks ago from a friend and former student: a friend of his was tasked with cleaning out her grandfather’s house in Watertown, Massachusetts which included a basement workshop. Her grandfather had died at the end of 2019 at the age of 94. Unsure what to do with everything, she and the family decided to try to sell off his tool. I said I’d be interested in taking a look; at the very least I could provide some guidance on what was of interest to collectors and what wasn’t. Perhaps I’d even find a few things for myself. What I didn’t expect was to be as affected as I was by digging through the now quiet workshop of Charles Paone, a man I never met. His friends and family called him Charlie.
Mr. Paone’s workshop was located in the basement of the modest cape style home (circa 1940s or 50s) adjacent to a basement den paneled in tongue and grooved knotty pine that instantly betrayed (in a very familiar and for me pleasing way) the age of the the home. The shop itself was filled with stray off cuts of lumber and shelves full of stains and varnishes. All around were empty Chase and Sandborn and Folgers coffee cans and Prince Albert tobacco tins now filled with an assortment of nuts and bolts and wood screws. I immediately thought of my grandfather’s garage and the baby food jars filled with hardware. I spotted a few tools that were of interest to me but I mostly was interested in learning about the man who spent his Saturday afternoons and evenings after work building and fixing things at a workbench still strewn with the tools and clamps he used on his last project. I talked to his granddaughter a little about tools, but mostly I asked about him.
What I learned is that Mr. Paone was born in Watertown in 1925. He was a veteran of WWII where he served in the south pacific with the US Army–it is likely he lied about his age to enlist early, a not so uncommon practice! Following the war he built his home in Watertown where he raised his family and worked for Waltham Millwork Corporation. What I found fascinating was the number of home built power tools–belt sanders, bench grinders, and router tables. I picture him sitting with a set of plans from a 1950s Popular Mechanics and adapting an old washing machine motor to run a stationary belt sander. I found a couple of piles of old electric motors patiently awaiting their reuse.
Most of the old power tools are of greater interest to a collector than they were to a collector and user like me. There was one major exception, which was a Craftsman model 103.23620 bench-top drill press. As best as I can figure, it was produced sometime between about 1947 and 1951. I plugged it in and it fired right up and ran smoothly. I loaded the drill press and an assortment of hand tools into my car and spend a bit of time chatting with Mr. Paone’s granddaughter. It was clear that they were close. Before I left I spotted a picture of Mr. Paone and his wife June on their wedding day and quickly snapped a pic.
I got the drill press home and gave it a through cleaning and lubrication.
After some consideration, I made the decision to replace the motor. Originally I had planned on just replacing the cord, but further inspection revealed deteriorating insulation inside the motor; it also emitted a very strong odor of ozone. I don’t think it was original to the drill as the manual claims it had a 1/3 hp motor from the factory, while the one mounted to the drill when I brought it home was 1/4 horse. I upgrade to a sealed 1/3 hp motor from Grizzly Industrial.
She now runs like a top and I couldn’t be happier–I’ve wanted a drill press for awhile. What I got was even better: a drill press and a story.
I picked up a few other odds and ends as well.
I was certainly very happy about finding these tools, but being there in Charlie’s shop also made me feel a sense of sadness and loss. Mr. Paone marks the passing of a generation of men and women who fought their way through the deprivations of the Great Depression and then fought their way through the horrors of the Second World War in Europe, the south pacific, and on the home front. After that, to have the chance to own a modest home on a modest street and to have a small space to work with your hands and a place to raise your family must have felt like a profound luxury. As we get further away from the hardships and triumphs of Charlie’s generation we forget that there is not just happiness but also nobility in a modest life lived simply and well. Men like Charlie made great sacrifices and asked for little in return but a little shop in the corner of the basement where all of the destruction he had witnessed could be negated but the small but powerful act of creating. His shop was my grandfather’s shop. His shop is my father’s shop.
As I left, I promised Mr. Paone’s granddaughter that I would not sell the items I had bought, but rather, I would honor him by using them to build things for my family and loved ones. I am proud to have such an opportunity. Thank you, Charlie, for everything you have done–I only wish we had had the chance to meet.
About a week after I visited Watertown and returned with some treasures from Charlie’s shop I received a large envelope in the mail. Inside were the original owner’s manual for the drill press as well as the funeral card pictured above. There was also a very kind letter from Charlie’s granddaughter thanking me for taking such an interest in her grandfather, “his craft, and his life.” The honor was mine. I will put the funeral card up in my shop as a reminder of Charlie, a man I’ve never met but have enjoyed getting to know.