What happens when you take a vintage tool fanatic, collector, and designer who also happens to be a whiz at software and let him loose on the world? You get Gramercy Tools, a custom manufacturer and seller of rare and ultra-high quality hand tools occupying space on a most impressive web site called Tools for Working Wood.
The web site is lush, inviting and frightfully easy to navigate, and houses enough top-of-the-line hand tools to make most Neanderthals start to drool, but it is also chock-full of good reading. It’s as much a library of information as a store, sporting articles on the history and design of tools and treatises on a number of woodworking skills from how to sharpen to how to mix dyes. There are even free online directions if you want to make your own bow saw, either from scratch or with their helpful kits. To top it off, there’s also a link to a virtual Museum of Woodworking Tools.
The person behind all this is tool maven, programmer, collector, designer and social historian Joel Moskowitz. Before Gramercy, he went through a rather eclectic series of career hops that groomed him perfectly for his present situation, but even before that, there was woodworking. “I have always done woodworking,” Joel told me. “I took my first woodworking class at the Y when I was seven, and studied with Maurice Fraser at the Craft Students League in NYC in the mid-80s, but I always kept it a hobby.
“After graduating from Cooper Union,” he continued, “I became a mechanical engineer and was hired by Black and Decker. Everyone always told me I was a bad engineer, which is true, because I was good at design but not at calculation. That lasted a year and a half, and I went to work for Atari designing housings for computer games. What I discovered there was that while I was a terrible mechanical engineer, I was a very good software designer. It turns out that I’m a natural programmer.”
That’s fairly obvious from his web sites, which are masterpieces of good design, fast loading, and wonderfully intuitive navigation features. “Once Atari collapsed,” Joel continued, “I wrote a computer game and worked for a consumer software company on and off until the mid-90s. During a jobless period in the 80s, I published two books on making working machinery from paper, one on making a working clock of paper, and the other on making a working piston engine.”
“I spent most of the 80s and 90s making good money, but trying to find another job. I am good at computer programming, but don’t like computers. I much prefer history, especially social history — things like the impact of the Industrial Revolution, for example. One of the things that is interesting about woodworking is that if you compare productivity from now to the 19th century, you will find that productivity has not increased. Watch someone like Frank Klausz work, and you can understand how someone can make a living working like that. What has changed is that the skill level required has dropped. For example, the average woodworker cannot saw straight using hand tools.
“In 1996, along with a partner, I founded the Museum of Woodworking Tools, a strictly online virtual museum, for the primary reason of proving we could write web sites, which was the thrust of our business. Antique tools were something I knew and was interested in; in fact, I am an avid collector, so that was the focus of the web site. Though it does not earn money, I keep it open because it is interesting to people.
“After about a year, we added e-commerce and started selling books online. In 1998, we split the partnership, and I retained the virtual museum and store. After a vacation to Vietnam, I came home and created Tools for Working Wood, a web site devoted to selling hand tools to woodworkers.” The company also has one brick and mortar store in NYC, but the vast majority of sales are online.
A lust for quality led to his creation of Gramercy Tools. “I was selling hand tools,” Joel recounted, “and wanted to get really good quality tools. The best way to do that was by talking to companies who manufacture. A lot of factories liked dealing with us because we actually understood the tools. For example, I collect Norris planes. When I contacted Ray Iles about my being an agent for his infill planes, he was interested because we know what we are talking about. The same thing happened with Ashley Isles chisels.
“When you start having products that you want to bring to market, it makes sense to put your name on them. Hence, Gramercy tools was born. By putting some of these items under our own brand, it guarantees that we can continue to make items of this quality available to woodworkers. The companies we deal with are not interested in going into Home Depot® or Lowe’s®, and vice versa. Some of our manufacturers are solely OEM producers – they don’t make a brand name, but rather only manufacture on spec. We get items direct from the manufacturer, without a middle wholesaler marking it up. As a result, we can offer really good items for good prices. We are a boutique supplier that tries to keep prices reasonable.
“At Gramercy, we walk the talk. We know what we are talking about, and that is what makes our tools different. We feel there is a market out there for things that really work well, are the right design, but are not overpriced. Our tools would be a fit for a serious 19th century woodworker, both in quality and price. We don’t just add gold plating to something, stick our name on it and charge more. We sell the steak, not the sizzle.
“Currently, there are about a dozen tools under the Gramercy Tool label, including beading saws, bow saws, rasps, brushes and our unique holdfast, which was our first Gramercy product. We used to sell cast holdfasts, and they would frequently break. We tried ones made by blacksmiths, but they were expensive and not that much better. Instead, we sat down and designed a factory-made holdfast that is neither forged nor cast, and that is wonderfully functional, but not expensive. They are reliable, strong and patent pending. It has become our best-selling Gramercy Tools product.
“One gap in our line that I noticed was finishing, and I felt the first thing we needed was a really good brush, not for painting, but for fine finishing. Very few people can actually tell you what makes a brush good, or what about it makes it work. We spent six months researching and trying brushes to determine the components of a great brush. To get what we wanted, we had to create it ourselves. It is expensive to make, but it is worth it.
“What you want from a brush is no brush marks, a long stroke, and the ability to go around corners, edges and curves fluidly. You want an even distribution of finish on all surfaces. And, of course, you want a brush that is comfortable in the hand, doesn’t lose hairs and will last a long time. Fine hair gives you fewer brush marks, thickness gives you richness and better breaks over corners, and shorter hair, especially with soft hair, gives you more control. To get a brush like that, we eliminated the filler wedge and created a chisel-end European ox hair brush. The beaver tail shape handle is comfortable, and left unfinished because it is less slippery. We are really proud of our brushes. You have not been able to buy brushes like ours for over two decades. As far we know, ours is the only genuine ox hair brush made here in the U.S.”
For Joel, hand tools are more than just an adjunct to power tools. “Traditional hand tools can be very productive,” he insists. “The trick is getting ones that are not dumbed down. There’s a tool revolution going on in hand tools, and many that have disappeared from the market are coming back. We’re shooting for solid values. Of course, learning technique is as important as getting good tools, but if you have good tools and learn how to use them, you can do amazing things.”