So many thousands of words have been written in derision of the Tinker’s trade that even the phrase “to tinker with” implies that someone did an inadequate repair on something. Even the word “tinkering” implies that someone who did not fully know what they were doing are trying to fix something that may temporarily work, but will likely break again in the near future. Tinkers are even being damned as worthless individuals today with the phrase, “Not worth a Tinker’s damn.”
To put things right, the Tinker was a tradesman who repaired metal cooking pots. He traveled through the cities, villages and country estates of England with a box or push cart that contained his tools. Tinkers worked in much the same way as did the Grinders who had a rotating stone mounted on a treadmill that was used to sharpen axes, knives and scissors. Tinkers soon discovered that the few pennies they earned fixing pots was not sufficient to make a living and expanded their activities to include repairing all classes of mechanical objects.
This case of classic “job creep” was driven by demand, because he had the tools to do limited work with metal objects. He might be called upon to fix a broken hinge, clock or lock using his tools and whatever materials that he could scrounge. Sometimes he would replace a broken steel part with a piece of brass that he could more easily work with the tiny vise and files. This replacement part might work for a time, but would ultimately fail. This common use of expedient materials resulted in so many failures that Tinkers and the art of “tinkering” received a bad name.
It did not help that those who made their living as locksmiths, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, millwrights, etc. did not care for the competition from Tinkers who not only undercut them in price, but took trade by making these repairs with varying degrees of success. We still have a phrase in the language, “Jack of all trades and master of none,” that was so commonly applied to Tinkers that it remained a part of the language long after the Tinker’s job of mending pots has almost completely vanished. Metal pots that were once highly prized are now so cheap that they are commonly thrown away should they develop holes or need new handles. If their owners cannot repair them, they are often tossed or sold for their metal.
I took a small aluminum pot that I had purchased in 1968 in Fairbanks, Alaska, on a recent hunt at the Cumberland Island National Seashore (See video at: http://youtu.be/wgPNeKXxAXg). This small Swiss-made pot was part of the gear I gathered to do a Summer of backpacking in the Chicken District of Alaska while I worked on my Master’s thesis. I cooked hundreds of meals in this pot in the following years. Perhaps one of its most striking adventures was when I took it on a successful hunt for Dahl sheep. On the trip out, I had the sheep’s head lashed to the top of my pack and the teeth on the bottom of the sheep’s skull abraded through the pack and scratched the pot’s lid. That sheep is still on my wall, and each time I took that pot to the hunting camp it reminded me of this adventure. This pot had become one of that class of objects that I consider, “Sacred implements of the hunt.”
These are not sacred in the meaning that they are any more or less holy that anything else, but they have a deep meaning to me such that I would be distraught should they be lost. On my recent hunt on Cumberland Island, the pot leaked through two tiny pinholes that had apparently been poked into it by a steel fork in my camp box. I noticed this when the propane flame from my Coleman stove started to sputter, as if the pot were boiling over. When I took the pot off the stove it was wet on the bottom and had a slow drip. Fortunately I had another pot, so I transferred my supper of Hog’s Head Brunswick Stew to the new pot and continued my meal.
I thought about retiring the pot, but remembering the Tinker’s trade, I decided to see if I could use a steel rod to shift enough malleable metal to seal these holes. After making a few strikes, I could see that the the holes were closed, but proving that this cold- forging repair was successful could only come when water was heated in the pot. Water’s surface tension is sufficient to keep the pot from leaking through tiny holes, but this tension is broken when sufficient energy is imparted to the water to bring it to a boil.
I am pleased to report that the repair worked, the pot passed its cooking test and it has been returned to service. It will again someday fail, as will all mechanical things, but my attempts at a small revival of the Tinker’s trade was successful. As I very often use whatever I have to make the things that I need, as I recently did with making homemade covers for hatchets, my appreciation for the often disparaged Tinker and his trade has considerably increased. The video of this repair may be seen at: : http://youtu.be/p4dipuLnr88.
So tinker away, you may be successful or you may be only temporarily successful, but isn’t that what life is all about? The lowly Tinker was just like the rest of us, but he tried.