Tools of the trade Malta - An interview

Rather than risk getting lost in the warren of winding streets in the old partofQormi, the best way to find Gorg Sammut
is to head to the parish of San Gorg and ask for Gorg ta'Mira.Qormi is one of the largest towns in Malta, and is divided in two parish churches: St George and St Sebastian. Some would say divided is the right word to use because of the traditional rivalry about who will outdo the other in celebrating the village festa. But one can see unity in diversity too as there are many unifying factors which set the Qriema apart from other Maltese urban centres.

You would be forgiven if you thought that la-year old Gorg is ten years younger. A carpenter by trade since he was a mere 13 years old, he is one of the biggest collectors of old tools I ever came across. But what makes Gorg different is that his collection is not behind glass in cabinets, being brought out and dusted every so often. Rather, the tools are stacked in rows in his son's workshop, and Gorg still uses most of them.

While he works with a plane made of orange wood to bring out a particular design on a strip of wood that would end up as part of a balcony, Gorg says he often receives offers to sell some of his tools."How can I sell a part of me? I made most of the tools used in my trade and those I did not make, I bought a long time ago and you will not believe me but I lose sleep when I cannot find one of them. Recently I found a pair of pliers I had lost two years ago. I had left it behind while working in a house and I was doing some other work there recently and saw it and immediately recognised it. I told the man I'll buy him a new one and take mine back as I wasted so much time looking for it and worrying about it he adds. Like most tradesmen of his age, Gorg learnt by working with others since a very young age.

"The old man I used to work with used to warn me that when an inspector from the labour office came to the workshop, I had to grab a piece of wood and pretend I am there for him to cut off a piece from it for me or to disappear into the bathroom he recalls. Gorg used to work for one of the best carpenters in Qormi. "We used to make everything but his speciality was doors, windows and balconies he says.

In those days, tools were handmade by the carpenters, who often doubled as blacksmiths to make hinges, locks and all the iron fittings used for the doors and windows that they made. "My first plane, called varloppa in Maltese, was made from the trunk of an orange tree Gorg says, holding it up for me to see.

Some old craftsmen engaged trainees but never taught them all the skills for fear they would set up their own shop and compete with them for business. "My instructor taught me a lot", Gorg recalls." can't say he let me in on all the secrets, but compared to others, he taught me a reallot and at the age of 25 I set up on my own. I already had two children by then he said.

Gorg was so fond of his instructor that he wanted to buy his tools and finally managed to buy them. "He had this tool box which we used to take with us when we went to work at people's homes -it is beautiful, a work of art. All dove tailed and with 14 small drawers inside for the tools, different blades for planes and fittings. It my pride and joy he says. Some of the tools are rather simple, but there are so many of them for different jobs, that it's amazing Gorg remembers all their names. Some have amazingly complex settings to adjust the depth of the grooves and the pitch of their blades. "Some of the tools here are over 150 years old as they belonged to my instructor. Recently I was working at a doctor's house and he wanted me to sell him one of the very small planes I have because he liked it. He could not believe I still used them. And I also collect them so there's no way I will sell any of them.

He churns out names of the different types of planes and diligently explains what they are used for. His workshop is a living museum. It's not that power tools are absent, but the fact that old tools are still used and so lovingly cherished, it glues the visitor and seems to take you back in time. A puff of fine sawdust flies off everyone of them as he blows on them while bringing them down from the shelves. Sawdust and wood shavings line the floor of the workshop and the fine dust covers everything. "It is not a cake shop here. Sometime we don't have time to clean up and my son is so busy that sawdust just accumulates he says."I have one big consolation. My son knows a lot about the old tools and though he can't use the old tools as well as I do, he knows all he needs to know about them. And when I am gone, they will be in good hands he says.