Camp Westfalia

Archive for Lost Highways: the Camp Westfalia Blog

Not Your Father’s Craftsman

I come from a long line of practical, hard-working, German-American farmers, carpenters, and do-it-yourselfers.

A polite person might call us ‘thrifty’, but we also know that building and fixing your own stuff requires the best tools you can afford, from a maker who—like we taciturn Teutonics—stands behind his work.


And for at least three generations of my family that maker was Craftsman, for whom Sears instituted their renowned lifetime warranty program in 1927. Though I had never actually tested this acclaimed Craftsman warranty until recently, I have purchased a lot of their tools by virtue of it.

“Consumers have ranked the Craftsman brand second (surpassed only by Waterford Crystal) in terms of quality. In 2007, Craftsman was named “America’s Most Trusted Brand” and brand with “Highest Expectations”. In 2009, the readers of Popular Mechanics named Craftsman their favorite brand of hand tools in their Reader’s Choice Awards.”

But alas, today’s Craftsman is not your father’s Craftsman …

A few weeks ago while working on the Vanagon’s rear brakes I gave my Craftsman 3/8″-drive socket wrench a hearty pull and promptly snapped it. And bloodied my knee in the bargain.

I finished the job using another socket wrench, but afterwards as I tidied up the barn floor and wiped down my tools I turned the broken Craftsman over in my hand. It still looked good, with no visible wear or tear, and its chrome-plated body gleamed in the fading light. But the internal ratchet was clearly stripped and jammed.


I would soon buy a replacement of another brand but I was saddened to see this old Craftsman go. My father had bought me the complete socket set many years ago, and with most of the clunker cars of my youth I never drove anywhere without it, rattling quietly under the driver’s seat for all those uncertain miles. Besides routine maintenance I also tightened loose alternator brackets, snugged down leaking valve covers, and replaced snapped timing belts, sometimes in a mall parking lot somewhere far from home.

Once, while coming out of a particularly steep McDonald’s driveway in my 1983 VW Quantum station wagon, I sheared off a lower ball joint. I limped the car across the street and into a hotel parking lot, one front wheel dragging and squawking, then walked two blocks to the auto parts store and came back and replaced the ball joint.

On my lunch hour. In the rain.

The Craftsman ratchet—and the entire socket set in which it came—had served me well, so I cannot complain. It had been my faithful go-to socket wrench over many years, reliably helping to keep a succession of decreasingly crappy cars going, and had been a constant companion throughout the Vanagon’s engine transplant and ongoing ‘rolling restoration.’

And now, regrettably, I had broken it.

Eventually, one day while running errands in town, I found myself near a Sears store and took the wrench in to see about their famed lifetime warranty.

Much to my pleasant surprise the young woman at the service desk didn’t request to see a sales receipt from a quarter-century ago, or even ask a lot of questions at all. Instead, she simply took my shiny but broken socket wrench, reached into a drawer full of ratchets and handed me a new one.

Or perhaps I should say that she handed me a replacement.

“They’re a little different now …” she said somewhat sheepishly as I took it in hand.

Indeed, in exchange for the hefty polished and chromed tool I had just relinquished, this oblong lump of stamped pot metal was noticeably smaller, lighter, cheaper, and shoddily built. At first glance it appeared that Craftsman was so ashamed of this tool that they declined even to emboss their name on it, but I later found it hidden beneath a nondescript UPC bar code sticker marking the unit as “Refurbished.”

As if to add insult to injury, the replacement socket wrench was scraped and nicked, in far worse condition than my old one, and still bore a few greasy smudges presumably from the previous owner. Apparently, when refurbing their heaps of broken tools, the ‘craftsmen’ at Craftsman cannot be bothered to clean them even as well as I clean mine after a typical brake job.

Though I hadn’t even taken it home yet, this wrench was quite possibly the most battered tool in my entire collection …

It’s a socket wrench, I suppose, and perhaps someday it will prove itself better than nothing at all. But I cannot help but feel that my faithful old lieutenant has died in the field, and I have my doubts that this skinny, bedraggled replacement is up to the task.

Do I use it for everyday Vanagon wrenching, where a backup is never far away but where its inevitable failure will come to pass that much sooner?

Or do I instead pack it away in my on-board tool kit, where there is less likelihood I’ll ever need it, but where its breakage will leave me stranded on a distant, dusty road?

As much as I lament the loss of a good tool, I regret even more the continuing demise of a once-respected American brand of reliable, affordable tools for the Everyman, and the honoring of its vaunted “Full Warranty”.

Evidently, the idea that the purpose of a warranty is to make right a failing, by replacing the faulty product with one of equal and comparable value, has gone the way of the village blacksmith, relegated to the scrap heap of antiquity, a quaint anachronism.

Much like me, perhaps …

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Al Fresco Acoustic

Having completed a bit of wrenching on the Vanagon, I recently decided to try my hand at another craft, and the result is my first attempt at sewing something besides a pair of old jeans with worn-out knees.

When camping in the Westfalia, I have often wished for a small guitar to mess around with while enjoying a drink around the campfire. I already have a couple of decent guitars at home but they’re really too large and too shiny for banging around with our luggage inside the Westy.

So when I spotted this little 1/2-size kids’ guitar at my local St. Vinnie’s, already beat up and broken and epoxied back together, I snapped it up. On the way home I stopped at the music shop and bought two sets of strings for it; together they cost more than the guitar.

It’s been a fun little instrument, with a sweet never-quite-in-tune, back-porch blues-y sound that is particularly pleasant beneath the pines under the stars. And unlike my other guitars, I won’t agonize if it tips over and falls into the dirt.

Or the campfire.

But, being a somewhat anal-retentive old German, and not wanting my thrift-store treasure to get any more scratches or scuffs or sun-fading, I decided I wanted some kind of … sigh … protective case for it.

I mean, besides the folded-over camping blanket I’d been using.

So I set about taking some measurements and drawing up a little diagram for a simple homemade bag that even a first-time knucklehead seamstress (seamster?) like me could manage. When Lorie glanced over my shoulder at my sketchpad she said, “You know, you can buy a guitar bag for, like, ten bucks …”

“Don’t be silly,” I replied, “I only paid seven for the guitar!”

I then proceeded to exhaust the better part of last Tuesday evening cutting up an old Goodwill fleece blanket and cussing as I puzzled out how to operate an electric sewing machine. Along the way, I gained valuable insights into edge hemming, hidden seams, and converting two-dimensional flat shapes which can be cut from a single piece of cloth into three-dimensional final shapes.

Also, to keep one’s fingers away from moving needles.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with my first sewing efforts. I added a basic tie cord salvaged from a broken hiking bootlace, and the simple design and drab fabric I think lend to it a certain old-timey ‘wandering minstrel’ motif.

Besides, our Westy is a diesel, and when I pull up to the big-boy fuel pumps I can’t have those truckers, ranchers, and roughneck bulldozer drivers glance over and see my little six-string and assume I’m some kind of hippie-dippie type who sits around the campfire strumming his toy guitar, and who uses words like ‘motif’.

Even though I in fact do …

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A Westfalia Reunion

“The way these vans have shaped and enriched our family life would make one believe these darn things have a soul.”
Syncroserge, Samba member

Anyone who’s ever had a Bus, Vanagon, or any other old VW knows that Volkswagen ownership confers membership in a rather unique and tight-knit ‘family’ of other owners.

Random encounters in campgrounds, National Parks, or grocery store parking lots quickly resemble reunions between long-lost cousins.

But until lately, I had no idea how deeply these threads can be woven into the fabric of our lives, sometimes unbeknownst to us …

I recently attended a sea-kayak symposium about three hundred miles from home, and I enjoyed the typical admiring glances and peace signs every time I puttered through the parking lot with my Westfalia.

Once, when I’d parked and was rummaging through some gear bags, an older woman approached and asked, “What year is your diesel Vanagon?”

“It’s a 1983,” I answered, and she replied that she used to own one in the same color. She went on to explain that she and her husband had gone to Germany and picked theirs up at Westfalia-Werke in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, then spent five weeks touring northern Europe before shipping their new van home to the States.

I chuckled because that was similar to the story I’d heard about the original owners of my own van, but I suppose lots of Americans did that.

She went on to recount some of the various unique accessories they’d added to their Camper: the matching Westfalia toilet-in-a-box, a foot switch for the sink pump, the RV bubble levels on the closet wall; all of which our van also has. And she mentioned their cross-country road trips to the western American national parks, and to points beyond.

I finally asked whatever happened to her Vanagon. She explained that once their children were born they had camped less and less, so they finally sold it to a pair of engineering students from Germany. My ears perked up and I asked, “What university?”

“Oh, that was way down in Platteville …” she waved offhandedly.

I felt a shiver run down my spine.

“That’s where we bought our Westy,” I said, “from two university students who were returning to Germany!”

She stared blankly at me, almost skeptically, and I stepped over to the Vanagon’s passenger door and opened the glovebox. Stuck inside there has always been a small faded mailing label with a name and address, presumably the original owners. For the seventeen years this Westy has been in our family I had long planned to look them up, but had never quite gotten around to it.

I read the name aloud to her.

“Well, that’s me!” she exclaimed. We both burst into laughter and exchanged a friendly embrace at this reunion of long-lost Westy ‘parents’. We spent the next hour swapping stories and tales of our travels and road trips, and exchanged email addresses.

A few months later she invited me to her home for tea and to see a small photo album documenting their 1983 tour of Europe.

It was a thrill to see the ‘baby pictures’ and first steps of our beloved Westy on German soil, but the real pleasure was hearing her travel stories—old and new—and contemplating the serendipity that had brought us together …

Have any VW-family stories to share? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!