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Self-Reliance and Handsaws: John Ratzenberger's Tools for Life

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"Everyone in the Swiss Army owns a Swiss Army knife. That's why no one messes with Switzerland."

Cliff Clavin uttered that line in an episode of the beloved sitcom "Cheers," but as it turns out, the actor who played him has a love for tools that extends well beyond that ubiquitous multipurpose pocket knife.

Actor John Ratzenberger worked as a carpenter before landing the role of Cliff, the disgruntled postal worker who loved spending hours at the local bar with his buddies. And in the years since "Cheers" concluded its 11-season run, Ratzenberger has returned to his woodworking roots.

New show, new focus
In 2003, Ratzenberger began filming "Made in America," a documentary-style reality TV show profiling U.S.-based manufacturers. On the show, he visited a wide array of factories, including Crayola and Delta Faucets, emphasizing the importance and value of domestic production. "Anything made in America is always, I've found so far, all high quality," he says.

These days, Ratzenberger is campaigning on behalf of educating people -- specifically, Americans -- in manual fields like carpentry and construction. He feels strongly that everyone should know how to build and fix things, and children should be taught this as part of their schooling. To learn more about Ratzenberger's favorite tools and how he uses them in his own shop, visit this list of 10 Essential Woodworking Tools.

A lifelong passion

For his part, Ratzenberger enjoyed carpentry and woodworking from a young age. "I grew up in a factory town, so everybody I knew -- all the neighbors, all the kids, everybody -- was building something or fixing something. So it was a natural way to grow up. It wasn't a sunbeam hitting me or heavenly choirs hitting me telling me to become a carpenter. It was just something I enjoyed doing."

Growing up in such a community led to a lifelong passion for fixing things, as well as a strong belief in self-reliance that Ratzenberger passed on to his own children. "I raised both my kids, and they both know how to use tools. They're both very handy. But my daughter was the go-to person in college, in her dorm. She was the only one with a toolbox, and even the boys from the boys' dorm would come and ask her to fix this or fix that, and I'm very proud of her for that. I said to her, 'I hope you're charging them!' She said, 'Some I charge, some I do for free.' She still has a full toolbox, and she doesn't hesitate. If something goes wrong, she'll fix it."

Building for the future
To Ratzenberger, equipping the children of future generations with such hands-on skills and abilities is imperative to the continuation of our economy and way of life. He believes our country was built thanks to the hard work and self-sufficiency of those who knew how to create and fix things. "That's what built America: self-reliance. You just did it. Figure it out," he says.

But more and more, Americans are getting in the habit of picking up the phone and calling in a professional rather than fixing something themselves. And that, to Ratzenberger, is a travesty.
"By the time everybody realizes the problem, it's going to be too late. Right now, there's time to still teach children and get them interested in the nuts and the bolts and the saws and the hammers, because right now they're not."

Ratzenberger's hope is that shows like "Made in America" will help to bolster the American public's view of the construction industry, and even reinvigorate younger generations' interest in learning how to build and fix things themselves. According to John, anyone can take on the proper training and learn to work with their hands.

"When I teach people and show people, a lot of people have the understanding that they're not handy at all, or they can't do something," Ratzenberger says. This is something he hopes to change with better education, which can in turn lead to students -- specifically, kids -- feeling a sense of accomplishment when they build or create something that will stand the test of time.

Establishing inner strength
This ethos also applies to other aspects of the human experience: John feels that that self-reliance and taking responsibility for oneself are important qualities to possess in many aspects of life, whether that's at work, at school or even in personal relationships.

Having the ability to fix things also helps to foster a sense of pride in ownership, something Ratzenberger feels we as a culture are losing as we become more in the habit of discarding old items in favor of new ones. Viewing possessions as disposable is both economically and environmentally damaging, but spreading knowledge and teaching individuals more practical carpentry and tool skills can begin to alleviate these problems.