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If I Had a Hammer

March 10th, 2009

I picked up my hammer last Sunday. This in itself doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but now that I’ve retired to the ranks of weekend warrior, coupled with the fact that I prefer my air-nailer, I’ve found that I seldom use a hammer other than when hanging a picture. I choose the nail gun due to a combination of laziness and the fact that I’m right-handed but have a dominant left eye. Hammering has always been a challenge for me because of this; the nail head and shaft always seem to be shifting in front of my gaze. I discovered this trait when learning to shoot a rifle – because I was always hitting the target of the kid to my left.

Most of us become acquainted with hammers through our parents. I don’t mean to be gendered, but a generation or two ago it was typically Dad’s; now it seems that both men and women are comfortable with them. I think this change occurred when we stopped sending boys to woodshop and girls to home economics. Same with drills; I have an ex who never held an electric drill until she was 25.

I learned about hammers at the side of a hippie carpenter – the kind who was immortalized in Tracy Kidder’s House. You know the type; he works alone unless something’s just too heavy and a come-along won’t work – then he’ll call me. Proudly independent, he’ll never be found on a general contractor’s crew unless he’s half-past starving. It was on my first job with him that I used his hammer, and it is the same model that I use today.

Our first hammers are cheap, clunky things. They’re constructed of a metal head wedged onto a wooden handle that eventually loosens or snaps clean off. Unlike this, my hammer is a single piece of steel from top to bottom. It will never break. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen one lose the tip of a claw. I won’t mention the brand name of it, as this would seem like an endorsement, and those who’ve worked with me would never give any credence to my approval of anything; but you know who makes this item. It’s a 16-ounce, straight-claw, leather-handled piece, and it’s not the most expensive hammer made nor the cheapest. You can get one anywhere for either side of $35, which means if someone swipes it, a replacement is always nearby.

And then there’s the tightly wrapped brown leather handle with its black and white banding. You can buy this model with a blue nylon-vinyl grip, which is probably more comfortable and a little less slippery, but there’s something about the wrapped leather, especially as it breaks in, that seems time-honored and makes me feel like I’m using the same tool as my grandfather.

Swinging it that day felt good, and it made me reflect on this most basic of our hand tools: there’s a balance to a hammer, and this one feels like an extension of my arm. Its arc is smooth and sure, and my elbow never feels like it’s going off a perfect pivot. Next time you’re at a lumberyard, swing a few hammers around. The inexpensive ones feel awkward and out of alignment. Their heads are too heavy for the handle, and you’ll feel more like a catapult than a carpenter.

I’m sure my comments box is going to fill up with folks claiming that my hammer pales in comparison to theirs; that’s fine. The whole point is that this simplest of tools is actually one of the most ergonomically complex, and each of us demands specific things from them. Don’t walk a mile in my work boots; build a bookcase with my hammer.

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  1. May 8th, 2009 at 19:20 | #1

    Dan, here’s my hammer story:
    my brother, 4 years younger than I, began carrying a hammer 24 hours a day at age 2. we began to call him “john hammer”. the two of us would walk into a bakery with my mother (oh, all that glass!) and the owner would look crazy-eyed at my brother. my mother would calmly assure the owner that john would not smash her cases as he knew better, and jh never did. he did though almost kill me one day.
    we had a blue plastic tarp that we would spray with water and then run and slide on - the original slip-n-slide. one day i decided to get under it and was enjoying how the blue light filtered through and made a nice little world under the tarp. my brother walked up, saw the bump under the tarp (my head) and began to smash the bump with his hammer. i screamed and yelled that it was me under the tarp, but the 2-yr-old could not connect my voice with the fascinating moving bump target. as i crawled for the edge of the tarp, jh wielded his mighty hammer again and again. i lived, but had my first concussion.

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