Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 175, March 2020
Book Review: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter
by Nina MacLaughlin
Review by J. Norman Reid

The author of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin, gave up her young career as a Boston journalist to become she did not know what. She only knew that the newspaper work she thought she loved had become boring, so much so that she quit her job with no prospects in sight. In consequence, she was resigned to scanning the want ads daily for something, anything that might prove interesting and profitable. One day, an ad appeared from a woman carpenter seeking an assistant. MacLaughlin applied, one of hundreds to do so. Somehow, she made the first cut based on a terse bio statement that reflected her innocence of things carpentry. But, she made the short list. Finally, she had a one-day apprenticeship, and, despite several mistakes, she was given the job. But doing what? She knew nothing of carpentry, its tools, its methods, its terminology. What follows is the twisted tale of how she muddled her way through from ignorant tool-toter to accomplished carpenter able to complete projects on her own.

On its face, Hammer Head is an autobiographical account of MacLaughlin's growth and development as a carpenter. And it is certainly that, replete with tales of trials and plenty of errors as she struggled to grasp the diversity and intricacy of general carpentry. But her story runs deeper than an account of her apprenticeship. It's filled with digressions into the genesis of the tools she learns to use. And these excursions lead to subtle analogies to lessons of life she extracts from pondering the tools and processes of working wood.

The book is charmingly written with many references to classical literature at appropriate points. These keep her focus at a high but nevertheless approachable plane. They're not only enlightening and interesting, but in some cases, they're surprising. And often they're humorous. I sometimes found myself laughing out loud at the messes she worked herself into. In many places, I encountered "ah hah" and "been there" situations that made me appreciate both her learning dilemmas and my own screw-ups, er, learning opportunities.

Each of the six chapters is loosely organized around one tool and its related uses. Chapter 1 is the tape measure, and MacLaughlin employs it to collect her early experiences learning to measure things at an appropriate degree of accuracy for carpentry. As she does, she delves into the history of measurement, how the systems employed in modern times came to be used, and some of the peculiarities of their origins. She relates the story of one Oliver Smoot, who in 1958 was tipped over and over, head over heels, by his MIT fraternity mates, so his body would measure the length of the bridge from Boston to Cambridge. Thus originated the unit of measure known as the Smoot. In one of the strange twists of fate, the same Oliver Smoot went on in his career to head up both the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization. Truth is, as they say, stranger than fiction.

Chapter 2 is themed on the hammer. Amid stories of her experiences learning to use the hammer is the tale of the Hammer Museum in Haines, Alaska. But more important are her experiences trying to drive nails without bending them. And using a claw hammer to remove dilapidated stair treads by working from the top of the basement stairs to its bottom, then finding no good way to climb back out of the dark lower space. Ah, the perils of inexperience.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the screwdriver. This, of course, opens up the whole subject of screws, their fairly recent appearance in woodworking history, and the etymology of the term screw. Here she learns an important lesson: "Half a job is learning how to fix mistakes." Her inability to drive screws into a plastic material taught her the value of drilling pilot screws. Her self-anger at this frustrating situation pushed her to say "screw it" and walk away in disgust. Better, though, was the advice she took from Samuel Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Chapter 4 relates to the clamp. This chapter is associated with a period in which there were no carpentry jobs to be had and she entered a time of unemployment. She was, as it turns out, unemployed for months. Her own circumstances paralleled a similar painful period in which her father had lost his job and sat idle, unable or unwilling to shift directions to find gainful employment. What you do professionally, it turns out, is a big part of who you are, and without something to do, it raises questions about your personal identity. Missing, in such a case, is the guidance, the order and stability that can be offered by a clamp. So in life as in woodworking. Eventually, work returned and she was able to climb out of this uncertainty and regain her sense of order and self- identification.

Chapter 5 honors the saw. In the course of her work, she learned to use many different types of saw and came to understand which was most appropriate to each situation. The saw, it is said, was an ancient Greek invention by Perdix, nephew of the ill-fated Daedalus, who one day spied the bare spine of a bony fish and reasoned that such a thing in steel would be just the thing to sever wood fibers. Or so they say. The final chapter is dedicated to the level. Here she relates her first job entirely on her own, making a set of built-in bookcases for her father, and her success—mostly—at ensuring they were level, given the uneven floors and walls. At the same time, MacLaughlin draws a parallel to life, to the value of keeping things on an even keel. The bookcase helped her establish a tighter bond with her father, a heretofore somewhat remote relationship, and exemplified squaring up her own life.

This paperback book is at once an easy and a fun read. It will have broad appeal for its amusing and knowing look at the familiar and less well-known in the world of tools and practices of carpentry. It is at the same time the story of perseverance in the face of frustrations and adversity for a woman in an almost wholly male-dominated profession.

There is here an important but subtle life lesson embedded in the mirth. I found much I could relate to in this book. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. You will too.

Find out more and purchase Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter
at Highland Woodworking

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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