This summer, my favorite hammer suffered a broken wooden handle, an inevitability that I preferred to let someone else endure. So I gave it to my young neighbor, Kaleb, not yet a journeyman carpenter, who gave it back a week later in two pieces. When new, this hammer appeared on the cover and inside pages of my first book, photographed in full color by the incomparable Portland photographer, Rich Iwasaki; and to be candid without being clear, it would have snapped something deep inside my spirit to feel the ash handle break (just under the head, by the way) in my hand.
On one hand, although I am no longer young, strong and immortal, I am now wise enough, through experience, to pull nails only with tools made of steel or fiberglass. On the other hand, it was actually my fault for not giving him a cat’s paw with the hammer.
It’s a Hart framing hammer, now in need of repair. Part of a hammer collection of over three hundred (back in the day) now whittled to a mere 25 hammers. Some I will give away, some I will sell, and a few will go in my coffin organizer so I can take them with me into the afterlife.
My love of hammers in general goes back to toddlerhood, when one Christmas I received a toy with six wooden pegs and a perfectly balanced toy hammer. For three years of my childhood, I happily banged those six pegs flush, turned the wooden frame upside-down, and drove them back again. (Later, I discovered that Norm Abram also owned a similar toy.) I practiced this endless hammering with the same diligence that modern kids apply to video games.
As a carpenter and a writer, somehow I began collecting tools by the hundreds. Each plane that came my way, especially the oldies, seemed to be as unique as human beings. I became an amateur galoot, which is the proper word for the pathology of falling in love with the ineffable aura of tools, specifically antiques.
Fixing this Hart framer will be a breeze, involving only setting up a workbench with a vise, finding the tools needed to clean out the adze-eye, salvaging those incredibly perfect circular wedges that Hart uses, locating a replacement handle in town or on the Internet, and the cheerful investment of approximately four hours of my valuable time, not including travel.
You say that you can fix my hammer in under an hour? Sure. Truly, it must be wonderful to be you, chained to a ticking timepiece and such an unrelenting production schedule, glowing with the false pride of rapid workmanship; but I humbly suggest that four pleasant, peaceful hours spent slowly restoring an old, old friend, one that happens to be a hammer, back to perfect working condition, brings into your head some subtleties of satisfaction that impart a sense of relaxation, not accomplishment. As I see it, the real joy is in working toward a goal without being aware of anything but the work at hand. More like kayaking down the McKenzie River than joining the crew of a tasked nuclear submarine, if you get my drift
Part two will describe the process and the mood, with pithy quotes from Pirsig and others, plus a practical list of tools, and some things you should consider in the planning stage of wooden hammer-handle replacement. If you do not acknowledge and sincerely believe that a planning stage is required for such a simple operation of tool maintenance ... No, I cannot help you, not yet. Sorry. You just don’t love wooden-handled hammers enough. Maybe someday.
Illustration by Bob Rech