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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

Deteriorating Skills

Emergency Sharpening

Building the NEW Down To Earth Workshop, Part 3 – Stairs, Door, Windows

Deteriorating Skills

I'd rather be a hammer than a nail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.

When Paul Simon wrote the lyrics to this 1913 Zarzuela (think Spanish opera with spoken word and dancing thrown in) by Alomia Robles, it was because he was smitten with the melody, and we have been smitten with his lyrics ever since. The tune was rambling through my head the other day as I attempted to nail, by hand, the paneling to the walls of my new shop.

With more than a few bent and broken nails, a sore thumb and forefinger, and several telltale indentations in the paneling, I wondered if it might not be safer in my shop to be the nail. I realized, with some alarm, that at least one of my skills had deteriorated.

More years ago than I care to admit, my father pointed out a master carpenter on one of his job sites and said, "Son, see that guy? Watch him drive nails." Frank wasn't muscle-bound or wiry. Instead, he looked like a man that had enjoyed meals and adult brewed beverages a bit too much. He was, nonetheless, a marvel to watch. He held a sixteen-penny nail between his first and second finger, palm up, and struck once to set the nail into place, and then with a single swing of the hammer, drove the nail home. Remember, in those days 2 X 4s were 2 inches by 4 inches, hammer handles were made of wood, and driving a 3-1/2" long 16d nail home with two strikes of the hammer was, and still is, an impressive feat.

I never mastered, or even once replicated, Frank's prodigious nailing abilities, but did, over time, become proficient. Thousands upon thousands of nails, and I could go days without bending a nail or sending one inadvertently flying. I learned how to angle nails for greatest pullout resistance, how to nail through the end of a board without splitting the piece, and might have even, on occasion, driven home a 16d with three swings of the hammer. I also learned to produce a consistent dimple in drywall, to nail vinyl siding with just the right amount of "play," and to nail trim without marring the work and with no need for a nail set. Not Frank --- not by a long shot --- but competent. No more.

Nail guns are, of course, to blame for the diminishment of my skills. I have two framing guns, a 15-gauge angled finish nailer, two 18-gauge brad nailers, and one 23-gauge "pinner" gun, a pneumatic palm nailer, a special "positive placement" gun for driving nails into joist hangers and other metal brackets, a flooring nailer, and two of the battery/gas-driven "cordless" nailers for use when an air compressor is unavailable.

All these power tools are great. They speed up the work, and frankly, often produce consistently better results. But the siding I am using to cover the interior walls in my shop is pre-primed in a nice tan color, and I wanted to use a matching paneling nail...paneling nails that are only available loose, not in those nice pre-formed strips that nail guns accept. Time to pull out the hammers.

Figure 1 - Uh oh, here comes a bent nail!

And I have quite the assortment of hammers, too. Leaving aside the specialized striking tools (wood and rubber mallets in all shapes and sizes, dead blow mallets, sledgehammers and the like), I have five plain old hammers. My favorite actually is the oldest and it is decidedly low-tech. It has a bit of rust and a grip that shows its age and experience, the metal is pitted in places, and it was no high-end hammer even when it was new; but it is comfortable. Sometimes when a different weight or length of hammer might be more appropriate for the job, I still turn to "Ol' Rusty."

Unfortunately, that name might be better applied to my hammer-swinging skills. How did my skills deteriorate so far, so fast?

A friend stopped by the other day to borrow a finish nailer for another friend to use on a project at his house. Seems he was the designated errand-boy that day, borrowing a nail gun from me and a compressor from someone else. The next day he called, said they were done with the gun, and asked if I would be home so he could return it. My curiosity (or nosiness) was killing me, so I told him I would stop by and pick it up.

Figure 2 - Drat! When did I
forget how to drive a nail?

My friend's project was to cut a plumbing access hole through drywall, make a pipe repair, then frame the opening and attach a plywood access panel in case the problem recurred. His buddy used the finish nailer to attach the trim around the plywood access panel --- by my count, about 12 nails.

My friend drove almost 16 miles to my house to borrow the nail gun, a few more miles to borrow a compressor, and spent (wasted) a couple of hours of time because his friend needed a nail gun to drive 12 nails. Old Frank would have been laughing off his considerable belly. But have I, of late, been much different?

Figure 3 - Ol' Rusty doing what it does best
now - pulling out a bent nail!

Because I am in the midst of converting a garage into a workshop, the air compressor is set up, several nail guns are out of their cases and ready to go, and air hoses writhe about the floor like the snakes in an Indiana Jones movie. Everything is "out" and convenient. When one nail is needed do I grab "Ol' Rusty," my favorite hammer, or a nail gun? I'll give you three guesses, and the first two do not count.

Without repetition (aka practice) skills deteriorate. Whether it is driving a nail or putting a keen edge on a chisel, repetition is critical. I vow forthwith to use my hammer more and my nail guns less, and when my shop is finally finished, I may design a project that will incorporate nails...hand driven nails – partly for practice and partly to restore my wounded pride. Bending a nail or denting a 2 X 4 is one thing, but when my hammerhead is arcing toward an expensive piece of maple, cherry, or mahogany, I suspect my focus will be sharpened.


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