Tools of the Trades: Dumb as a…

I don’t know if it’s a real memory or something my adolescent brain concocted after the fact, but I remember a day when my grandpa swore that something or someone was “Dumb as a bag of hammers.” Being a kid that took an inordinate amount of joy from the tools grandpa let him use, in the memory I told him I didn’t understand why that would be dumb. I couldn’t think of anything better than a Whole Bag of Hammers!

I’m mostly suspicious of the memory because it makes me sound rather more precocious and clever than I suspect that I really was. It’s one of the oddments of life that you can’t always trust your own memories, but there you go.

Be that as it may, I still get an inordinate amount of joy out of my tools. And now that I actually have enough hammers to fill a bag, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that this apocryphal memory holds a kernal of truth: There really aren’t many things cooler than a Whole Bag of Hammers.

I suppose that some of you are, quite correctly, pointing out that there’s also a half dozen mallets in that bag. All the same, there are enough hammers to make the bag rather heavier than I’d like to tote around.

For the record, this isn’t an example of excess. Each of those hammers (and mallets) has a specific purpose to which it is best suited. It is enormously frustrating to me to watch someone use the wrong hammer for their task. Or, worse yet, to use something else like a wrench in place of a hammer.

My wife thinks I need to seek professional help.

Believe it or not, there is a distinct difference between a claw hammer, a rip hammer, and a ball peen hammer. The face of each hammer is shaped to best suit the task for which it was intended, and the temper of the metal as well. Try to form metal with a claw hammer and you’ll get a good idea why you shouldn’t, no matter what Jamie from Mythbusters might wish you to believe. Will a hammer explode on you if you’re using it wrong? No, that’s a bit silly. But you will expend more energy than you would if you went to the toolbox and got the correct tool.

It’s difficult to choose favorites, but if you put my feet to the fire, I think the shoemaker’s hammer you see above is my favorite. Aesthetically, it’s just intrinsically pleasing. Like the distilled cartoony ideal of the essence of hammerness. It’s shape and the domed face are designed for shaping shoeleather, condensing the leather and forcing it down over the last without damaging or marring the finish.
The horn hammer underneath it is also a leatherworking tool used by mask makers for much the same purpose. The point of the horn forces leather down into the voids of the mask matrix as it condenses and hardens the leather. This also has the charming effect of dimpling the leather, giving the mask a characteristic look you can’t get otherwise. 

These mallets serve various purposes. Top is a felloe mallet. These were originally used and made by wheelwrights, who would cut them from old sections of wheel. These sections are properly called “felloes”. Pop a handle on it and sell it to your fellow craftsmen and you’ve got a lucrative sideline. Like most woodworkers, I use mine for carving and whacking chisels.

Next one down is a rawhide mallet. That head is made from rolled rawhide leather that has been varnished into a nice, hard, mallet head. The resultant head is hard enough to drive a chisel if you’ve a mind to, but not hard enough to knock a dent into wood. I bought it to use on leather tools, but since I rarely tool my leathergoods, it’s mostly used in cabinetmaking.

The two gavel-looking mallets are also for cabinetmaking. They’re used to knock together mortise and tenon joinery and also to set the blades in wood-body planes. I’ll discuss those a lot more when we’re in the joinery section of the project.

Of course, these are but a few of the mallets and hammers I’ll use in the course of this year. Ball-peen hammers, blacksmithing and sheet metal hammers, even a mason’s rock hammer. All of them serve a specific purpose, and have evolved over centuries, even millennia, into their current shapes.
So give a care to the humble hammer and choose the correct one for your task. Both you and your project will thank you.
Oh, and keep them in a toolbox. Don’t keep them in a bag. Because grandpa was right; that is kinda dumb.


  1. I love the Mythbusters and launched this blog with a video of Adam Savage's speech on the Makers aesthetic, but have more than one bone to pick with them. Where they really fall down is on their attempts at experimental archaeology. For instance, their decision to call busted on the tree cannon based solely on their first faltering attempt to operate a brace & spoon bit still irks me. They said that it couldn't possibly be bored in a single night, forgetting that the men doing the work wouldn't be two modern yahoos with a TV show trying to make a tool and use it for the first time, but men who used those tools every day to earn their bread.

    I can hear the echo across the centuries of long-dead carpenters saying “Don't try this at home, we're what you call experts…”


  2. I have a problem with their Scientific Process as well. They are quick to call something busted when a lot of possibilities aren't explored. I understand that they have a limited time frame, but plausible should be said of their experiments more often than busted.


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