The Things That Define Us (Words and Work)

If I Had a Hammer

If you have but one construction tool, well, it might be a screwdriver.  But, if you have two, you almost certainly own a hammer.  And I propose that your choice of hammers be an act of modern mindfulness.

As the oldest tool known to humankind, it may define our start as a species: 

Originally, simple, hand-held stones were used to break other rocks or bones to shape new tools.  This was 2.6 Million Years BCE.  A couple of million years later (roughly 30,000 BCE), we added the handle.

After some eponymous material advances in the Bronze Age and Iron Age, it would be our Roman Empire ancestors that would forge the first claw hammer (with the prongs on the back), alongside the invention of iron nails. 

And, for the past two thousand years, not much has changed. 

Perhaps because of this ancient connection, there is something mystical, even spiritual, between our species and the simple hammer.  

Offer a (toy) mallet to a toddler and watch what happens… an almost instantaneous understanding of its intended purpose.  The question is merely what to strike (this usually requires some quick social conditioning). 

Hand a real, perhaps small, hammer to an older child, and observe them pause and reflect.  The heft of the new tool imbues a sense of strength and ability that lies outside their own power (this too, requires a very quick lesson in appropriate safety!). 

Even adults are not immune to the affect of a hammer.  The most timid of us are usually struck with a surprising feeling of authority when holding a 16oz steel driver.  Many-a-times has a hammerhead driven through a plaster wall when hanging a painting.  Yet, has one ever failed to strike a picture nail with enough force to start a hole?

If we are honest, the sensation of power is also tinted with a primitive recognition of violence.  The respect for its potential force resonates with children and adults alike, with the feeling of advantage over our surroundings, and those around us.  In its servitude, the menial hammer allows us to both produce and protect. 

But assuming we will not need our hammer as a show of arms, it remains the essence of a hand tool.  It is an extension of our reach, and provides increased force with a tough and durable striking point.  It allows us to hit something harder, and without injuring our fragile hands. 

So, for this, the most basic of tools, I advocate making a thoughtful and conscious choice.  Not because a dreadful decision could be made… Truthfully, most of us would be plainly and fully served by a $5 selection.  And perhaps, after some consideration, Lincoln’s bill will buy your pick. However, for the essential and natural instrument that so plainly connects us with our origins as a species, we owe it to ourselves to take the time to consider our intents for its use, our skill in its employment, and our sentiment for its posterity. 

But truthfully, it may take longer to read this article than it will to make an attentive choice.  To explain:

I use a rip hammer produced by the American company, Estwing.  First, I chose the ‘rip’ shape over the more common ‘claw’ shape, because my first task for my new tool was to pry open a crate that had just been delivered to my apartment.  Since then I’ve used it to chip plaster from a brick wall, broken apart a bag of ice for a summer party, and occasionally pulled a misplaced nail. 

Second, my Estwing has a handle and hammerhead forged of a single piece of steel.  With this, I feel confident that the tool will be able to withstand anything I throw at it (or anything I throw it at).  I also have no plans to bang and pound for hours on end, so there is no need for a more shock-absorbing handle.

Next, the heft: this particular driver comes in three weights.  The idea being that a heavier hammer requires less force, while a lighter hammer is more agile.  For papa bear, the middle size (16oz) is just right.  Frankly, I also fear that anything heavier will result in puncturing picture-perfect hammer-shaped holes in the wall.

Finally, I chose this hammer for its leather handle.  In many ways, this was a required feature in my selection (while arguably the least impactful, technically).  I genuinely value when hand tools are made entirely from natural materials.  They are more pleasing to the eye, they age more gracefully, and, most importantly, they provide a tactile connection to our ancient association.  

So, that’s it - four considerations – and one conscientious choice. 

Today, whenever I need to use my hammer, I (truly) have satisfaction in picking up the tool.  The work ahead may be a creative pursuit, or just arduous labor, but I am always feel confident and secure with my hammer in hand.

Is thoughtfully choosing a hammer revolutionary act?  Of course not.  But it may require more consideration than we put into many of our daily decisions and deliberations.  So, in the spirit of modern group mindfulness classes, urban Zen centers, and personal-growth workshops, I suggest selecting a hammer, and hitting a few nails.