I am an outlier in an arcane art: hammering. Mostly nails, but I busted a lot of things with a hammer and have driven many stakes and fence posts. I can tap down the concave in Japanese chisels and plane blades. I can peen bolts to hold forever and set saddle rivets. I’ve driven a few nails in hooves and hammer-forged tools and implements in iron and steel.
I own dozens of hammers, from 10-pound mauls with 30-inch fiberglass handles to 200-year-old upholsterer’s tack hammers. Rig axes and 28-ounce waffle-faced framing hammers. Shake axes and dry-wall hatchets. Ball-peen hammers of all weights. Shot-filled, rubber, and wooden mallets. Steel-handled Estwings and a nifty Tim Allen with a wooden doe-foot handle. Curved claw and ripping claw. Shop sledges with jury-rigged pipe handles and a 22-ounce trim hammer on which I fit an 18-inch hatchet handle.
I have hammers with friction grooves, magnets, and spring-loaded ball-bearing gizmos designed to allow the mechanic to start the nail with an awkward reach. While I eschew novelty hammers, I’ve driven more than a few staples with the hammer on a fence tool.
Doing workbench projects, my grandfather taught me to drive nails in a front-moving, circular method that I’ve never seen anyone else use and that I use only as a trick. When my mother decided to stop paying for split firewood, I taught myself to swing a sledge and a maul. I also became adept at putting new handles on these instruments of destruction.
I installed kitchens with nails before there were cheap electric screw guns and cheaper Phillips head screws. I’ve driven Jesus spikes on log cabins and pushed wire brads into picture frames.
I’ve set a million roofing nails in a million three-tab shingles. One tap each. The same goes for 8dHG’s on cedar-shake roofs, Masonite siding, and T111. I know how to shake roof barbs in a stripper, and I can bundle and align a handful of commons while lighting a cigarette. I know 6d on cedar-shingle siding and 4d on asbestos siding.
I’ve hammered the driver on flooring machines to cover an acre. I still feed nails with an odd under-hand hold that has my fingernails towards the work; less chance of busting a fingernail. (As an aside, I believe in and use the practice of melting through a fingernail with a red-hot nail to relieve a blood blister.)
When I started framing houses, California style, it was all about driving 3 ¼-inch, 16d (penny) cement coated box nails, box nails having a smaller shank than common nails, they drive easier. Like the big boys, I could soon knock them home with one vicious swipe of a 28oz. I invented a technique for simultaneously driving two framing nails to pull crowned boards into alignment. There are dozens of guys who would still think of me when using this trick—if anyone still used nails.
I drove thousands of pounds of finish nails into trim. Turning the point to cut and not split was second nature to me. I could drive a nail flush without leaving pecker tracks and bring a nail set into play without fumbling the nails in my hand. Someone taught me the trick of setting the head of a common nail on exterior work with the head of another nail held sideways, and I extended that technique to breaking the skin on hardboard siding. I figured out it’s more effective to clip the points off nails rather than try to blunt them for a board end where splitting is a concern. I’d like to think there are dozens of carpenters who still carry Klines after seeing that trick.
I often dumped a handful of wash soap into 50-pound boxes of framing and drywall nails to make them easier to set. I greased trim nails with soap, wax, and, in a pinch, by rubbing a 4d along the side of my nose or running an 8d through my hair. I now know this lubing significantly affects the nails’ holding power.
When I first hung drywall, blue ring shank nails were the only way to go. The first nails I drove into concrete were cut nails. I was partial to Plumb brand wooden-handled hammer—steel gave me tennis elbow.
Now 90 percent of nailing on a job of any size is done with tools using pneumatics, gas combustion, electric battery, powder, or screw-together assemblies. My pride in hammering is akin to what some old boy felt in 1911 because he was adept with a buggy whip.
—Photo credit: Gaffke Photography v2.8/Flickr