Chris Schwarz's Blog

Our Infinite Power to Forget

After finishing college, two of my closest friends joined the Peace Corps and were posted to rural Morocco. But within a year they were back in the United States: 20 pounds lighter, two shades paler and singularly disillusioned.

Their job in Morocco could be boiled down to one simple lesson for the villagers: Do not use the bathroom in the same place where you get your drinking water. It’s an important lesson that surely the villagers had grasped at one time in their history. How could something so fundamental be lost to an entire village?

Knowing that humans can forget this lesson, it comes as no surprise when the same thing happens in woodworking. We’ve lost things , fundamentals that can make the work easier or faster.

Today I got a call from a reader who read our recent article on hammers and cut nails. He liked the article OK, but said I had neglected to mention the single most important lesson he had been taught by the old-timers about handling a hammer: Never touch the striking face.

Huh? Well the theory goes that the oil from your finger will lubricate the striking face and make your hammer much more prone to glance off the nail’s head and onto your work or your finger. In fact, the reader continued, you should rough up the face of the tool on a rock or concrete. This simple step, he said, greatly improved his skill as a young carpenter.

So this afternoon I drove a bunch of nails using the smooth face of my prized Hamilton hammer. Then I went out to our loading dock/smoking lounge and proceeded to rub the tool’s face vigorously against the concrete. I figured at the very least that I’d bring a little wry amusement to the company’s smokers. (It did.)

Then I took the hammer back into the shop and drove some more nails. It did make a measurable difference with the cut nails , the hammer felt “stickier” for lack of a better word, or like it had a little magnet in it. It made even more of a difference when driving wire nails, which have a smoother head than the cut nails do.

I haven’t been able to find this tip in any of my old books , though “Mechanik Exercises” by Joseph Moxon says that carpenters would play tricks on apprentices by dipping their nail heads in ear wax. Yes, it really does say that.

Of course, my high school health textbook didn’t have a chapter on how I shouldn’t drink from the toilet, either.

- Christopher Schwarz

2 thoughts on “Our Infinite Power to Forget

  1. Mike Siemsen

    My father told me that lathers liked to put water on their nails as the rusty nails held better. He said it ws not an uncommon joke to urinate in the lather’s nail bucket(they commonly held nails in their mouth). Some friends and co-workers they were!

  2. Mike Houlihan

    I have had several people tell me over the years that a hammer face should be cleaned regularly if you want to minimize glancing bl-OW!-s.
    I purchaces a couple of really cheap, (2/$5.00) made in china FG handled 16 ouncers for general utility use. The faces were quite smooth and had a slight couting to prevent rust.(I’m guessing) I cleaned the surfaces with de-greaser but still had a problem with mis-hits. A light touch on the grinder took care of the problem 100%.

    P.S. A couple other little hints I’ve learned over the years that really work.

    1) When driving long nails or screws in hard wood, rub it on each side of your nose first. It works as good as bee’s wax.
    2) To minimize plitting when diiving nails in soft woods, dull the nail by hitting the points withyour hammer first.

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