In the Age of Nail Guns and Hammer Drills, why do Carpenters Carry Hammers?
As a young man, I worked with one of my father’s carpentry crews. Notice I didn’t specify framing crew, trim crew, cornice crew, concrete crew, roofing crew, or sheetrock crew. In those days we built everything from the foundation to the shingles. Today, each component phase is subcontracted to a “specialist team.”
Because I learned every skill and performed every phase of construction, I learned that constants exist across all phases of construction. I also learned the value of nail patterns, nailing techniques, and nailing points. When you have to manually drive thousands of 16 penny nails, you learn to make each one count.
I remember the first nail gun I ever used. It was a Duofast pneumatic framing nailer. It was big and heavy. In those days we framed by hand using a 28-ounce Rig Axe. If you couldn’t “one lick” a framing nail, you weren’t a pro: at least that is what we told ourselves. After years of hand nailing complete houses from frame to shingles, the pneumatic nailer was a marvel.
You have to Pull a Toenail
As a lifelong hand nailer, however, I noticed immediately some real shortcomings with the nail gun. One of the most necessary was the ability to “pull a toenail.” Outside of the carpentry business, that sounds like a torture technique. What it is, however, is the way of pushing a piece of lumber over to the exact location it is supposed to be fastened to another piece of lumber. It is difficult to describe with the written word, but basically it entails starting a nail into a side of the nailing component at about a 45-degree angle. As you drive the nail into the lumber, it moves the material fractions of an inch so that the final fastened position is exactly where it is marked to be. The pneumatic nailer drives the nail completely with the shot, limiting how far the carpenter can adjust the material by striking the nail head.
There are a very few modern carpenters who have ever even driven a nail by hand. The idea of pulling a toenail, or straightening lumber with a toenail is completely unheard of. A larger issue with nail gun use is the habit of many carpenters to drive too many nails into a piece of lumber. Because the gun shoots nails so easily, many carpenters shoot far too many nails. This practice damages and weakens the wood and thus the fastened joint between the two pieces being joined together is weak, and will contribute to long term damage to the wood structure.
Nail patterns are critical to connecting lumber with the optimum opportunity for the strongest bond to be created. Nails are like medication. Too much is always bad.
Carpenters often use the nail gun safety to actuate the firing mechanism. This additional pressure moves the material off layout and often causes the nail to miss the desired nailing point.
Hammer Drill vs. Solid Technique
Everyone owns a cordless drill these days. In fact, almost every tool has a cordless option. The cordless drill is always less powerful than the corded option. The modern artisan combats this by keeping the cordless drill in hammer drill mode. Most of what will be done with the hammer drill works adequately. However, poor technique always results, and material and fastener damage happens regularly. Good technique guarantees a better result. When holding a drill, use your middle finger to depress the trigger. Run your index finger along the length of the drill like you are pointing in the direction you want the screw to go. This keeps your drill on line reducing the chance of stripping the head of the screw. I hired a crew to help me install a 12-foot patio door. One of the workmen attached the door pull handle with his cordless drill. It was in hammer mode and broke the delicate screw that attached the handle. We waited two weeks for a replacement screw.
Carpenters today carry hammers in their tool bags for two tasks. The most common is to beat material into place, or to knock a component out of place during demo. The other is to pull an improperly placed nail or lever an undesired piece of lumber.
There used to be honor and respect for the tradesman. Now days it is a certainty that if there is a beat-up old truck on the road, it is sure to have a set of tool bags in the back. There is a permanent underclass which now builds our homes and remodels our houses. Our single largest investment is built and maintained by those who know little of the discipline which makes up the heart of a master artisan. This seems to be a systemic issue that permeates much of society. We communicate with a flurry of likes, amazing’s, and a growing barrage of word salad. We have more access to information than ever before, but we are the least informed we have ever been.
Artisans come exclusively from a Permanent Underclass
There is a beauty to building. The Mennonites didn’t always have the quality market cornered in the wood working field. I believe we should demand skill and quality in any work performed upon our homes. The construction industry is the easiest in which to start a business. It is almost a proverb that the unemployed can always get a job in the construction industry. How do we turn the trend?
I don’t think it can be turned. In my life, I have worked in the trades. Early on I learned from skilled artisans. Later, I made it a point to share my knowledge and train those with whom I worked in the ways of the skilled builder. Nowadays, I smile at the admiration from the youngsters who work with me, calling me a guru or some type of savant. I am merely a tradesman of the old cut. I am one of the last skilled artisans.