Monday, May 2, 2011

If I Had a Hammer...

I purchased my first real framing hammer early in the fall of 1995. I was told I needed a California style framer and that's what I bought. If I remember correctly I spent around eleven dollars at Wal-Mart for the only thing on the shelf that came even close to what I understood a California framer to be. The face was soft and lost it's waffle right away, the head was loose after only a couple swings, the handle didn't flare enough at the end for a good grip, and the hickory that it was supposedly made of didn't exhibit any of the traits that make the wood ideal for the tool.

Despite that first framer's shortcomings I knew I had been led in the right direction. With that hammer I quickly learned that benefit of the longer ~17" straight handle, the trademark of the California style tool. With an accurate swing and proper grip, a 16d vc sinker can be driven to full depth in just 2-3 swings. An odd angle nail can be easily controlled by angling the head or the swing and letting the waffle do the work. By letting the weight of the head work to the users advantage the hammer will leave the operator less fatigued than hammers of the smaller variety. I was fucking sold. Too bad the Wal-Mart special wasn't up to task.

A mere month after framer number one, I moved on to an all steel Estwing. That hammer easily cost me three times what the first one did. It had a beautifully slender neck and a bright blue rubber grip that was about twice as long as it needed to be for anyone with a proper hold. Despite it's good looks and far superior waffle it was a total disaster from the word go. The vibrations that would come up through that steel handle left me with a numb right hand by the end of a long day. Regretfully, it took me a while to own up to the error of my purchase and it wasn't until the following spring that I moved on to my next framer.

Framer number three was a fiberglass handled Stanley. Not much good to say about that hammer really, wasn't pretty, the balance was bad, and the handle was a full inch short of what I had grown accustomed to. Instead of just my pinky wrapped around the bottom of the handle I had my ring finger hanging off as well. Even with my modified grip the hammer was still a touch too short and I found myself missing the mark more than I care to admit. Also, my weaker hold meant that for the first time in my nail driving life I lost hold of my hammer mid-swing and nearly brained myself after the sorry excuse for a tool bounced off the foundation of the shed I was building that day. Another loser on the quest for the perfect hammer.

Jump ahead to the spring of 1997, at the time I was working in Lubbock, Texas at the South Plains Food Bank and with Lubbock Green, the local community gardens group, and I needed a new hammer. My quest for the right hammer took me to Sears where I found the perfect framer for a mere twenty two dollars. It was a Craftsman with a one inch diameter, 24oz. hardened steel waffle head with rip claw was attached to a solid hickory handle with a single square tube steel wedge and epoxy filling that protected the head from loosening. The handle was stained a dark cherry color and had a surprisingly useful herringbone pattern burned into the lower grip section. The handle was finished of with a rubber cap glued to the bottom that once removed revealed the perfect flare, just enough to catch the tool just right when slid down the hand. I loved that hammer from the moment I first picked it up. I felt just right, no vibration, perfect balance, and enough weight in the head to drive a nail without being to heavy to swing all day. The waffle head caught nails just right at any angle and was small enough to drive nails flush into even the tightest of corner. My search was over.

Now like any tool, especially one with wood as a major component, my hammer would wear out. The head would eventually start to flatten, but it was the wood that always proved to be the weak link. After four years of very heavy use I finally snapped the head off in the spring of 2001 while working on the Morgan building in Spokane. Being that the hammer was a Craftsman, I was able to walk into my local Sears and right out again with a brand spanking new hammer. All I had to do was pop the little rubber cap off the handle and I was ready to start dropping nails. Again in the summer of 2006 when rebuilding a fire charred condo in Fountain Hills, AZ I snapped another head off. I was so pleased when I walked out of Sears later that same afternoon with a brand new Craftsman framer, sans stupid rubber cap. Somebody was thinking of me when they stopped adding that pointless detail.

So imagine my delight today when the head of my trusty Craftsman that has been with me in one form or another as long as Michele has started to lose it's head today while working on the house. Hooray for new hammer day I said to myself as I jumped into the Element and drove up to the local Sears to get my brand new replacement. Now I'd like you to understand my disappointment when I found out that Craftsman no longer makes a hickory handled California framer. No more perfectly proportioned 24oz. hardened steel head. No more 17" cherry stained hickory handle with the burned in herringbone grip. No more single steel square tube wedge solidly epoxied in holding the two major components together. Instead I left the store with this:


It's a Vaughan 23oz California framer. The handle is a little thicker with a slightly off flare. The face is a good 25% larger in diameter and with an easily 1/4" shorter extension from the handle. The balance feels close but not quite right leading to a less accurate swing. Worst of all, in place of the solid epoxied single steel square tube wedge there is a pair of simple top driven wedges and no epoxy. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Vaughan has long been the wood handled framer of choice to almost every carpenter I've ever known worth his salt, I've even been laughed at for packing something different. Dammit, it doesn't matter, I miss my tool. It is the one object in my possession that I know better than any other, bicycles included. On the drive home I felt sad and was tempted to head back to get my old hammer, just to put on the wall if nothing else. Alas, I did not. So with my less than perfect Vaughan in hand I start my quest anew, hoping to find that which I have lost along the way. The perfect framer.

3 comments:

Eddie Gianelloni said...

It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a story as much as this. I love all of your details through the years!!! I hope to build something with you soon.

JMH said...

Great post. Still have my Vaughan California framing hammer that my brother gave to me almost 15 years ago. That being said, these days I find myself reaching for my Bostitch pneumatic framing gun more than my trusty Vaughan. Oh well.

Sean said...

I've got a nice Paslode framer that I'll use if I have to, but when it's up to me or my own time, I prefer to drive my nails manually. That only applies to framing though, for finish or trim I'm all about the nailgun. Paslode cordless, of course.