Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

The pile of boxes dwindled at the bottom of the stairs and grew at the top. Ten boxes left, then four, then one, and I realized I should not have left the two bags of cement for last. I climbed eight hundred and ten stairs that day, hauled up nine hundred ninety-five pounds, nearly half a ton. The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.

The journey of a journalist-turned-carpenter, a woman in a man’s world, both thoughtful and spirited.

hammer head

Nina MacLaughlin studied English and Classics in college, and went on to work for a Boston newspaper. She spent her 20’s there, increasingly frustrated by pointing and clicking and sinking into her desk chair, so she walked away, unsure of what was next, until she spotted an ad for a carpenter’s assistant: “Women strongly encouraged to apply.” MacLaughlin relates the journey offered by that opportunity in Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.

MacLaughlin’s new boss, Mary, describes herself as a “journeyman-level carpenter and a slightly better tiler.” MacLaughlin doesn’t know what these words mean, but brings her strength, work ethic and quickness to learn, and finds an unexpectedly rewarding new life working with her hands: “The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.” She documents years spent learning and working in a male-dominated field, occasionally seasoned with observations referencing poets and ancients, but mostly living and reveling in the tangible: calluses, sinews, wood and sweat. That interplay of the physical and the intellectual centers this book, which is itself both intelligent and well-muscled, hardy and poetical.

Organized by tools that represent qualities of character, Hammer Head is unsurprisingly beautifully written, and well supported in both its structural and its cerebral elements. MacLaughlin’s voice is wise and playful, wondering and astute, and Mary is a marvelous character, levelheaded and non-demonstrative. The result is a charming, thought-provoking, utterly lovely ode to work and life and learning.


This review originally ran in the March 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: measure 9 times.

4 Responses

  1. your alert followers will be expecting your own comments on the obvious similarity-begging-comparison with “Dirt Work” & “Eating Dirt” – and maybe others?

    • I did mention the similarity to Dirt Work in an earlier post. For me, Eating Dirt worked a little less well, let in a little too much outside… cynicism? or something. It got a 7 where Hammer Head got a 9 and Dirt Work, a 10. The latter two are much alike – I love the interplay between the mental and the physical (also missing from Eating Dirt at least according to my memory), and they employ a very similar structure of tool & place. I think Dirt Work was unflawed, perfect, the ideal of this type; Hammer Head was near-perfect. How’s that?

  2. […] Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin – nonfiction. Memoir of a young female carpenter, about everything entailed in that life, and the balance between the mental and the physical. […]

  3. […] Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin – nonfiction […]

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