Journey Man III
A Carpenter’s Story
By Daniel Foster
BILL FAY AND SAM’S HAMMER
Bill Fay was a contractor in West Woodstock, Vermont. His house and shop were just up a dirt road from the Shiretown Lumber yard, for whom I drove a truck and worked as a yardman for a while in 1973. Bill came into the yard every now and then and once I delivered a large load of green lumber to his shop that I had picked up from a small local sawmill in Bethel, about 15 miles away.
He wore a beard and had glasses and didn’t smile. He wasn’t a particularly warm man, to say the least. He was pretty much all business, as least as far as I could tell.
Bill’s business was small. He would occasionally hire extra hands for a job when he needed them, but he would typically have only one full-time helper. He would hire his helpers pretty green. They didn’t have to have a lot of knowledge or a whole set of tools, just a hammer, a tape, a cat’s-paw and a square and he’d tell them what to do. They would learn a good amount through working with him and that would give them the skills they needed to hire on somewhere else after a year or two.
It wasn’t particularly pleasant working for Bill. He wasn’t a very friendly person. He didn’t spend any effort whatsoever on pleasantries. He wanted things done a certain way and you were supposed to know what that way was. If you didn’t, it was to him as if you were intentionally trying to bring frustration into his life.
Bill’s helper for a while was a guy named Sam Emmons. Sam wasn’t one to be too sensitive to the critical nature of Bill’s tutelage and that meant that Bill had to be even more critical than customary to get Sam to do things the way he wanted. He would have to tell Sam more than once how he wanted things done. This would frustrate Bill and his tone would get worse as he became more demanding and unpleasant.
In those days hammers weren’t as long as they became just a few years later, nor as heavy. Framers on the west coast had begun using bigger, heavier and longer hammers, but not so much with the hammers used in northern New England. When those larger and longer hammers came into use, technique changed a little and one would hold the hammer just a little way up the shaft to alter the balance slightly. In contrast, the old style hammer had to be held near the very end of the shaft for a carpenter to get a good strike out of it. And while a few guys used steel-shafted hammers, most guys still used hammers with wood handles.
Sam was always holding his hammer closer to the head. Beginners thought this gave them more control, but it took the power out of a stroke.
“Stop choking up on that hammer,” Bill would say.
Sam would remember to hold the hammer further down the shaft for a while, but his hand kept creeping up and Bill would reprimand him again.
“Stop choking up on that God-damned hammer!” Bill would bark.
One day Bill could take it no more. He was working something out on a framing plan when he looked up to see Sam choking up on his hammer. He walked over to Sam and grabbed the hammer out of his hand. He stormed to the table saw, moved the rip fence out of the way, turned the saw on and, holding the hammer in two hands, moved it through the spinning blade and cut the bottom half of the handle right off.
He walked back to Sam and thrust the hammer back at him. “There. If you’re gonna be choking your God-damned hammer up all the time you don’t need the bottom half.”
As Bill said this, Sam was almost falling down with laughter, bracing himself with one hand as tears came to his eyes.
“What so damned funny?” Bill demanded.
Sam managed to control himself just enough to tell him.
“I left my hammer in the truck. That was your hammer I was using!”