Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter (Hardcover)
April 2015 Indie Next List
“After 10 years working as a journalist in front of a computer screen, Nina knew she needed a career change. An ad on Craigslist caught her eye: 'Carpenter's Assistant sought: Women strongly encouraged to apply.' So begins Nina's journey as Mary, her mentor, transforms her from desk sitter to desk maker. Hammer Head not only shows readers how Nina became a carpenter, but also that she can still work wonders with her words.”
— Barbara Theroux, Fact & Fiction, Missoula, MT
A warm and inspiring book for anyone who has ever dreamed of changing tracks: the story of a young woman who quit her desk job to become a carpenter.
Nina MacLaughlin spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist—Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply—despite being a Classics major who couldn't tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and in Hammer Head she tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.
Writing with infectious curiosity, MacLaughlin describes the joys and frustrations of making things by hand, reveals the challenges of working as a woman in an occupation that is 99 percent male, and explains how manual labor changed the way she sees the world. We meet her unflappable mentor, Mary, a petite but tough carpenter-sage (“Be smarter than the tools!”), as well as wild demo dudes, foul-mouthed plumbers, grizzled hardware store clerks, and the colorful clients whose homes she and Mary work in.
Whisking her readers from job to job—building a wall, remodeling a kitchen, gut-renovating a house—MacLaughlin examines the history of the tools she uses and the virtues and varieties of wood. Throughout, she draws on the wisdom of Ovid, Annie Dillard, Studs Terkel, and Mary Oliver to illuminate her experience of work. And, in a deeply moving climax, MacLaughlin strikes out on her own for the first time to build bookshelves for her own father.
Hammer Head is a passionate book full of sweat, swearing, bashed thumbs, and a deep sense of finding real meaning in work and life.
About the Author
Nina MacLaughlin lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a carpenter. Formerly an editor at the Boston Phoenix, she has written for the Believer, Bookslut, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.
Though MacLaughlin may be an apprentice carpenter, she is a master writer, with the rare combination of acute observation and astute word choice that characterizes writers like Annie Dillard or Joan Didion.
— Rebecca Steinitz
Reading Hammer Head, like consuming Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, feels like a crucial education… [Hammer Head teaches] by example that it’s possible to forge through this world alone, with your own hands and the right supplies, and some good, poetic instruction along the way.
— Isabella Biedenharn
Beautiful and wise… Like if Annie Dillard had her own show on HGTV.
— Edan Lepucki
MacLaughlin has hit the nail on the head… Stunning… You may very well read [Hammer Head] in one sitting.
— Caroline Goldstein
Inspirational… [Hammer Head] will have Wild fans throwing down their backpacks and picking up a hammer.
— Liberty Hardy
Renders enormous interest in this painstaking work, so lovingly delineated.
A surprisingly thoughtful book about taking chances and finding joy in change.
An effortless blend of literary craft with woodcraft.
— Erin Shea
Not many of us find the courage to follow that small voice inside us to our true work, especially when that work lacks social status and health benefits and financial stability. But here, in this wonderfully assured debut, Nina MacLaughlin compellingly chronicles having done just that, a leap of faith that brings her more deeply into her very core where the stakes are high but the potential for lasting joy is even higher. Lucky for us, MacLaughlin's evocative prose is just as plumb, level, and true as all the wood structures she ultimately learns to build. This is a lovely and important book!
— Andre Dubus III, author of Townie
Hammer Head is warm, wise, and authentically inspiring. No other book has made me want to re-read Ovid and retile my bathroom floor, nor given me the conviction that I can do both. I loved it.
— Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking with Men
In this beautiful memoir about learning a trade, Nina MacLaughlin explores mortality, desire, the passage of time, and the meaning of work. She transcends the personal and makes us question what of our own works are built to endure. This book—a thing well-made—certainly is.
— Philip Connors, author of Fire Season
Nina MacLaughlin built a dream by becoming a carpenter, and transformed her life. Hammer Head is her exquisitely inspiring story. I loved it.
— Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica
I have never built anything but after reading Nina MacLaughlin's smart, inspiring memoir Hammer Head, I wanted to. She gives context and depth to wood and the act of shaping it, of working with one's hands, of taking risks and letting go. A fantastic debut.
— Molly Birnbaum, author of Season to Taste