Don’t Hit Your Thumb!

rejon-HammerOn the day my father taught me to use a hammer, he was in the basement and I was pestering him with questions.

“What makes airplanes fly?”

“Big rubber bands,” he said.

“What made the Titanic sink?”

“Too much ice.”

“In a fight between a volcano or a dinosaur, who would win?”

“The volcano.”

“Why?”  I asked. I was cheering for the dinosaur.

“Volcanos are bigger.”

“What if….?”

I cut my question short.  His neck had turned red and rather than an answer,  I expected  something more like a volcano was coming.  Instead, he handed me a scrap of wood, a couple nails and a hammer.

“Here is how to not hit your thumb,” he said.

Hammering was more fun than questions – until I hit my thumb and went running upstairs to mom. It gave my dad a few minutes of peace – until I returned to pick up the hammer again.

“Remember how to not hit your thumb?” he asked.

Yeah, I remembered but even now I still hit it from time to time and when I do,  I howl things that I punished my kids for saying – but I learned a lot from my father.  He was a remarkable craftsman.

Using only what he carried in a homemade toolbox, he kept a large old house in excellent repair. In the box, he had a hammer, a saw, a drill, a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench. Nothing was powered by a cord or battery. It either had to be cranked, twisted, pushed or pulled by hand.

But even with so few tools, he still warned his kids to use the right tool for the job. I guess he knew us too well. We were the kind of craftsman who used a hammer to drive screws.

Today it is not so easy to use the right tool for the job. For one, you have to know what the right tool is. For another, you have to own it – or in an emergency, borrow or rent it.

Whole industries are devoted to providing the average do-it-yourselfer with the tools they need.  That is because whole industries are devoted to proliferating the number of tools required to accomplish simple tasks.

I remember my father muttering expletives upon encountering a Phillip head screw. He swore it was designed by the devil to make men like him say things that he punished us for saying.  Fortunately, he had yet to encounter the hex-head, square-head, double-hex, double-square, Torx or Bristol screw, nor the host of devices required to use each one. Still he managed to learn new tricks and as he did, he continued to pass along his wisdom.

Here are a few things he taught me.

  • Take assembly instruction with a grain of salt.  The person who wrote them was probably an English major, not an engineer – and the job of an engineer is to cut the cost of manufacture, not make your life easier.
  • Never believe anything you see on television. They have video editors to fix their mistakes. You don’t.
  • A 2” X 4” is not 2 inches thick by 4 inches wide. Keep in mind that if you drive a 4” deck screw into two 2” X 4”’s it will stick out the bottom by an inch because for some stupid reason a 4” deck screw is actually 4 inches long.
  • If you want a professional job, hire a professional. If you want to do it yourself, you only have to do it good enough so that only you notice the mistakes.

Lastly, power tools were invented to get you into trouble faster than manual tools. If you are going to hit your thumb, do not do it with a nail gun.

Author: Almost Iowa

35 thoughts on “Don’t Hit Your Thumb!”

  1. I have found that if you read 2-3 steps ahead in instructions (and always read the last 2-3 steps first), you are usually (usually) okay at catching errors before they catch you.

    I worked with a man who was, how shall I describe him, painfully literal. He accepted everything he read as meaning precisely what was written. One day I found him utterly confused and in a state of abject despair. The documentation he was reading did not match the system he was working on. A normal mind would immediately check to see if the version on the system matched that on the documentation – but this had simply not occurred to him. It was beyond his frame of reference that the documentation had not been updated.

  2. Good post. The questions and answers were a ton o’ fun. Like Lucy teaching Linus about stop sign trees. She inspired me to teach my own younger siblings my own fun facts.

    I haven’t whacked my thumb since a child, but I remember the feeling too well. I didn’t curse back then, so cannot imagine how i handled it.

    I have found that if you read 2-3 steps ahead in instructions (and always read the last 2-3 steps first), you are usually (usually) okay at catching errors before they catch you.

    Our 1908 house–old for L.A., a baby for the rest of the country–had true rough-sawn 2×4’s, from redwood, yet. Never a termite :). Except on later-added back porch, and the attic dormer, modern pine. 😦

  3. Great stuff, Greg. I found out that proverb with a chisel, a block of wood, and a few stitches. And I love #4… Why are we the most critical of our work!

  4. Don’t forget the importance of technical vocabulary (what my dad resorted to when plumbing was required) and holding your mouth just right. I don’t believe that skill’s even mentioned in shop classes any more.

    Oh, wait. I suppose there aren’t even shop classes, now that I think of it.

    1. I don’t think they have shop classes anymore. The breed of buzz-cut, hard-as-nails, no-nonsense, I’ll-bang-your-head-into-a-locker teacher required to manage the chaos of shop classes rode off into the sunset decades ago.

      1. And believe me, I remember him. He was the assistant wrestling coach, too. The #1 wrestling coach taught algebra. He wore a humongous ring on his middle finger, and would thwack anyone on the head who got out of line.

    1. From what you have said, your husband seems like an ultra-competent sort of guy. It is good to have someone like that – who works for free. 🙂

  5. Or drill through it with a drill bit. I’ve always wondered. Since Jesus was a carpenter, what did he say when he hit his finger with a hammer? I know what I say.

    1. He was one of those, “lived through the depression and took a long walk through hell in the South Pacific” kind of guys, very little impressed or flustered him. We became closer with age.

      1. I imagine that was tough, but it may have been the only way he knew, and it is good that you became closer with age. Not everyone’s story turns out that way.

        1. We had eleven kids in our family. I think we just wore him down. When we speak of how tough the old man was, my littlest brother goes, “Huh, what?”

          He was a very strict Catholic but I also have to say he was a very moral man. I did not appreciate his ethics and fairness until I got out into the world and realized what a treasure he was.

          1. Wow – 11 – where are you in the birth order? Or doesn’t that even matter when there are that many? 🙂 What incredible memories you must have. Truly blessed.

            1. I am the third child. After number four, my mother was promoted to management. We all learned to iron, cook, clean, change diapers and do dishes. We had a static list of chores on the refrigerator but the names rotated. Everyone did everything.

              After I was married, more than once, I said, “here, let me show you how to do that.”

  6. When people compliment my DIY projects I always tell them not to look too closely, otherwise they’ll see all those mistakes that, normally, only I notice.

  7. I’m flummoxed by those plastic-wrapped toys and electronic goods that require their own special scissors to crack open! More dangerous to wrestle those than a hammer and nail!

    Hub and I – just last night – chuckled about how we abhor remodels, fix-ups or repairs of any kind. Hire someone to update the kitchen? Hell, no. Let’s just mive!!

    1. I’m flummoxed by those plastic-wrapped toys and electronic goods that require their own special scissors to crack open!


      Blister packing is my #1 pet peeve. It drive me crazy. I literally have used my table saw to open a large, very tough blister pack. The purpose for those packs is to prevent stealing and allow the store to hang the product on hooks…..the customer is not even an afterthought.

      1. Seriously, those sharp edges could slice a finger off!!

        I keep meaning to buy the ‘special’ scissors, but the only time I remember I need them is when my fingers are in grave danger and i’m yelling expletives at the damn plastic package!!

        1. Once at Home Depot, an elderly woman ahead of me in the checkout line, asked the clerk to open her blister packs for her. The clerk told her they do not do that but the woman persisted. She asked if she needed to call the manager. It held up the line for fifteen minutes while the clerk called for assistance and someone managed to find a tool.

          No one in the line complained. Perhaps they all figured she was onto something.

          1. Funny you mention that. I’m fully prepared to start asking them to unscrew all my jar and juice bottle caps – they are either too large for female hands or too small for slightly arthritic knuckles. The only ones I can easily open are mayonnaise and peanut butter.

            DON’T even get me started on those ‘push and turn-at-the-same-time’ safety caps.

  8. I can navigate pretty well around tools and instructions. I avoid my thumb, but I have a favorite finger that gets smacked up a lot.

    1. When documenting systems, I have taken into account that while some people may be linear thinkers, others are not. A linear thinker will go logically from A to Z and reliably pass through points K and Q. An associative or pattern thinker will not. Their mind sees the pattern in A,B,C, so they jump to M,N,O to see if the pattern holds, then they jump again to X, Y, Z.

      The only way to properly write instructions for pattern thinkers is to create bullets with the critical points highlighted. The amazing thing is, at the end of the day, these people will remember what is critical, whereas many of the linear thinkers will not.

  9. “Take assembly instruction with a grain of salt.”

    Noted. But it seems that assembly instructions are more aptly called assembly cartoons these days. No language, just images. And funny ones at that. Unfortunately, not “ha ha” funny.

    1. assembly cartoons

      You just coined a term, excellent.

      Considering how many customers are functionally illiterate, cartoons are not a bad way to go…when they make sense. Soon we will see the advent of short terse messages studded with abbreviations – known as “assembly texts”.

  10. Sadly my lack of DIY skills cost me a fortune hiring professionals – just this very morn the new garden shed my wife ordered arrived. ‘Self assembly for 2 people in just 2 hours’ the instructions say…she looked at me; I her…it was thus that I gave her the telephone and Yellow Pages…it’ll probably cost more to build than the bloody thing cost to buy!

    1. ‘Self assembly for 2 people in just 2 hours’

      Gasp! Instead of English majors, those instructions were written by the folks in marketing. [shudder]

      A half-hour ago, my neighbor’s grandson chugged by on a big John Deere diesel tractor. The kid is nine years old. Grandpa is getting on in years and is still asleep and the little guy figured out that there is field work that needs to be done.

      It is like that around here. Talk about DIY.

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