Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin


22253729Nina 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.

Hammer Head is a passionate book full of sweat, swearing, bashed thumbs, and a deep sense of finding real meaning in work and life.


Many people talk about making a big change but few actually do it. I don’t mean something as lofty as following your dreams, but something like quitting the job that is stealing your soul one day at a time. Think of all the people that stay where they are, mired in fear or doubt or worse.

MacLaughlin is not one of them. She made the leap, quitting her journalism job to do something better. She wasn’t sure what. When she saw an ad on Craig’s List for a carpenter’s assistant she jumped and never looked back.

I enjoyed watching the author learn the job – the broad strokes come quickly, like in so many things, but the details take years master. “So much of carpentry is figuring out how to deal with mistakes,” she’s told, and I can’t help but think life is the same way.

While Hammerhead follows MacLaughlin’s journey in loving detail it’s also about the meaning of work. What does our profession say about us? How do we change when our job changes? People view her differently, both as a person and a woman, and her insights are interesting and telling.

The writing is solid and beautiful. After explaining how carpenters use levels she writes,

I sometimes wish a tool existed that could measure the plumbness of our spirits, a tool that would help us decide what’s right for our own lives. How helpful to have an instrument that signaled, with the silent fluid shift of a bubble, that we should shift our spirit a little to the left – just a skosh – and all would be balanced and right.

One of my requirements for a five star read is that after I put the book down I think, “I can’t wait to reread that”. This book passes with flying colors.