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The thing about stone – Part 2 – Hammers

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Watching my father and his men ply their craft, I figured I knew a thing or two about dressing stones. But there’s ‘watching’, and then there’s ‘scrutiny’, and when you’re anywhere between six and ten years old, the latter only ever seems to apply to insects and toys, not your parents’ toils. Small wonder then, that I missed the obvious when I watched my father wield chisel and mallet, as I was about to find out, one hot summer morning, with my path to my hide-out in the pear tree once again blocked.

My father had already staked out his turf in the shade of the tree and was lifting a polished, rectangular slab of bluestone, slipping it upright and lengthwise into the slots of two thick, triangular wooden supports. Awed by his strength I wondered if I’d ever grow to be as powerful. Checking the stone’s shape and thickness, I quickly deducted the slab was a windowsill, and according to local architectural custom, my father was about to chisel shallow, parallel grooves across the length of its outer edge.

“Be a sport, lad, and fetch me a chisel and my mallet,” he called out over his shoulder as he secured the stone in the slots with wooden wedges.

Easy – I knew a thing or two – and off I dashed to the tool shed and within five minutes I was back with a sharpened, two-and-a-half-inch-blade chisel, and a heavy wooden mallet with a rounded and slightly curved head, like the middle bit of an oversized banana with its ends sawn off. Balancing on a one-legged wooden stool, my father sat waiting by the side of the upright tablet. I handed him the chisel; he ran his thumb along its edge and nodded – right size and sharp. Next, I gave him the heavy mallet and he frowned as he slowly twirled it in his half-clenched fist.

“Wrong hammer.”

“What’d you mean, dad? You always use one of the big wooden ones for this job.”

“Sure, right hammer for the job; but wrong hammer for the man.”

“I don’t understand, they’re all the same.”

“Uh-uh,” my dad shook his head, “come along, I’ll show you,” and as he got up, the one-legged stool toppled and thudded onto the hard-packed ground where it rolled but failed to go full circle.

Back inside the tool shed, my father rested the wooden mallet on the workbench next to four identical ones.

“Now, can you tell me which one’s mine?”

I shrugged and sullenly shook my head. Dad smiled, and lined up the five hammers, balancing them face up. “Look, see where their faces are worn from striking the chisel head?” I nodded. “Good. Now you need to understand that every man strikes the chisel in a slightly different way, at a slightly different angle,” and he ran a finger along the different indentations. “So take a good look now and find me the mallet which differs the most from the others.”

My eyes flitted across the five different faces, left to right and back again, but still I couldn’t see, and finally I tried to save face with a wild guess.

“No,” my dad laughed as I pointed to the mallet on the right, “that’s E.’s hammer, not mine. See how deep the dent is compared to the others? That’s because E. has a very powerful blow, he’s stronger than any of us, and it shows. And this here is A.’s mallet, a shallow dent on this face, and the same shallow dent on the mallet’s other face. That’s because unlike the rest of us, who stick to the same face till it’s worn too deep, A. turns his mallet after every ten strokes or so.”

“So which one’s yours?” I sulked.

Dad picked up the mallet second from left. “This one’s mine. See the difference in slant in the dent compared to all the others?”

I looked again, compared and nodded. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Well, the slant on my mallet’s face is different, because I’m left-handed.”

“Left-handed?” I looked up at my dad, astonished. “But you write with your right hand, just like me. I’ve seen you write! And you use your right hand.”

“That’s right, because when I was your age and went to school, I was forced to write with my right hand. Using your left, they said, was evil, a sign of the devil. So they strapped my left hand to my back when we had to write or draw. Heck, they even strapped it when we had soup at the canteen.”

“But that’s cruel!”

“Cruel and backward,” my dad nodded. “But when I left school and started my apprenticeship as a mason, I needed both hands, one to hold the chisel, one to wield the mallet, and I did what felt only natural to me, what my body told me to do. I took the hammer in my left hand, and nobody said a thing, because when you’re true to the craft, you respect everyone has a different strength and stroke. And that’s why I can help you choose a chisel that’s right for the task, even sharpen it for you, but I can never hand you my mallet. Your mallet is yours and yours alone. Wield it wisely, because stone doesn’t forgive.”

Now I’m past my prime, and I don’t think I ever did match my father’s physical strength, but the chisels I keep are sharp, the hammer I wield is my own, worn according to my stroke, and I try – though often enough I fail – to apply the right strength that’s needed for the task.

Because life doesn’t always forgive either.

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