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Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  1,327 ratings  ·  259 reviews
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 s ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published February 21st 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published March 16th 2015)
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Will MacLaughlin While there aren't any photos, there are some very beautiful line drawings at the start of each chapter. In some ways this book is about craving a rel…moreWhile there aren't any photos, there are some very beautiful line drawings at the start of each chapter. In some ways this book is about craving a relationship with the physical, rather than the digital. It's worth owning the hardcover. I'm perhaps biased though. My sister wrote it. (less)

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Average rating 3.72  · 
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 ·  1,327 ratings  ·  259 reviews

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Dec 21, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs
Is there a genre about twenty-somethings have a career crisis? If not, this book could start one.

Nina was an editor at a newspaper in Boston when she got tired of the daily grind and one day, she quit. On a whim, she applied to be a carpenter's assistant and she got the job, despite not having any experience. This book is about the months she spent learning to build stuff with her hands, and learning to let go of her old life.

I was drawn to this book because I used to be a web editor, and I coul
Dec 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really liked this book! It's beautifully written, with prose smooth as silk (or, um, sanded wood? Oh god, sorry, that's bad). I loved the literary references and philosophizing and it's balanced with vivid scenes and descriptions of work. Man, I loved reading about work, about the world of THINGS. MacLaughlin has an assured voice and she is wise, wise, wise. I want her to move to California and build me a bookcase. I highly recommend this one!

Olive Fellows (abookolive)
Apr 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites-2019
Brandon Forsyth
The end of this book is beautifully written, and almost stirred me to give it four stars. Almost.
I just don't think I'm enough of a classicist to enjoy a transition like someone saying "you'd need wings to survive that fall" taking us into an exploration of the Daedalus/Icarus myth. It feels forced and showy to me. I also don't have the spatial intelligence to enjoy many of the descriptions of carpentry used here, and in some respects the book feels incomplete, like this is still the beginning o
Mar 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the beginning was the Medievalist Mortician. Now there's the Classicist Carpenter. Find a Reformation Roofer and we're all set with alliterative school-career choices. Except the Reformation was total crap, which all good historians know.


This is a great look at the underestimated trades; at confounding gender stereotypes; and about crafting a niche for yourself in a pushy world that likes to tell you the right way to live. As a learner herself, Nina MacLaughlin is in a unique po
Julianne (Outlandish Lit)
Deciding that you want to do something completely different from what you've been doing is awkward. After the phase of questioning all of your choices ever (paired with a bit of self-hate), you move into a phase where you either have to take a leap of faith or accept where you already are. Nina MacLaughlin wasn't entirely sure what kind of change she needed, but she knew she needed one. This is the story of her incredible leap into a career path she knew nothing about and the wisdom it brought h ...more
Book Riot Community
If you had told me that one of the books that would come to mean the most to me as a writer was the story of a woman who quit her job as a journalist to become a carpenter, I would never have believed you. But that’s exactly what Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head has done. Not because it’s not really about becoming a carpenter. It is, and reading about MacLaughlin’s learning those skills – all those saws! the measurements! – is part of the great pleasure of the book. But the other great pleasure of ...more
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I really understand the idea of wanting to do physical work, that feels concrete and has an actual end goal that you can see. I think those of us who tend to live in our heads really need to do this kind of work instead of sitting at a desk doing the work that comes easiest but leaves us empty. It was interesting to read the parallels that MacLaughlin made between making, doing and dying and I appreciated the emphasis she placed on the idea tha ...more
I like memoirs about change. In Hammer Head, a journalist quits her job, and, with no experience at all, becomes a carpenter. The book is about her learning to do carpentry and the adventures she has with the woman for whom she works. I liked that it's a book about strength- the strength needed to haul and lift and create. But also the mental strength needed to abandon a career and do something totally foreign. The author brings in stories about the history of various tools and she also makes li ...more
Mar 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Strongly recommended--I also started in the trades with very little prior knowledge and a college degree, so many parts of this resonated with me. I generally enjoy non-fiction about house building, and have been reading Nina MacLaughlin's blog for years, so I was predisposed to enjoy her authorial debut. I found her writing enjoyable and accessible, and her descriptions of the frustrations and satisfactions of carpentry were true to my experience. One of my favorite reads in recent memory! ...more
The story of a woman's shift in career from journalist to carpentry. It was such a lovely surprise, beautifully written, inspiring, and quite moving. I came out of it thinking, wow, yeah, it would actually be really nice to know how to build and make things. I've had the urge to explore non-computer based trades for awhile now, and this definitely threw some more gas on that spark. ...more
Decent concept, but a bit pretentious in parts. Also it got pretty repetitive and there was evident filler -- not to mention the huge typeface and margins -- this was probably better suited to a long-form piece in a magazine. But it was not a bad read, all told.
Heino Colyn
Feb 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own-in-print
I look at wood the way I look at meat. You can always cut more off a piece of wood and you can always cook meat a little longer. Start rare with meat. Start long with wood.

This is also true for beards.

I anticipated this being one of my top 5 books of 2021, and I think it will make the cut? I totally get the author when she talks about the yearning for more tangible work - I've often thought that my dream job might be an apprenticeship in a woodshop. Actually, it is being Adam Savage's apprentice
Kevin Fanning
Jul 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I loved this so much. Nina quits her job as an online editor and starts a new career as a carpenter's apprentice. It's a very literary journey she takes, not just learning how to build but rebuilding her self and her career and her self-conception and her relationship with the world around her, with quotes from Ovid and Mary Oliver flying around like sawdust. She also pulls in some history about the tools themselves as she's learning to use them, and ends up kicking Bill Bryson's ass up and down ...more
Sep 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love books in which the main character gives up one way of life in order to explore a new one. I like it even more when it's a true story. I found myself relating to someone who wants to make something tangible, with her own hands. Go girl!
Overall, it's a good read. I found myself getting a little frustrated because I wanted more day to day details (what did she pack for lunch, how did she dress to work in the harsh weather, what did she do in her six months off a year, and how was she managi
Mar 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I received an advanced copy of this book from ALA, and from the beginning was excited about the premise. As a woman who has been a steelworker (on the floor of the mill doing the labor), and worked in construction (as a supervisor, not doing the labor), so much of what MacLaughlin talks about in this book resonated with me. Also, I'm excited to see any book that has the potential to encourage women to go into the trades!

She does an excellent job of describing the satisfaction one can get from sp
I really loved the lines of this memoir - that a woman accustomed to doing desk/intellectual work chucked it all to pursue carpentry, a career of tangible products. I think it would perhaps have been more suited to being an article though: MacLaughlin relates her experiences working and learning, but pads those interesting portions with digressions on the history of tools and classical literature quotes. A fast read.
Jan 01, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Surprisingly enjoyable and deep. A must-read for any girl who has ever done a project with tools.
May 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To read the summaries, one would think that the central theme of this memoir is about a woman struggling to succeed in a primarily male occupation. However, any gender issues which might affect acceptance, remuneration, or bidding on jobs had long since been resolved by her mentor, Mary, the widely respected master carpenter who hired Nina as her assistant and trainee. They are used as a MacGuffin, a device to arouse the reader's interest and involve them in the narrative.
MacLaughlin's real f
I received an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Giving this book three stars is a bit of an insult. It's more of a three and a half or high three, not just a simple and low three stars. It is not a terrible book by any means. I think that depending on a reader's preference and perhaps how open-minded they are could determine whether or not this is a memoir or possibly even more of a motivational book that provides the inspiration to kick start into some kind of
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
The author beautifully captures what it's like to have a writing job in this digital age and the need to create. I would alternately cringe, thinking "that's not how you do that," and quietly chuckle to myself going, "ha, I remember doing that once - that's a dumb thing. you never do *that* more than once!" I remember building my first bookshelves, and the author captures that feeling beautifully as well. Still further, the discussion of being one of the few women in a male dominated field is al ...more
This book is dangerous. I want to build all the things...demolish all the things...renovate all the things! I wasn't sure I was going to find this book very interesting and even passed over it the first couple of times I saw it on book recommendation lists, but when it kept showing up again and again, I thought I'd give it a shot. The worst thing would be that I didn't like it and *gasp* wouldn't finish it. So, why not? I put myself on the library's hold list so I'd get a copy as soon as it was ...more
Aug 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Where is my lesbian carpenter mentor???

I had moments of not being able to read this book because it really roused my angst about sitting in front of a computer all day instead of making stuff.
I wasn't expecting to read this in a few hours, but I loved it. This book will make you want to quit your job and go follow your wildest dream. ...more
Jul 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Another favorite topic: building ...and, again, a liberation story. The author, a journalist, becomes impatient with her office job tapping computer keys, and goes to work with a woman "journeyman" carpenter in what becomes a sort of apprenticeship. In the book, organized around some of the iconic tools of the trade -- tape measure, hammer, screwdriver, clamp, saw, and level -- we follow her from her first uncertain steps right through to the point where she, too, could be called a journeyman, t ...more
Chris Carithers
Feb 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Before reading Hammer Head, I started off with Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft and was put off by his erudition, where it seemed his goal was to out smart, out history, out philosophize, out Aristotle, anyone who deigned to denigrate the value of blue collar work. Admittedly, I didn't finish his book, mostly because I started MacLaughlin's and was simply blown away. She too can reference ancient texts, in her case Ovid ("What was is now no more and what was not has come to be. Renewal is the ...more
May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author honestly and gently writes about difficult but necessary transitions and the fears and rewards of making a change.
"How literal-minded we are when new to work. How pleasing to learn that there's slack in the toil, room for error and play." p. 30
"What a villain a nail can be. It took on an intelligence, a sinister character -- a worm, a non-cooperative enemy. Whacked wrong, the metal seems to alter form, from something strong and firm to something flimsy, c
R.B. Lemberg
Jul 22, 2017 rated it liked it
I love "A Degree of Mastery" by Annie Tremmel Wilcox, in which the author leaves a graduate degree in the Humanities (English) to become the first woman apprentice of a master bookbinder at the University of Iowa. I am forever looking for another memoir like A Degree of Mastery, so I was thrilled to come across Hammer Head. I was hoping for insights into what I love about working with my hands, whether creating or mending (I love both bookbinding and woodworking, and I am very much an academic). ...more
Sep 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Sienna by: Sunhawk
Shelves: read-2018
Recommended to me by my dad, with whom I work on many projects in our homes & rentals. It's my favorite work, for some of the same reasons Nina describes in this book about her own education. The attention required at each & every step turns out to be a gift. Working with wood, drywall, tile, & all the powdery forms of good (from concrete to grout) develops the eyes, the imagination. The parts, many invisible, come clear along with the possibility. Words are much messier, not always as useful as ...more
3.5 stars

Hammer Head made me feel simply comforted. Her journey was relatable to my own in some ways and in other ways I saw my personality in hers. Her worrying over sawdust would be me. Her want to work with her hands - something I am wanting but with a different medium. Her unsureness of making her father's bookshelves - oh I feel that all the time. But her decision to change career fields, that is just like me. The history and talk of books, everything really was just comforting to me. It's
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Nina MacLaughlin is the author of Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, a re-telling of Ovid's Metamorphoses told from the perspective of the female figures transformed, as well as Summer Solstice: An Essay. Her first book was the acclaimed memoir Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter. Formerly an editor at the Boston Phoenix, she is now a columnist for the Boston Globe and her work has appeared in or on the ...more

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