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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Ruminations on Tool Maintenance

Few tools are perfectly designed

A family of five Estwing hammers. The large framing hammer on the left has a 28-ounce head. The hand sledge at the far right weighs 4 pounds. Photo courtesy of Martin Holladay.

Since my first construction-related job in 1974, labor costs have risen and tool costs have dropped. This changes the way contractors make decisions related to tool maintenance and repair. Many tool repair jobs that would have been routine 50 years ago aren’t worth the trouble these days. In the same way that watch repair and shoe repair are now rare, few carpenters these days bother to replace the wooden handle on a hammer or replace the broken tape in a tape measure. If a hand tool breaks, you throw it away and buy a new one.

Of course, I replace or repair frayed cords on my power tools, and occasionally replace a bad switch. Any tool with an internal combustion engine gets regular tune-ups, air filter changes, and sparkplug changes. I still sharpen my chainsaw chain. But I no longer get circular saw blades professionally sharpened. (Believe it or not, that used to be a thing.) Like everyone else, when my circular saw blades get dull, I throw them away.

Tape measure tapes? Forget about it. Throw the whole tape measure in the trash.

I still replace wooden handles on my wheelbarrows, axes, and mauls, although these days, better handles have been invented—steel or fiberglass handles—so I have fewer tools with wooden handles.

Ash is the best wood species for baseball bats and tool handles, and of course dry ash is better than green ash. As a young man, cutting firewood, I used to save 40-inch bolts of clear ash for handle wood. I would split the bolts into quarters and store them in a corner of the garden shed. Once dry, I would use the wood to make tool handles.

After I had split, sawn, and whittled my replacement handle into a close approximation of the final handle,…

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  1. Bill Rose | | #1

    The Estwing shank was also good for chopping shims to length. Before Estwing (1981) Craftsman made a similar hammer which I loved. You younguns may not remember that.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    According to this web page, Estwing hammers have been manufactured and sold since 1925. I'm not sure, however, when the current handle style was developed.

  3. User avater
    Peter Engle | | #3

    Over the years, I lost my favorite Estwing hammer but I gained an Estwing framing hammer and an Estwing mason's hammer. So I feel like I'm ahead of the game. Some tools you love like family members. Well, maybe more than certain family members. You don't get to pick your family.

  4. Andy Kosick | | #4

    I lost the Estwing I’d had since High School building trades to an attic a couple years ago. By the time I realized it was missing, its exact location beneath the cellulose was uncertain, so I bid it farewell, to be exhumed by some unsuspecting remodeler in the distant future. I still think of this hammer from time to time.

    Also, I often use a hammer as the image of an ideal tool when frustrated with technology or something. Too many modern tools, of whatever kind, are loaded with frills and features but fail to consistently perform their primary purpose.

    “Here’s to the humble hammer, you pick it up and it drives a nail.”

  5. Chris D | | #5

    People still sharpen circular saw blades, if the blade quality makes it worthwhile. $20 to sharpen a saw blade with a $100+ price tag is still a good deal. Those are not the sort of blades that make an appearance on the average jobsite though.

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