I do think a carpenter needs a good hammer to bang in the nail.Oliver Reed
This is the first in a series of posts about the Japanese gennou hammer (written 玄翁 in Chinese characters and pronounced “gen-noh”) in general and and how to design and make a unique one that perfectly fits your body and style of work.
The objective of these posts is to share with you, Gentle Reader, what I have learned over the years about gennou handles to help you design and make your own handle.
I will gladly share the entire series, including the drawings, as a single document with Beloved Customers upon request.
The True Craftsman Makes His Own Tools
A handful of generations ago quality high-carbon steel was difficult to make and expensive, so woodworkers worldwide, especially Japan, could not afford many tools, and the ones they did own or inherit were very important to them.
At least partly to reduce costs, it was standard practice back then for a woodworker (or his master) to commission the metal parts of his tools, such as the heads of his axe, hatchet, adze and hammer, and the blades of his chisels from the local blacksmith. In the United States or other British colonies a craftsman may have purchased chisel and plane blades imported from Sheffield, but he would not want to pay the high costs of shipping wooden components across oceans and over mountains when he could make them himself. After all, woodworking was his business, so a self-respecting craftsman would make all the wooden components of his tools, such as handles and plane bodies, himself as a matter of course. Needless to say, those old boys knew how to make handles.
But things have changed. You may not realize it, but we live in a time of extreme wealth where even the poorest live better than kings did 200 years ago, partly due to widespread industrialization of all aspects of our societies making the necessities of life, and even what would have been called luxuries, available to everyone cheaply. This industrialization combined with cheap transportation has resulted in the prevalence of craftsmen purchasing pre-manufactured things, including tool handles, many of which they would have made for themselves as a matter of course.
I would wager that most woodworkers younger than 60 years old have never made an axe handle, hammer handle, or a plane body, and don’t even know how to.
Accustomed to the easy availability of standard tools, lacking an eye for performance and focused like a laser on lowest cost, most woodworkers nowadays get by with poor quality tools made by farmers in Chinese factories from poor quality scrap metal designed by kids using computers working in marketing departments that have never used a handtool professionally. Those tools may look great on the internet or wrapped in theft-proof plastic containers hanging on pegs in the big-box retailers, but how do they perform? And how long will they last? And what do they say about the men using them? Tools are terrible gossips, you know.
You cannot purchase a hammer handle like the one we will discuss in this series, and no one can make it for you. A hand-forged gennou head fitted with a handle made in accordance with the guidelines presented in this series will become a unique lifetime tool and the sure sign of a superior craftsman. More importantly, it will help you work more efficiently and precisely, make your joints hurt less, and give you greater confidence in your skills.
If you think this all sounds too good to be true, I challenge you to put it to the test. In fact, there is a series of performance tests listed in the last post of this series (when it is published, see link at the end of this post) that will allow you to generate hard proof of the truth of these claims for yourself. You will be impressed with the results.
While Japanese hammers are the primary focus of this series, you can apply the ergonomic principles and solutions I will describe to all varieties of hammer and axe handles.
Modern Tools: Marketing, Design & Manufacturing
I grew up using hammers designed for maximum sales in a competitive marketplace of amateurs, of the type I call “One Size Fits Nobody.” Back then they were made in the USA, but nowadays they are cheaply mass-produced in China. Prices are rock-bottom, and quality is focused solely on getting an attractive product out the door at the right price-point while fending off the hordes of snaggle-tooth slavering lawyers that specialize in product liability and personal injury lawsuits. To these corporations, you and I are beasts in a herd, of no import beyond the content of our wallets and our willingness to open them.
Like the cover of a manga comic book, mass-produced modern tools are carefully designed to immediately draw the eye and excite the senses of those passing by. Bright colors and futuristic shapes war with each other for attention on the pegboards of big-box retailers. Handles are made of plastic and rubber fitted over steel or fiberglass, secured with globs of glue intended to hide malformed ulcerous eyes.
The designers of these blister-makers and nail-benders intend their products to age poorly so they will be discarded by purchasers after just a few years to ensure unending sales of new-and-improved replacements. Plastic and rubber are the materials of choice because they are cheap to fabricate, easy to make colorful, look exciting when new, and speedily surf the spiral wave into the depths of the toilet of planned obsolescence.
The international playboy that Billy Crystal introduced the world to in “Nando’s Hideaway” might have been talking to one of these hammers when he said “This is from my heart which is deep inside my body: You look mahvelous, absolutely mahvelous dahling. Remember, it is better to look good than to feel good.” Perhaps these tools do look mahvelous hanging on those pegboards. But how good do they feel?
The tool conglomerate’s product development departments and marketing geniuses have taken the Latin Lover’s philosophy to heart. They know that tools that look good and turn to garbage quickly sell better and are more profitable than efficient tools that merely feel good. I am sure ‘Nando would go “crazy nuts” if he observed modern hammers in their natural environment, but alas my friends (saludos, my darlings, you know who you are), Nando will not make the journey to a big-box home center to inspect their pegboard tools because he does not feel good.
Clever people these marketing strategists, stuffing their pockets with money and landfills with plastic and scrap metal by selling imitation tools to the herd. But as for me, I’ll have none of that churlish fraud, than you very much.
Hammer Handle Morphology
The hammer is an extremely simple tool, literally as old as rocks. I suspect humans made the first multi-component tools by attaching wooden handles to stones to make hammers, axes and clubs.
People have all but forgotten how to make a proper tool handle nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way. Everyone made their own replacement handles only five generations ago, and their expectations were guided by sweat and blisters. They didn’t need product development departments in Shanghai to tell them what handle worked best.
Axes are an obvious example of how marketing has morphed handle design. Take a gander at an old tool catalog and notice how axe handles have become thicker and curvier in the last 120 years. Do these changes mean that for millennia humans didn’t know how to use axes or make proper handles for them? Do modern human joints and tendons endure the higher vibration and impact forces a thicker, heavier, stiffer handle transmits better than those of our forefathers? Has the nature of modern trees changed such that grain runout no longer weakens a needlessly-curved handle made from their wood?
No, these recent changes in handle design are not intended to make tools more functional or more durable, but are rather intended to increase sales of cheaply mass-produced tools of apparently innovative design, but of mediocre quality and disposable utility. They simply look mahvelous, absolutely mahvelous dahling, especially as an illustration in a catalogue or hanging on a peg in a hardware store.
But please, don’t get me started on modern mass-market saw handles.
In the next post we will look at the history and types of gennou hammers. In the meantime, here is some music from Fernando.
PS: Here is an excellent article about the “Devolution of Axe Handles” that jives well with my research and experience, and the advice my grandfather gave me about making an axe handle 50+ years ago.
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Subsequent Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series
- Part 1 – Introduction
- Part 2 – Ergonomics
- Part 3 – What is a Gennou?
- Part 4 – The Varieties of Gennou: Kataguchi, Ryoguchi & Daruma
- Part 5 – Kigoroshi
- Part 6 – The Ergonomic Anaya
- Part 7 – The Unblinking Eye
- Part 8 – Style & Weight
- Part 9 – Factory vs. Hand-forged Gennou Heads
- Part 10 – Laminated Gennou Heads
- Part 11 – Decorative Gennou Heads
- Part 12 – The Drawing: Part 1/6
- Part 13 – The Drawing: Part 2/6
- Part 14 – The Drawing: Part 3/6
- Part 15 – The Drawing: Part 4/6
- Part 16 – The Drawing: Part 5/6
- Part 17 – The Drawing: Part 6/6
- Part 18 – Wood Selection