A carpenter’s skill (Walden 160)

Thoreau writes of shingling the exterior of his house and plastering the interior.

“In lathing I was pleased to be able to send home each nail with a single blow of the hammer, and it was my ambition to transfer the plaster from the board to the wall neatly and rapidly.”

In earlier chapters Henry has written extensively about his desire to avoid work in order to make time for “higher” things. But it’s clear that he takes pleasure and pride in mastering the skills of construction. Even sinking a nail is a good thing in and of itself.

One of Dad's old hammers.

One of Dad’s old hammers.

My father was a carpenter. Among other things, I was always impressed with his ability to sink a nail with a hammer. (This was before nail guns.) He would hold it in place, give it a quick tap to sink the point enough so that he could let go of the nail, and then a harder blow to drive it in up to the head. He would work his way quickly around a sheet of drywall with no superfluous movements, and never denting the sheetrock: bip-BAP bip-BAP bip-BAP bip-BAP.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve read that when Thoreau’s cabin site was excavated, a large number of bent nails were found, indicating that Thoreau’s skill with a hammer may have been considerably less than my father’s. On the other hand, Henry and his father together built the family’s home in Concord a few years before Henry moved to Walden Pond, so he did have some experience by this point.)

Skill isn’t just knowledge. It’s a slowly and painstakingly-acquired gracefulness that is visible in every little thing that a master carpenter does, from the nonchalant but precise way he handles a tape measure, up to the ability to break down a complex project into a series of individual tasks performed in the correct order.

I never acquired those skills. Sometimes bookish people don’t. We go to school and enter a different world and never learn what it means to work with our hands. Henry was certainly as bookish as any scholar, but he also seemed to recognize the limitations of scholarship, the need to balance one’s time between the abstract world of thought and the physical worlds of nature, work, and practical skill.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


2 thoughts on “A carpenter’s skill (Walden 160)

  1. michaellangford2012

    “each piece morticed and tenoned by it’s stump…” Square-rule framing was developed in early nineteenth-century New England, a significant improvement over the time-consuming practice of plumb-line scribe methods of European carpenters. What we are able to learn from someone like Thoreau often depends on what we know from our own experience and observation.


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