Metal Shop Miracle
A life lesson in the form of a metal riveting hammer
Randal B. Thatcher
It’s been decades now, but the memory is still as vivid as if it had happened yesterday: When the least likely, least confident, least capable boy in that year’s 8th grade metal shop, was awarded the only perfect score in the entire class for the most challenging assignment of the semester: A metal riveting hammer: eight inches in length, with a four inch handle, and a head exactly three inches long, and a half-inch by half-inch square.
So, what, exactly, were the odds, that this same kid, who’d turned in the worst sheet-metal lock-box in the whole class, would somehow score the only perfect 75-points on the more difficult hammer assignment? Well, probably somewhere close to zero.
And yet, as far-fetched, and as visibly improbable as it surely must’ve seemed at the time, it actually happened.
The metal shop gods must’ve been smiling on the day I nervously drilled holes into both the handle and head. And I guess they were still smiling the next day when I tentatively took the tap in hand to cut screw threads down into both holes, and then the die to cut external threads onto either end of my connecting shaft.
So far, so good. But this was not the miracle.
When I eventually screwed the three parts of my hammer together, and discovered that they actually fit, I was amazed. But this was still not the miracle.
The miracle began the day I took my hammer home to show dad how it was coming along. He held it gently in his hands–those big, strong, skilled hands, that could build seemingly anything.
He studied it for a full minute, but said nothing.
I wondered if he was disappointed. I knew my hammer wasn’t abjectly awful–certainly not the debacle that the lock-box had been. But I couldn’t help trying to discern whether that consummate craftsman might not be feeling that his own progeny somehow failed to measure up.
After he’d inspected it, dad laid my little hammer down on the kitchen counter, where it remained until after dinner.
Clearing the table, and thinking there was nothing more to be said about the hammer, I picked it up and began tucking this very mediocre, and not-quite-finished thing, back into my book-bag.
And that’s when dad finally spoke. “Bring your hammer downstairs to the shop.”
Dad’s basement workshop was a place of wonder to my 13-year old mind; a place where he made incomprehensible–almost magical–things happened on a regular basis.
Rummaging through several cluttered drawers, he produced a sheet of very fine sandpaper, some steel-wool, several lengths of emery-cloth, and, surprisingly, a crimped, old tube of toothpaste.
Wrapping my hammer carefully in cloth to protect it, he placed it between the jaws of a vise and tightened it. Then he showed me how to painstakingly polish metal. He told me I’d need to work every millimeter of that hammer, going over it again and again, first with the fine-grit sandpaper, then the steel-wool, the emery-cloth, and finally, the toothpaste, before one final buffing. He said it would take a lot of time and a lot of “elbow grease,” but that the final result would be worth it.
And it did take time–many hours spent down in that basement shop, after school, sanding and rubbing and polishing and buffing, until fingers throbbed and arms ached.
Dad would come down periodically to check on my progress. And finally, on the Saturday afternoon before the Monday when the hammer assignment was due, he nodded his approval.
No metal shop student ever turned in an assignment with more pride than I did on that Monday morning. My hammer positively gleamed! The shop teacher expelled a whistle of admiration as he took it from me, unable to hide his surprise at this impressive result from his least likely student.
And you already know the result: 75 points out of a possible 75; the only perfect score in the class.
And when some of my resentfully dumbfounded classmates pointed out that my hammer was not perfect in every observable detail, our teacher told them that it’s brilliantly polished finish more than made up for any minor imperfections.
It was a rare moment of triumph for a bookish, insecure 8th grader, and one he would never forget.
I still have that old riveting hammer. I always will. Because it reminds me of a lesson my dad taught me all those many years ago. A lesson, not just about how to polish metal, or how to score a perfect 75 on a challenging assignment, but a lesson about life: that the little details matter; and that what can sometimes feel like tediously thankless and painstaking work–rubbing out scratches and tiny blemishes from an imperfect surface–will eventually yield a surprisingly beautiful and satisfying result.
Which, in the final analysis, will prove to have been more than worth the effort.
Thank you, dad, for teaching me this lesson. It has helped to guide my life ever since.