Hitting the Nail or the Art of Puttering


PEOPLE in my corner of Connecticut have just been warned that if their personal property assessment is a bit higher this year it. is because of t he rising value of the old car. Instead of depreciating as in the past, it is now worth more. And that is true of most of our possessions. They have acquired new value on account of scarcity, just as did the few tools and utensils the Swiss Family Robinson saved from the wreck; and this scarcity is going to transform us all into Swiss Family Robinsons, challenging our ingenuity to prolong usefulness.

You might divide people into two grand divisions: those who take pride in their ineptness — “fingers all thumbs,” “can’t drive a nail” — and those who, equally arrogant, are what for lack of a better word I will call “ putterers ” — meaning those handy folk to whom the use of tools is a knack. I am aware that the word has an invidious meaning in the lexicons — that, like “boondoggling,” it is used as a word of reproach; but also like that word it is authentic colloquial American of ancient and honorable lineage, signifying the doing of odd jobs not a part of one’s gainful employment. “Boondoggling” means riding a hobby, and “puttering” is making a hobby of fixing things.

“Been working today?”

“No; just puttering”— meaning he rehung the gate, painted the henhouse, sewed a rip in the harness, patched a hole in the screen door, put new washers on the mower, and nailed up a shelf in the pantry.

EARNEST ELMO CALKINS is a man who can use his hands as well as his mind. He has never allowed his executive duties in New York to interfere seriously with the carpentering, the woodcarving, or the building of ship models which is his particular hobby. In these days when every householder must do his own repairs, we should like to have Mr. Calkins as our handy man.

Urged by propaganda and necessity, recruits arc joining this social group in increasing numbers, for war has brought some strange reversals. The advertisers, those persuasive fellows who make the delightful gadgets, widgets, and doodads that, have cushioned our material civilization, have changed their tune. They are soft-pedaling the old familiar refrain of “Buy! Buy!” The burden of their new song is “Keep it up! Make it last! And they do more than admonish. They point the way.


Hitherto we have been much too ready to phone the repairman when an electric cord ravels and short circuits, or a water pipe springs a leak. We shall learn that half the ills plumbing and electric wiring are heir to can be cured with not much more skill than it takes to darn a sock. Simple repairs in both fields are now being taught to classes of women in various parts of the country, sponsored by the very concerns that once preached the doctrine of consumptionism and obsolescence: the plumbing manufacturers and the power companies. The latter stand to lose some forty-two millions of annual revenue if the electric utilities now in our homes are allowed to get out of whack.

In rural New England, and no doubt elsewhere, the farmers have schools to which they repair two evenings a week, where experts teach first-aid to tractors, harrows, and binders. This movement has a delightful touch, in that the repaired farm machinery is repainted in bright victorious colors to proclaim its part in winning the war, in addition to the practical purpose of keeping farm machinery running during a famine of servicemen and spare parts.

You, too,—as the ads say,—can become a putterer. You will need a few tools: hammer, saw, screwdriver, bit, awl, Stillson wrench (that ingenious device that grips round things — useful for starting reluctant bottle caps as well as unscrewing water pipes), insulating tape (to hind the wounds of electric cords), electric soldering iron and solder with the flux in the core, Scotch tape, glue (the kind made of milk — casein glue), plastic wood (you stop up holes the way a dentist fills a cavity), plaster of Paris (good for filling the place in walls where screws have pulled out). Walk up and down (he aisles in the five-and-ten. You will he amazed at their eloquent suggestion — pliers, clamps, files, electric fittings, tacks, picture hooks, assortments of screws and nails. Those small spring clothespins that come in a box of two dozen for five cents are invaluable for keeping things from coming unstuck. You ought to have a knife—not a pocket knife or a penknife, but a whittling knife. The best, if you can find one, is what is known as a sloyd knife, used by woodcarvers.


Thus equipped, you can learn to use tools. The entire human race learned it. Man is a tool-inventing, tool-using animal. That is one of the things that distinguish him from the rest of the menagerie. A people that has taught, itself to play contract, hole a. putt, knit a sweater, or dial a telephone, need not be stumped by the simple skills needed to drive a nail, glue a chair, take down an electric plug and reassemble it, or put a washer in a bathtub outlet.

One takes these little repair jobs as one takes chess problems or crossword puzzles — something to he solved. Here is a perfectly good chair, for instance. Our superheated environment has dried out the glue of a more rugged era, and the rungs have come out of the legs. It is a simple job to recondition it. Mix the white powder that is casein glue in an equal bulk of cold water, let stand thirty minutes, and stir vigorously. Then daub it in the holes and on the ends of t he rods and put it together. But how to hold it until the glue has set?

Furniture men use large clamps that you are unlikely to have. So you can resort to one of the oldest mechanical devices and construct a homemade turnbuckle. Tie a strong cord around the two adjoining logs that hold the rungs, insert a short stick between the cords, and wind it up into a tight twist. Catch the stick so that it will not unwind. There you have a simple repair, not without interest it you thought up the turnbuckle yourself, as I did. Each job makes its demands on your ingenuity, and such jobs are going to bob up in your household with increasing frequency as men and materials are withdrawn for the duration.

In the past, few weeks 1 have hammered a dent out of a silver bowl, soldered a candleshade to its wire support, replaced a fixture that pulled out of a bathroom wall, sandpapered a cork to fit the cap of a flask, mended a split umbrella stick, — first with glue, then by winding tightly with a bit of fish line of the same shade as the stick, — and replaced the worn-out cords of a Venetian blind. I actually wangled an A-10 Priority Rating from the War Production Board to replace a small part in my Delta Scroll Saw, on the plea that I used it for keeping in repair things that cannot be replaced.

So we are all becoming putterers in the better sense of the word, or should be, and those of us who long ago learned the joy of doing things with our hands wear a smile of triumph when plumbers, garage mechanics, painters, carpenters, tinsmiths, and upholsterers make appointments weeks ahead like a popular dentist. To dispense with these gentry and do it yourself gives you a delicious sense of mastery, that self-sufficient Selkirk feeling, monarch of all you survey, using such tools as you have and inventing those you lack, in the spirit of the pioneers from whom so many of us are descended. It is really as good fun as some of the more foolish games we play.