journal: Good Friday

Alan Dix, Friday 19th April 2003

It was the Good Friday service and as part of it we were each given a nail when we came in and then at a point in the service took them forward to place at the foot of the cross.

Being the son of a carpenter I was fascinated looking at the nail realising how much went into the design of each one. It was an oval nail (sometimes called wire nails). That is instead of having a circular cross section it is flattened. This is so that the nail can be driven with the longer edge of the cross section along the grain of the wood to prevent it splitting. The head of the nail is not round and flat like some nails, but only very slightly wider than the rest of the nail. This is so that you can hammer it flush with the surface of the wood. The point of the nail was very slightly flattened. This is so that the grain at the very centre is broken not split and this again makes it less likely that the wood as a whole will split as the nail is hammered in. All along the length of the nail are slightly indented ripples. These are to help the nail grip the wood. Finally the whole nail was coated with a dull rough grey zinc galvanising so that it can be used outdoors and on damp wood.

So much detail, such care, such knowledge built into something bought and used in hundreds of thousands each day.

Perhaps this is true of people too, six billion, teaming and crowding over distant lands yet each so fearfully and wonderfully made.

Because my dad died when I was young I never learnt from him except in the way that the spirit moves between people when you watch one another at work. However I have gradually over the years learnt some skills of my own. In HCI people always cite the hammer as something that is 'pick up and use' a very clear function and mode of use. This always annoys me. There are so many different kinds of hammer with different intended uses and different ways to wield them. Watch a young child pick up a hammer you will see it is not obvious!

Wire nails are particularly difficult to hammer as they tend to bend over in their narrow direction. I always say it took me 10 years to learn how to hammer in a nail.

When I first used nails and for many years if the nail started to bend over I would use the hammer to gently tap the side of the nail until it was straight again and then start to hammer again. Sometimes this would work but at other times it would immediately bend again in the same place. Each time it bends the nail gets weaker and more likely to bend until the nail snaps leaving a broken nail in the wood.

After many years I learnt a different way to cope with a bending nail. Now when a nail starts to bend I do not try to straighten it, but instead change my hammering to strike it along the direction it has chosen. This sounds as though the nail would end up at an angle, but in fact this is not the case. Because part of the nail is already straight in the wood and has made a partial hole for itself in the right direction the rest of the nail has to follow. As you tap the nail along its length it straightens itself.

Now is this true of people too? The more we try to bend people to be or do what we want or even what is right the weaker they become. But if we understand and encourage people in the way they are then they may end up straighter and stronger. It is not that there is not a straight way for the nail to follow, but that the way to that lies in moving the hammer with the nail.

And it seems that man with nails on the cross knew this well.

Saturday 1st March 2003
a tree by Windermere
Friday 4th April 2003
Friday 19th April 2003
Good Friday