James Stanley


Book Review: Every Tool's a Hammer

Mon 28 June 2021

I recently read Every Tool's a Hammer by Adam Savage. I am somewhat hesitant to call this post a "review" because it's much closer to a selection of quotations from the book presented without comment. But I think the book is good. And I have enjoyed some of this year's book reviews on Astral Codex Ten. And if I say this is a review then it's a review.

If you read this review and enjoy it but think you now no longer have anything to gain from reading the book, then know that precisely the opposite is the case! I am barely scratching the surface of the material the book covers. It is a tome of great wisdom.

Adam Savage

If you only know Adam Savage from MythBusters, then you may be under the impression (as I used to be) that his expertise is primarily as a TV presenter, and only secondarily as any kind of builder of things. This couldn't be further from the truth. In the book, he describes himself thus:

I'm a generalist in my creative output and a wannabe polymath in how I organize my life.

My talent lies not in my mastery of individual skills, at which I'm almost universally mediocre, but rather in the combination of those skills into a toolbox of problem solving that serves me in every area of my life.

(And if this sounds interesting to you, you may also enjoy Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World).

There are probably hundreds to thousands of hours of Adam Savage, talking and making things, available on his Tested YouTube channel. If you want to watch some but don't know where to start, I might recommend his machine vise build or this segment on imposter syndrome.

The "Maker" label

The book mentions a common aversion to the "maker" label: that of considering oneself not good enough to call oneself a maker. He brings up an example of someone he spoke to at a Maker Faire who said "I don't make, I code":

The list of exceptions people invent to place themselves on the outside of the club of makers is long and, to me, totally infuriating. Because the people who do that to themselves—or more likely, the people who TELL them that—are flat wrong.

And goes on (convincingly) to argue that any act of creation is an act of making, no matter what kind of thing you're making.

There is another take on the aversion to "maker", not directly addressed in the book: some might be wary of adopting the label out of a fear that "maker" is just a word for a substandard practitioner of a more specific craft. But I don't think that's quite right. Anyone who makes anything is a maker. The perception of "makers" sometimes doing subpar work is more down to the aggressive sharing in the maker community. You see more early work from those who describe themselves as makers than from those who follow more formal paths into craftsmanship. This should be encouraged, not squashed.

Philosophy

The book contains a lot of good insights on the philosophy of making, and why we do it. And more importantly, why we sometimes don't do it, instead running into barriers that we've erected inside our own heads. I was hooked from the introduction alone. If you read the book and the introduction doesn't excite you, then you probably needn't bother reading the rest. But it probably will.

Now I have quotations to present without comment.

On culture:

Whenever we're driven to reach out and create something from nothing, whether it's something physical like a chair, or more temporal and ethereal, like a poem, we're contributing something of ourselves to the world. We're taking our experience and filtering it through our words or our hands, or our voices or our bodies, and we're putting something in the culture that didn't exist before. In fact, we're not putting what we make into the culture, what we make IS the culture.

On permission:

[This book] is also a permission slip. The permission slip is from me, to you. It says you have permission to grab hold of the things you're interested in, that fascinate you, and to dive deeper into them to see where they lead you. You might not need that permission. If that's the case, good for you! Go forth and do awesome things. But I have needed that permission many times in my life. And whenever I found it, it helped me uncover secrets about myself and about the world I live in. It made me better as a man, as a maker, and as a human being.

On vulnerability:

As the things we make give us power and insight, at the same time they also render us vulnerable. Our obsessions can teach us about who we are, and who we want to be, but they can also expose us. They can expose our weirdness and our insecurities, our ignorances and our deficiencies.

On obsession:

We can't even countenance the idea that someone could be obsessed with something and be of sound mind. That is a shame, because when it comes to creativity, when it comes to making things, when it comes to success at anything, obsession is often the seed of real excellence.

On bullshitting:

Embrace the noun (Maker, Painter, Writer, Designer) by sharing with the world evidence that you've been living the verb (making, painting, writing, designing). Just don't be a bore, and definitely don't believe your own bullshit. Believe me everyone can tell the difference between someone who just talks the talk and someone who can walk the walk.

On sharing:

The book covers a time that Adam was trying to find work in Manhattan special effects companies, and found the staff to be insular, unwilling to share, as if they considered the sharing their knowledge to be a threat to their livelihood. This was in stark contrast to the working environment he later found in San Francisco, where not only were the staff much more willing to freely share knowledge with one another, but the company owner (Jamie Hyneman, cohost on MythBusters) gave the staff free usage of the workshop during their down time to work on whatever they wanted.

It's up to you to decide what you're going to do with all the knowledge you accumulate. Are you going to hide it? Are you going to pretend that you alighted upon all your insights by divine providence? Or are you going to share what you have learned? Are you going to open yourself up to the people in your orbit and show them who you are, what you love, what you've made, what you know, who's helped you, and what you plan to do with all this to make the world a better place to live?

Related (but only obliquely covered in the book): telling others about your work increases your luck surface area, so you should do it even if you don't care about improving anyone else's lot.

Productivity

Adam writes lists to keep track of things. Todo lists, parts lists, shopping lists, and so on. Initially he would simply cross something off the list once he was done with it, but he found checkboxes to be superior. With the checkbox system, you draw an empty square next to each item of the list, and colour in the square when that item is done. This leaves the writing still legible, and also gives the opportunity to leave a square half-coloured-in when the job is half done.

The elegance and effectiveness of this planning system floored me, particularly when it came to evaluating the status of a project the further along it went. The value of a list is that it frees you up to think more creatively, by defining a project's scope and scale for you on the page, so your brain doesn't have to hold on to so much information. The beauty of a checkbox is that it does the same thing with regard to progress, allowing you to monitor the status of your project, without having to mentally keep track of everything.

Adam's workshop philosophy is "see everything, reach everything".

On drawers:

Let me tell you my philosophy about drawers: F*CK DRAWERS! Drawers are where stuff goes to die. Drawers lure you into a false sense of security by "helping" you put things away and making the shop look "cleaner". But really, by putting stuff out of sight, they remove it from your visual field.

He refers to the "see everything" half of this phrase as the "visual cacophony". The "reach everything" part is "first-order retrievability". He tells a story of having earnt some money and bought himself an expensive toolbox set, only to find that it didn't suit his style of working:

I gave the Kennedy stack a good four years to prove itself, but eventually, as a natural enemy of the visual cacophony, I had to get rid of it. In its place I built a rolling, five-runged , five-foot-tall ladder rack with twenty holes drilled into each rung big enough to accommodate the handles of every tool I'd kept in the Kennedy stack. I literally turned the storage drawers inside out. Each tool has a place that's fairly obvious, they are all in sight, and I can get to any of them five times faster than it took me just to figure out which drawer they used to be in.

On sweeping up every day:

Sweeping up every day and putting away my tools is a conversation between present me and future me. It is present me acknowledging that future me always likes to keep the momentum of a project going, and that having to look for a tool or walk across the shop to get one in the middle of a critical phase can slow down the creative process enough to be an existential threat to the project as a whole.

Prescription

Read it for the wisdom on maker philosophy. Also enjoy the discussions on productivity, workshop organisation, safe and efficient tool usage, snippets of Adam Savage's life story, and the surprisingly long section on all the different types of glue. And tolerate the distractions into film buffery and cosplay.



If you like my blog, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed or the mailing list: