Sunday, March 16, 2014

Your Guide to Hammers

Whether you need to hang a picture in the living room or drive stakes for a badminton net in the back yard, you'll need a hammer of some kind. It's a safe bet that every toolkit, even the most basic, includes a hammer. Most of them include only one hammer, which is typically a claw hammer that both drives and pulls nails. When your set of tools starts to grow, however, you're going to find a wide variety of hammers in the stores, with different features that make them superior than that "all-purpose" model when it comes to certain tasks.

A Basic Claw Hammer

Claw hammers come in a more versions than you might expect. The overall weight ranges from just 12-ounce finish hammers to the massive 28-ounce versions used by framing carpenters -- at least when their power nailers aren't working,. They come with wood, fiberglass or steel handles and with or without a rubber grip. The nail-pulling can be almost straight or sharply curved.

Unless you plan on going pro, your claw hammer should be in the 16-ounce range with a forged steel head and substantial curve on the claws. The handle material  is a matter of choice: wood is inexpensive, but non-wood handles don't loosen over time. Whatever you choose, make certain the inner edges of the claws are sharp and hard for getting a good grip on finish or headless nails.

The Little Guy: a Tack Hammer

Have you ever tried  to hold a tack or wire brad to get it started? Has your thumb recovered? A tiny tack hammer, with a head weighing less than 10 ounces, is designed for these small nails. Most have magnetic heads to hold the nail and save your fingers, with a miniature version of the claw on the other end for removing misplaced or bent tacks. Driving tacks is one time when bigger is definitely not better.

When Metal is the Wrong Choice

There are many situations where a steel-headed claw hammer is the wrong choice. If you find yourself striking wood chisels or tapping together wooden joints, that all-purpose hammer can damage whatever it hits. For those occasions or for shaping soft metal, a mallet with non-metallic heads is a better choice. Find one with a rubber head on one side for tapping on surfaces a harder head would mar, and a plastic head on the other, for bumping wood chisels.

Look for a tool with screw-off heads for easy replacement or for swapping with other materials such as wood. Some come with a brass head, too, that will let you do more metal work.

More Power

For some tasks, a claw hammer is simply over-matched. Driving stakes, for instance, or using cold chisels or the occasional rock- or brick-breaking duty. Choose a three or five-pound sledge for those tasks. These short-handled, heavy hammers provide control combined with enough weight to make a difference.

For jobs like breaking up a concrete sidewalk or making little rocks out of big ones on your local chain gang, only a maul will do. Twelve- and twenty-pound sledges with full length handles provide the sort of leverage you need to really put a hurt on that rock that destroyed your exhaust pipe the other day.

Special Duty Hammers

There are as many different kinds of hammers as there are professions. Here's a sampling:

  • As a professional geologist, I long ago invested in a classic Estwing Rock Hammer.
  • Every metalworker needs a ball peen hammer. I've been known to use one to make a rivet of an ordinary nail for emergency repairs. For those of you with dirty minds, by the way, "ball peen" refers to that ball-shaped striking surface used to peen rivets.
  • A bricklayer's hammer has a square head and an end shaped like a sold chisel. In the hands of an experienced mason, it might as well be a sculptor's chisel.
  • Almost no one uses shake shingles these days, but if you do, you'll want a shingling hammer for splitting and nailing cedar shingles.


  • Shoving a hammer in your back pocket is asking to see it fall out just as you reach  the top of the ladder. A belt-mounted hammer holster will save the trip and keep a hammer under your hand at all times. You can get an inexpensive holster with a metal loop, or spring for a leather Gfeller holster with a strap that holds the hammer in at any angle.
  • Doing finish work? Don't forget the nail set - in fact, make sure you have several!
  • And never, never strike anything with a hammer unless you're wearing your safety glasses. 'Nuff said?

That's it for smacking things around with a hammer. Sure hope this helps!

Search eBay for your next hammer

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