Today, there are hammers of a dozen or more different designs manufactured for many kinds of tasks, which will be discussed below.
In general, hammers of the same kind are identified by their differing sizes, as a twenty-four-ounce hammer, for example, is larger (and heavier) than a sixteen-ounce hammer. The weight referred to is that of the hammer’s head rather than the tool’s overall weight.
No matter the size, every household needs at least one hammer. Whether it’s for tacking a picture onto the wall or re-nailing a floorboard or piece of molding, the hammer should come quickly and easily to hand.
For most of us, this is the design we reach for when we need a hammer. Its head has a face that is used to drive nails; the peen opposite the face is a two-pronged claw that is used to pull nails out of wood. The claw hammer is one of the carpenter’s basic tools.
The head on a claw hammer is made of steel, the handle of fiberglass, wood (commonly hickory, a tough, springy wood), or steel. Fiberglass and steel hammers typically have rubber, plastic, or vinyl handles for comfort and shock absorption.
Claw hammers can be purchased in many sizes, ranging from small tack hammers weighing only a few ounces to large framing hammers (designed for driving large nails) that have heads weighing up to twenty-eight ounces and handles reaching eighteen inches in length. The shape of the claw varies from one hammer to another. Larger hammers often have a flattened claw, and sometimes are referred to as wrecking or rip hammers because the claw can be used to pry apart wooden elements in demolition work. Smaller hammers usually have claws with sharper curves.
A moderate-sized hammer with a head of sixteen ounces and handle of sixteen inches will perform a wide variety of tasks, though for framing work a heavier hammer, perhaps of twenty ounces, will offer added power. (I’d suggest you leave the really big ones to those who frame buildings for a living; in the hands of the occasional user, they are unwieldy and a liability for most jobs around the house.)
When selecting a hammer, consider the face, too. A patterned face (also called a mill face) will help prevent glancing blows, because the serrations grip the head of the nail. This is especially handy when doing work that involves forceful hammering, like framing and toe-nailing. A smooth, slightly convex (belled) face is preferable for finish work. In claw hammers, flat faces are usually an indication of second-rate goods.
Pulling a nail puts tremendous wrenching stresses on a hammer. If you favor a wood-handled hammer (and many of us do), use it sparingly for pulling nails. Keep a pair of nail pullers or a wrecking bar handy in your tool bag for pulling all nails larger than eight pennies (two-and-a-half-inch-long nails).
Ball Peen Hammer
The claw hammer is designed for working with wood, the ball peen hammer for metalwork. Sometimes called an engineer’s hammer, this tool is used to drive punches and cold chisels, set rivets, and shape metal. Its head is hardened and is less likely than a claw hammer’s to chip when used to pound cold chisels. Rather than having a claw, the ball peen hammer has a flat striking surface on one face and a rounded one on the other.
Ball peens, like claw hammers, are sold in many sizes. Common head weights are four, eight, 12, and up to 32 ounces. The heads are steel, the handles usually made of hickory.
When driving a cold chisel or punch, a ball peen hammer with enough weight to drive the tool is required. On the other hand, though this may seem contradictory at first, when shaping metal it is important to use a hammer that doesn’t weigh too much. A hammer that is too large will scar or distort the material (especially brass), while a smaller one will tend to shape it more efficiently.
The ball peen hammer is not essential for the woodworker’s toolbox. But when it comes to driving cold chisels, the claw hammer isn’t the right tool, so having a club hammer (see below) or a ball peen at hand is a good idea. The ball peen can also be used for driving heavy nails and other tasks where its weight and hardness is an asset.
The club hammer is essentially a small sledgehammer. It is short handled (ten inches long is typical), and light enough that it can be managed comfortably with one hand. A club hammer with a two- and-a-half-pound head is a useful size, though three- and five-pound models are also common. As with most other hammers, wooden handles are typically made of hickory, though fiberglass-handled club hammers are available.
Most club hammers have two identical faces. Both faces can be used, though the primary reason for the second face is that the hammer would be awkward to use if the head were not evenly balanced.
The club hammer and its bigger brethren, the sledgehammers, are used to drive stakes or cold chisels and to demolish masonry. They are sometimes called hand-drilling hammers because they are often used to drive masonry drills.
In using this tool, let the weight of the club hammer’s head do as much of the work as possible. For light blows, the weight alone will provide sufficient force; merely allow the head to drop on the object being hammered. For more force, swing the tool as you would other hammers, again with a firm but not rigid grip. This is especially important when using the club hammer for demolition, as the shock of striking a masonry wall, for example, will carry through to your arm if you hold the hammer too tightly, putting you at risk of wrist, elbow, or even shoulder soreness.
Always wear safety goggles when putting the club hammer to use: Stone, masonry, or other bits of debris can easily become airborne and present a grave danger to your eyes.