What You Need to Know Before Buying a Hammer
You need to read this before buying your next hammer.
Which hammer is the best?
What is a hammer? It’s just a stick with a hunk of metal on one end, right? Turns out there might be more to the humble hammer than you think.
CPT spoke with Charlie Vaughan, a fifth-generation hammer maker, to find out all we could about this indispensable tool. We also picked the brain of a product service manager at Stiletto and asked a bunch of people in the trades which hammer they liked best (and why).
In the end, which hammer you choose will likely depend on how it feels in your hand. You might prefer the same type of hammer today that you started out with years ago, just because that’s the one you’re used to... and that’s okay. But if you are in the market for a hammer (or are just a tool geek) keep on reading.
Which hammer handle is best?
The three most basic handle options are steel, fiberglass, and wood. Hammer handles come in a variety of lengths and most are available in either a straight, curved, or hatchet style configuration.
Steel handled hammers
Steel handles are the strongest of the bunch. It’s tough to beat a solid or welded piece of steel when it comes to overall strength. But steel is also the heaviest option, and that extra weight doesn’t necessarily mean that steel-handled hammers pack more punch. A lot of the weight is down away from the strike point, so it doesn't actually affect the striking power. Steel hammers are the worst offenders for causing vibrations that impact the user. Heavy vibrations can lead to repetitive strain injuries and other ailments. Because of their strength, steel-handled hammers are a favorite among masons and demo crews.
"With all the nailing guns out there, most guys these days use their hammer for “destruction” rather than “construction.” So, it really depends on what you’re going to do with the hammer. For demolition, steel would be the best choice."
-Charlie Vaughan, president of Vaughan Manufacturing.
Fiberglass handled hammers
Fiberglass handles transmit less vibration than steel, but still more than wood. Electricians love fiberglass handles because they are non-conductive. Plumbers and mechanical guys like fiberglass because a decent one can be had for not a lot of money.
"All I really use a hammer for are small jobs like tacking up pipe hangers and tapping on a putty knife or screwdriver. And my hammers tend to get left at jobs, stolen, or lost behind walls, so I tend to carry an inexpensive one."
-Les Zell, plumber
Wood handled hammers
Wood handles transmit less vibration than fiberglass and much less vibration than metal handles. Wood is also the lightest handle material, which means most of the weight is up in the head (where it counts). Wood handles can be replaced if they are damaged and can even be customized for those uber-particular hammer connoisseurs out there. Wood handles are strong, but not as strong as steel, so not the best option for demo work.
If a hammer is going to hang from your pouch all day long, you probably don't want it to be super heavy. And if you pound on a whole bunch of nails, a low vibrating wood handle is just the ticket. So, naturally, wood handles are typically preferred by framers, trim carpenters, and siding installers.
"When it comes to less vibrations, wood handles are by far the best. And when it comes to the best type of wood, hickory is the only way to go."
- Charlie Vaughan
Length and contour of hammer handles
Most hammer handles are 14 to 18 inches long and are available in either a straight, curved or hatchet style. Hatchet style hammer handles are a bit narrower than straight handles.
Some remodelers like 16-in. handles because they can use them as a quick guide to locate (not layout) a stud behind drywall or sheathing if they know the location of an adjacent stud. There are also siding installers who spend a good portion of the day on ladders and don’t like long hatchet-style handles or curved handles, because they tend to protrude forward just far enough to catch on the rungs when climbing down a ladder.
Many plumbers, electricians and mechanical workers often find themselves crawling around in tight spaces and therefore prefer short hammers, because they’re less likely to get hung up.
Pay attention to the grip
Some folks just love the feel of wood, and most wood handle hammers don’t have a grip material added to them. Cushy handle grips feel good but also tend to wear faster. Trim carpenters often choose grips with a rubber bottom so the handle doesn’t leave a mark when they squat down or bump into finished surfaces.
"I swing the 15 oz. Estwing Ultra, smooth face. I use it for demo, framing, trim, dirt digger. Can't beat the classic Estwing grip and the side nail puller is super handy."
-Josh Blake, Carpenter
How heavy should a hammer head be?
Most hammer heads weigh anywhere between 16 and 22 ounces. But that can be a little misleading because there's no industry standard on how to weigh a hammer head. Weighing a hammer head with wooden and fiberglass handles is straightforward: just take the head off the handle and weigh it. But there is more of a gray area when it comes to hammers that are made with integrated steel handles and strike guards.
There are several things to consider when it comes to the weight of a hammer:
How you use it: If you do a lot of hammering above your head or even straight on, then lighter is better. If you are always swinging down low, like a mason building forms, then heavy is okay.
How often you use it: If it’s necessary that a hammer hangs from your pouch all day, but you use it infrequently, buy a lighter hammer. There's no point in carrying around a massive weight on your side if you barely ever use it.
Your strength: Remember high school physics? Here's a quick refresher: Force = Mass x Acceleration. This means a heavier hammer packs a larger wallop. BUT that’s only if you can swing the beast. There’s a point where a hammer becomes too heavy to swing fast, and a greater force would be achieved by swinging a lighter hammer, faster. What that point is depends on the strength of the swinger.
Balance: Some folks love to swing a hammer with a super heavy head and a feather light handle. Some prefer a hammer with a lower center of gravity like steel handled hammers have. Whenever possible, swing a hammer before buying one. Ask your friends, neighbors or the folks around you on a jobsite to try out their hammer before buying yours.
"The idea of balance means that weight is evenly distributed between top and bottom AND forward and backward. A well-balanced hammer will HELP swing itself. If you have an unbalanced hammer you might have less work hitting the nail but MORE work bringing it back up…unbalanced hammers cause muscles to ache after use!"
- Charlie Vaughan
Milled faced vs. smooth hammer heads
This is an easy decision. A milled-faced hammer (sometimes called waffle-head) has a little traction, if you will, and is designed to drive in a nail without bending it over. But that final blow is going to leave a waffle shaped mark on the surface. That’s okay for rough framing, but if you work with any material like interior trim, where a waffle-shaped mark would be undesirable, then get yourself a hammer with a smooth-faced head.
"I use three different DeWalt hammers. The 22oz framing hammer, the 14oz finish hammer, and the 22oz demo hammer. I swear by all of them for the comfort of handles, longer necks, and oversized faces. I can swing them all day and not get fatigued, the balance is awesome. I’ve been a carpenter/general carpenter for over 25 years and use a hammer for almost everything I do. I have found that the DeWalt line works best for me."
- Stu Cushman, general contractor
Are titanium hammer heads worth the money?
Hammers with a titanium head typically cost between $75 and $200, but they can reach the $300 neighborhood. So what do you get for all that money? More bang where you want it. When a steel head strikes a nail, about 30% of the energy from the blow is recoiled back. When a titanium hammer head strikes a nail, only 3% of the energy bounces back. This means a titanium hammer will get the same results as a much-heavier steel hammer.
Also, this recoiled energy from a steel hammer head doesn’t just vanish into the ether; some of it will find its way back into the joints of the person swinging the hammer in the form of vibrations. If you pound in a bunch of nails every day and would enjoy properly functioning wrists, elbows, and shoulders 10 years from now, then invest in a titanium head hammer.
"All day, every day I swing a 14-oz. Stiletto with an 18-in. wooden handle. It doesn't weigh hardly anything, but it swings like a 24-oz. monster."
-Jonah Jardine, framing carpenter
Titanium hammers are genuinely amazing, but be advised: You may want to keep a steel hammer on hand for your demo work because steel is actually harder than titanium. Or you could buy a hammer with a steel head (or head face) and a titanium handle, combining the best of both worlds.
"We do not recommend excessively beating on hardened steel objects such as steel nail pullers, pry & crow bars, concrete stakes, foundation bolts, scaffolding pins & cup-locks, etc., as these objects will cause the milling on the solid Stiletto titanium hammer face to wear down faster, just as they would on a steel milled face. The wear is typically just faster when used [titanium] in these applications, but usually no chipping or spalling (mushrooming) occurs."
-Joel Allen, manager of sales & service for Stiletto Tools
Flat-top hammer heads
Flat-top hammers are steadily becoming more popular. The flat top allows the head to get into tighter spots. Plus, they look cool!
Does your hammer head need a strike guard?
Non-steel handles can get beat up by misses. You know, those times when you miss the nail and the handle smashes against the surface. If you love wood handles and want to prevent them from getting beat up by overstrikes, consider a hammer with overstrike protection, like the one pictured above.
"I’m a wood handle guy, but when my guys get their hands on them (especially the newbies), they tend to beat up the handles pretty good. I started buying the Vaughan Dalluge 16-oz. hammers with the strike guard. They work awesome, and no more shredded handles.
-Lee Nelson, remodeler and tree service professional, Shell Lake, WI
Which hammer head is best?
Really, to each his own. There are a dozens of specialty hammer heads to choose from and it really just matters how you use your hammer and how good it feels in your hand. The hammer shown above is a Japanese hammer with a uniquely shaped head.
"Once you've found a favorite hammer, nothing else compares. About 20 years ago, I took a chance on this odd-looking hammer. I was relieved to find the balance and feel exactly to my liking. Besides the perfect feel, there are some nice extras. The steep claw angle gives ample leverage for pulling nails. Also, the claw's tips are pointed to aid in digging out nails that are sunk below the surface. A milled face on the side of the head allows "sideways" hammering in tight quarters. I don't use it often, but it has saved me more than once."
- Brad Holden, woodworker and editor at The Family Handyman
Hammer claws: straight, or curved?
There are two types of straight clawed hammers: short and long. Long, straight claws are sharper and work great for stabbing into a hunk of wood if you want to grab hold of it. But straight claws are also thinner and can break off in a severe demo situation. Short claws are more rugged but don’t pierce wood as well.
Curved claws can pull most nails out of wood without the aid of a spacer, but provide less leverage than straight claws. Curved claws also don’t protrude as far out, which makes a curved-clawed hammer less likely to get hung up on obstacles or jab you in the leg when crawling around tight spaces.
Get a side puller
It used to be that the best way to get the most leverage when pulling a stubborn nail was to wedge the nail between the claws and pull the hammer sideways. Now most manufacturers have at least a few models with a built-in side puller. The first ones to hit the market were kind of clunky, but now many are hardly noticeable.
Magnet nail holder
Magnetic nail holders are a great way to start nails that can't be reached with two hands, or for when you only have one hand available because the other is holding on to a ladder or scaffolding.
Some manufacturers offer replaceable or interchangeable parts like handle grips, hammer faces, and even the hammer heads themselves. This model from Martinez has a replaceable head and grip.
"I love the Martinez M1. I'm a framer who also hangs siding and installs exterior trim, windows and doors my projects. I use both the smooth and milled heads on my M1. That way I don't need multiple hammers for different purposes, and swapping the heads takes less than five minutes. Plus, I can swing that titanium all day without any elbow issues."
-Pádraig (Podge) Maloney
Here’s one for you demo guys. The claw on this hammer is adjustable, so you can pull nails with more leverage or get into those hard-to-reach areas.
Thanks to Charlie Vaughan for all the great information. Charlie Vaughan grew up working in the family business, and in 2008 was named president. Vaughan & Bushnell Manufacturing Co. was founded in Peoria, Illinois in 1869 and today is a thriving business that manufactures hammers and striking tools, most of which are made in the USA.
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