Tools: All About Hammers
It’s the tool that is universally used! Car or boat repair, removing concrete, building a house and even hanging a picture. Think about it. What other tool is used for as many tasks as a hammer. There are claw hammers, ball peen hammers, mallets, tack hammers, framing hammers, finish hammers, sledge hammers, rigging axes and more. And many of the various types of hammers are available in an assortment of sizes.
Although you might think that a hammer is designed primarily for nailing, a black smith would probably tell you that hammering nails is a secondary use for a hammer in his work. A concrete laborer will absolutely guarantee you that there is no nailing involved in the removal of concrete. Yes, you are correct sir! Most hammers are primarily used for nailing.
The weight of a hammer is very important to someone like a carpenter who might frequently use a hammer all day long. It must be light enough to swing briskly, and yet heavy enough to provide enough force to drive a nail with as few blows as possible. For example: most carpenters who assemble wood frame structures like to drive a 16d nail (about 3 inches long) in one or two blows. Carpenters are careful to get a hammer that is heavy enough to accomplish this yet light enough to reduce the chance of wrist or elbow damage – something that a heavy hammer is known to cause.
Where hammers used for framing and siding range from 20 oz. to 28 oz. finish hammers range from 12 oz. to 20 oz. The most common hammer of all is the 16 oz. curved claw, finish hammer.
Essentially, a hammer can be broken down into two component parts: the head (the face and the claw) and the handle. The face of the hammer is the part that comes into contact with the nail and there are a few important things to know here. First, there are basically two face types – smooth and corrugated. The smooth face is designed for fine finish work and the corrugated face is used for rough framing. It is safer to use the corrugated head because it grips the nail tightly and reduces the chance of bending nails. Unfortunately, the same corrugation that grips the nail can also leave a terrible looking waffle mark in the surface of the wood being nailed. So, for fine work (and no waffle marks) the smooth face hammer is used. However, there is a trick you should know about a smooth face finish hammer. Even the slightest increase in surface roughness can improve friction and reduce nail bending. What old time finish carpenters do is rub their hammer face on the sidewalk. The concrete removes the shine from the face of the hammer and creates enough roughness to reduce nail bending. By the way, a good finish carpenter never drives a finish nail all the way in with a hammer. The final blows are made with a nail punch.
There are two basic types of claws, curved and straight. The curved claw provides more leverage and makes nail pulling easier. Also, the curved claw hammer can be used in tighter spaces than a straight claw hammer. The overall length of the head is reduced by the curve of the claw. This can make all the difference in the world to a carpenter who is installing a 12 inch deep wall cabinet where back swing is minimal. So why the straight claw? Because in certain tasks the straight claw is the only type that can be used to remove a nail. A curved claw is safer during the back swing than a straight claw – think about it?!?
The handle also is important. Most folks would agree that a wood handle is the best. Isn’t it funny. With all the modern technology that is available the oldest material known to be used for a hammer handle is still considered the best. The material that the handle is made from is extremely important to the user. Much of the “shock” transferred from the hammer’s impact is absorbed the handle. With a solid steel handle most of the shock would be absorbed by your hand, wrist, fore arm and elbow. Manufacturers are doing wonders with fiberglass and plastic, but in our opinion wood is still the best.
A safety note for anyone who likes to build things. The face of a good hammer is tempered (hardened steel). The hardening prevents the hammer face from losing its shape as it is being used. The hardening process actually makes the face of the hammer brittle. In fact, when one hammer face strikes another tiny pieces of the brittle face will break off and fly through the air at high speed. During our days in carpentry we actually saw a fellow put his own eye out. He wasn’t even working. He was just banging the two hammer faces together and joking around.
Another safety precaution. A rigging axe has a large corrugated face with an axe in place of the claws and it has a very long handle. Don’t use this tool for carpentry. It can be dangerous because the back swing can cause a sever wound. Also, never sharpen the claws on your hammer. Nails might be easier to remove, but why convert a valuable tool into a dangerous weapon.