Some years ago, Forbes magazine undertook to rank the 20 most important tools in human history. The list included the knife, the scythe, the rifle, the sword, the saw and the chisel. What it omitted was the one tool necessary for making all these others: the hammer. Even today, few tools give individuals such power to shape the physical world around them. Whether you are tearing out the old, building the new, or simply maintaining what you have, hammers are as essential today as they were to the earliest cottagers. Modern hammers are available in a bewildering array of styles, sizes and materials. Some are for carpentry, others for metalwork. Some have hard faces, others soft. But with just four, you can tackle the vast majority of DIY tasks you will ever face. Below are the hammers that belong in every tool chest.
1. Claw hammer
If you could have only one hammer for the cottage, the claw hammer would be it. The head is designed for nails: one face for driving them and the other end for pulling them. The basic pattern dates back to ancient Rome, and it still proves its worth daily. The claw hammer will handle everything from hanging a clock to re-roofing a shed. Outdoors, it’s perfect for building a fence, assembling a garden arbour or attaching siding. Indoors, the claw hammer will handle almost all of your trim carpentry jobs, from ceiling mouldings to door surrounds. It will let you mount electrical boxes, build a bird feeder, and even frame a partition wall.
In addition to pounding nails, claw hammers can be used to tap small carpentry tools. These include nailsets, which are used for driving finish nails below the surface so they can be concealed with putty; centre punches, used to start a hole in wood so your drill bit won’t wander; and metal capped wood chisels.
One should never use claw hammers for sharp strikes on hard metal. A steel punch, cold chisel or even a hardened masonry nail can chip the hammer head and send shrapnel flying. Use a more suitable hammer, like the ball peen or engineer’s hammers described below, for these jobs, and certainly, wear safety goggles when hammering.
Opposite the hammer’s smooth striking face is the curved, forked claw. To pull a nail, work the claw under the nail’s head and rock the hammer back. For long nails, use a block of wood under the head to increase its leverage. The same trick works to spread the load so the head won’t dent soft wood or wallboard when pulling nails. With a wood block against the item to be struck, the hammer can take the place of a soft mallet.
Closely related to the claw hammer is the rip hammer. The nailing face is essentially the same, but the rip hammer has straight, chisel like claws, which makes it more suited to demolition. It excels at the rough stuff. With the rip end, you can chop underneath the heads of big nails to pull them. Or tear down drywall. Or pry apart two nailed studs.
With its steel core and soft covering, the dead blow hammer can take the place of a boxful of rubber and wood mallets, soft-faced hammers and specialized metal hammers. They’re great for knocking together (or apart) kit furniture and wood shop joinery. They’re also ideal for levelling pavers and flagstone. In the garage, they’ll install wheel covers, perform minor bodywork, and loosen seized parts. Because of their soft jackets, dead blow hammers will work on painted and powder coated surfaces that other hammers would mar. With a light touch, they can seal a paint-can lid without deforming the edges.
The dead blow is notable for its ability to strike hard without rebounding. The secret to its damping abilities lies in its unique construction. Unlike other hammers, the dead blow’s head is not solid.
Rather, it consists of a thick steel canister, with loose steel shot or sand inside, which is encased in a tough, flexible layer of polyurethane. Dead blow hammers usually range from 1 lb to 4 lbs, and a size near the middle of this range, 2-1/2 lbs to 3 lbs, is a good all-around choice. Although the dead blow hammer will take a lot of abuse, avoid striking sharp objects that could cut the outer skin.
The ball peen hammer is made for hitting metal. Around the cottage, it is most useful for striking hardened steel chisels, dies and punches, and for mechanical work on vehicles and power equipment.
You can use the ball peen hammer to chisel out mortar when re-pointing brick, or to hit an impact driver to free seized screws. You can use it to strike a wrench to break free a rusted nut, or if that fails, to cut off the nut with a cold chisel. It’s good for driving both hardened masonry nails and expanding concrete anchors; for marking metal with a centre punch; and for cutting holes in leather or gasket material with a hollow die. With drive and pin punches, the hammer will remove tight rivets, bolts and roll pins.
It’s also good for shaping and straightening metal, both thin sheet stock and thicker gauge material. And it works, when used with a stout vise and torch, for bending bar and sheet steel into L-brackets and other useful shapes.
Opposite the broad striking face is the small, domed peen. The peen end of the head evolved for hand working methods that are largely obsolete, including the rounding over of rivet heads and the work hardening of metals. Today, the compact peen is primarily used for shaping metal and to reach places other hammers can’t. Two of the most useful ball peen sizes are 16 oz and 24 oz.
Some jobs just call for a big bruising hammer. With a heavy symmetrical head and long handle, the engineer’s hammer is essentially a one-handed sledge. It is suited to demolition projects and jobs too big for the ball peen hammer.
Uses for the engineer’s hammer include striking large hardened chisels for brick, stone and metals; breaking up masonry; anchoring landscape timbers with rebar; adjusting large posts; driving stakes; splitting stones with wedges and shims; and pounding long spike nails.
Engineer’s hammers in the 2-1/2 pound to 4-pound range will likely get the most use. Similar tools, with shorter handles and more compact heads, include mash hammers and drilling hammers. These trade some power for precision but are designed for many of the same tasks.
Debates rage over the pros and cons of various handle materials. Today, you can buy hammers with handles of wood, steel, fibreglass and more exotic materials. Wood — typically hickory — is traditional, relatively light and naturally shock absorbing. It can, however, loosen over time or break. Fibreglass is lightweight and durable. Solid steel is heavier but, in a one piece hammer, nearly indestructible. Fibreglass and steel handles usually have comfortable rubber grips, sometimes supplemented by additional shock absorbing technology. Most often, handle choice boils down to personal preference.
Another consideration is handle length. Generally, the length of a nailing hammer increases with head weight. So an average 16 oz hammer will measure about 13 inches long, a 20 oz hammer about 14 inches, and hammers 22 oz and heavier usually measure about 16 inches. All else being equal, a longer handle translates to a faster head speed and a more powerful blow. But it also makes the hammer more cumbersome in tight places. For maximum power with any hammer, hold the handle near its end. For control and precision, choke up closer to the head.