A hammer suitable for construction framing shouldn’t be your first choice when tapping in finishing nails. On the other hand, when some serious persuasion is required, you’ll be looking for something a little more robust than the little number you set your wooden plane blades with.
Virtually all hammers are similar in construction. They have a handle and a head. As a rule the head is secured with a combination of wooden and metal wedges, driven into the tenon of the handle. The wedges tighten the hold enough to keep the head from flying off when you swing it. When a hammer has a metal handle, it is often forged with the head. This one-piece construction does not rely on mechanical joinery. Newer composite handles (fibreglass or other materials) tend to be fixed in position with epoxy. It is not as likely that the composite handles will loosen with use, but there is a chance that they can be broken away from the head with very heavy use.
The most common hammer you will find is your basic claw hammer. The claws can be either curved or straight, depending on intended use, and personal preference. Curved claws make it easier to extract nails, while straight claws aid in prying things apart.
When choosing a hammer consider both it’s weight and handle type. Both have an impact on your comfort, which is an important consideration, especially if you will be using the hammer for an extended time.
Hammer weights can vary from a lightweight 7oz all the way up to a hefty 28oz. The most commonly used hammer tends to be the 16oz. Unless you are a construction framer that needs to get a 3″ spike into a 2×4 in three hits, heavier hammers will only serve to strain your wrist.
Research on hammer ergonomics, and related repetitive strain injuries among trades people, has lead to a variety of high tech designs which incorporate ‘anti-vibration technologies’. Such designs have proven to reduce fatigue and related injuries.
Japanese hammers undergo a unique tempering process, which makes them harder around the rim and softer in the center. This difference allows it to absorb shock better, while giving it a better grip on nails and chisels.
Tack and upholsterer hammers are lightweight instruments for precision work, usually with a magnetic peen that will pick up and set tacks. The best ones have bronze heads with steel faces welded onto each end. Cheaper ones have all-steel heads, but they still do the job.
Warrington hammers have a cross peen, which is used for starting extremely small nails without catching your fingers in the process. The narrow head is designed to strike between your fingers, as you hold tiny nails. The cross peen of the Warrington hammer can also be used to tap the iron of a wooden plane into lateral position. These hammers are normally of a much lighter weight than a traditional claw hammer, ranging from 3½ oz up to 10 oz. If the peen is too thin to hit the nail easily, it can be reshaped with a file until it suits your needs.
Ball-peen hammers, while not commonly used in woodworking, are handy on those occasions when you will need to work with both metal and wood. There are three head styles available: the ball peen head, which is used mainly for riveting; the cross peen head, that can also be found on the Warrington hammer; and the straight peen head. Unless you are a metal worker, you’ll likely never see a straight peen head.
The ball-peen hammer might be most useful to a person seeking to shape and bend small brass parts that they are customizing for their woodworking projects, or when making jigs which incorporate metal parts in their construction.
Veneer hammers are not designed with striking as their primary use. They are designed for pressing out excess glue and air when laying up veneer. The hoe-shaped head, which can be made of either wood or metal, drags the glue out from between the veneer and the backing, in a manner similar to that of a squeegee. Normally the head of the veneer hammer is about ⅛” thick with a width ranging between 2½” and 3½”. With rounded edges and a smooth surface, it should not harm the veneer. Files, sandpaper, or honing stones can be used to correct any flaws in the surface of this hammer. Steel veneer hammers often have a small square face as well, which is crowned and ideal for driving small nails or squeezing the air out of very small sections of veneer.
Of all the hammers in our shop, the one that I would easily classify as the most useful is the dead blow hammer. Its hollow head is filled with lead shot in oil, which provides a solid blow with no bounce. Because the force is transferred to the work, with no tendency to bounce back, less effort is needed. These hammers excel at assembly and disassembly, when test-fitting wood joints prior to glue-up. Easily the most useful of the dozen or so hammers I own.
For those really stubborn situations that need considerable persuasion, I’ve found a 10lb sledgehammer with a fibreglass handle a wonderful thing indeed. It swiftly dispatches all but the most stubborn of problems. I think you’ll want one of those in your collection as well.
There are many more highly specialized hammers out there, but the ones mentioned here will see you through most of your woodworking needs.