Regardless of the type, virtually all hammers are similar in construction. This simple tool consists of a handle and head, and depending on the type of handle, one or more wedges to keep the head secured. Wood handles typically have three wedges: one wood and two metals. The wood wedge spreads the sides of the tenon to grip the head, and the metal wedges help distribute the pressure evenly.
Metal handles are often forged along with the head and therefore will never loosen. Composite handles (fiberglass or other plastic composition) are usually secured to the head with high-grade epoxy. Although these have much less chance of loosening compared to a wood handle, they can break free from the head under heavy use.
When most folks envision a hammer, they think of a claw hammer. And many believe a claw hammer is a claw hammer, right? Not true. There many different kinds of claws hammers available. For the most part, they can be divided into two types: those with curved claws, and those with straight claws. Curved-claw hammers are by far the most common, and they are particularly adept at removing nails. Straight-claw hammers are more common in construction work, where the straighter claws are commonly used to pry parts apart. What a straight-claw hammer gains in demolition work, it loses in nail-pulling efficiency.
But there’s more to claw hammers than the curve of the claw. The weight and handle will also have a huge impact on how well the hammer performs. Weights range from a delicate 7 ounces up to a beefy 28 ounces; the most common is 16 ounces. Heavier hammers are mostly used in construction by experienced framers, who can drive a 16d nail into a 2-by in two or three strokes. A heavy hammer will drive nails faster, but it will also wear you out faster; these industrial-strength tools are best left to professionals.
Even experienced woodworkers tend to hold a hammer with a weak grip. The most common mistake is to choke up on the handle as if it were a baseball bat. And just as with a baseball bat, this will rob the hammer of any power, greatly reducing its ability to drive a nail. Some might say that this affords better control; but without power, the hammer is useless. It’s better to learn to control the hammer with the proper grip.
To get the maximum mechanical advantage from a hammer, you need to grip the handle near the end. Place the end of the handle in the meaty part of your palm, and wrap your fingers around the handle. Stay away from a white-knuckle grip, as this will only tire your hand. For less power and a bit more control, position the handle just below the palm, and grip. This takes the hammer out of alignment with your arm and shoulder, but you may find it more comfortable.
I have a couple of different sizes of Warrington hammers in my tool chest. These lighter-weight hammers are ideal for driving in finish nails and small brads. Instead of a claw, a Warrington hammer has a small, wedge-shaped cross peen that makes it especially useful for driving in brads. The cross peen is a real finger-saver when working with short, small brads. Why? Because the cross peen will actually fit between my fingers to start the brad. Once it’s started, I flip the hammer to use the flat face to drive in the brad. Another unique feature of this tool is the faces called “side strikes” on the sides of the hammer that let you drive nails in tight spaces.
Warrington hammers are available in four different weights: 31/2, 6, 10, and 12 ounces. I have a 6- and a 10-ounce hammer, and with these I can comfortably handle most tasks. There’s something odd about these hammers: The end of the cross peen is either ground or cast to come to a point instead of being flat. This actually makes it difficult to start a brad, as the point will glance off the head of the brad. Try filing the point flat to make the tool a lot more usable.
Even though most of the work I do is in wood, I often find use for a ball-peen hammer. A ball-peen hammer is handy when I do need to work with metal – a material I often incorporates into jigs and fixtures. I also use a ball-peen hammer – when I work with the metal hardware I install in many projects. A ball-peen hammer (sometimes called an engineer’s hammer) has a standard flat face on one end and some type of peen on the other.
The first time I picked up a Japanese hammer, I knew I had to have one. Its compact head and sturdy handle gave it balance I’d never found in a Western hammer. The types of Japanese hammers you’ll most likely find useful in your shop are the chisel hammers and the plane-adjusting hammers.
Chisel hammers may have one of two head styles: barrel or flat. The flat type are more common and are usually made of high-quality tool steel and then tempered to produce a tough, durable head. Since both faces are identical, the balance is near perfect. Some woodworkers prefer the barrel head-style chisel hammer; they feel that this more-compact design centers the weight closer to the handle, so they have greater control.
These stubby heads are usually tempered so they’re soft on the inside and hard on the inside. The theory is that this type of tempering reduces head “bounce.”
Plane-adjusting hammers can be identified by their thin, slender heads and brightly polished finish. Because of the degree of finish, these hammers are intended for use only on planes to adjust the cutters. Granted, you could use a different hammer for this task, but the face will probably be dinged or dented; these marks will transfer to the wood body of the plane – not a good way to treat a valuable tool.