Traditional Chinese Woodworking #4: Chinese Hammers: the Common Unknown Tool

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Blog entry by chscholz posted 02-04-2010 07:34 AM 6471 reads 0 times favorited 12 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 3: The Mystery of Sung Hua Stones Part 4 of Traditional Chinese Woodworking series Part 5: Liu Shifu's Toolbox »

Anybody who has studied Chinese woodworking will not doubt have come across prints like this one where a ancient Chinese woodworker is depicted pounding on a piece of furniture with what appears to be the blunt edge of an axe. For example the Lu Ban Jing, a woodworkers manual written around in the 15th century, shows a woodworker assembling a table by pounding on one of its legs with the blunt side of an axe.
Chinese Woodworker using a Chinese Hammer to assemble a table

During much of China’s long and colorful history, China has been more or less completely isolated from the rest of the world. Areas of extensive trade have changed hands with areas of almost complete isolation. For that reason many of the tools and methods that have been developed in China differ significantly from tools and methods developed in the rest of the world. So is it possible that all those years Western hammer collectors have missed an important tool in their collections? Have we Westerners been fooled into believing that Chinese woodworkers hit their chisels with the blunt side of an axe? Does there exist a tool that is used by millions of Woodworkers that we so far have been completely ignorant of?

History of Chinese Hammers

Like probably anywhere else in the world hammers evolved from what we tend to callprimitive wooden tools to our modern hammers. But is completely impossible for me to give a complete (or even basic) history of hammers in China, there is simply not enough information on the topic available (so much for an understatement). Instead I will focus on a very unique type of hammer that appears to be uniquely Chinese: the Chinese woodworker’s hammer. I have absolutely no information how this type of hammer evolved, when it become popular and how it became the standard tool for Chinese woodworkers.

Types of Chinese Hammers

At first sight, Chinese woodworkers appear to use the blunt side of an axe to hit their chisels.

During the last few decades China has generated a tremendous amount of real wealth for its people and life has fundamentally changed for hundreds of millions of Chinese. Nevertheless the Chinese woodworkers appear to use exactly the same tool for hitting chisels as they did 600 years ago.
Liu Shifus hammer and chisel

On closer inspection however, the tool that on first sight looks like an axe is everything but. This Chinese hammer is not designed to be used as and axe but is a Chinese hammer. The business side of the supposed axe is very blunt and most likely not hardened at all. Moreover Chinese axes consists of laminated steel where a hardened piece of steel is sandwiched between the main axe body. This clearly is not the case with Chinese hammers.

A West woodworker with a complete shop typically owns a great variety of hammers and mallets; Western hammers/mallets are made of a great variety of materials (hardened steel, unhardened steel, different types of hardwood, hard/soft rubber, leather, etc). The Chinese woodworker seems to be able to produce masterpieces with a single type of metallic hammer.

The head of the Chinese hammer is a triangular piece of metal that is attached to a wooden handle. That’s it, a utilitarian piece of forged steel in the shape of a wedge, very simple at first sight but highly refined when one drills deeper, just like the traditional Ming furniture that Chinese woodworkers produced for many hundreds of years.

Usage of Chinese Hammers

Since the head of the Chinese hammer has triangular shape there are two different facets that are used for different tasks. The short facet, opposite to the point of the triangle is used for roughing in large mortises.
Roughing in with a Chinese Hammer

The sides of the hammer are used for finer carving work and smaller mortises
Detail carving using a Chinese Hammer

Interestingly, the hammer seems to be held fairly close to the head, although I can not conclusively state that in some cases the hammer is not held further away form the head like Western hammers are.

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

12 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile


117115 posts in 3601 days

#1 posted 02-04-2010 07:37 AM

Very interesting . I don’t know how they can work like that.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View Woodbear's profile


84 posts in 3091 days

#2 posted 02-04-2010 08:00 AM

That is pretty interesting. I myself don’t have near enough hammers. Now I think I need to find one of these. Thanks for sharing. I love learning new things.
In His Will

-- The safest place to be is within the will of God. God Bless. Michael

View Dez's profile


1166 posts in 4102 days

#3 posted 02-04-2010 08:15 AM

Jim, they can work work like that because they are not old and crippled like me and they are used to it. :)

-- Folly ever comes cloaked in opportunity!

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18286 posts in 3700 days

#4 posted 02-04-2010 09:06 AM

What is the pointy side used for? A straight peen??

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View noknot's profile


548 posts in 3466 days

#5 posted 02-04-2010 09:58 AM

That is interesting thanks for posting.


View LittlePaw's profile


1571 posts in 3102 days

#6 posted 02-04-2010 05:32 PM

After reading your post, I went to see just how many hammers I have collected over the years. There are 16, but none like the one you showed. Where would I get one, aside from China?

-- LittlePAW - The sweetest sound in my shop, next to Mozart, is what a hand plane makes slicing a ribbon.

View davidpettinger's profile


661 posts in 3225 days

#7 posted 02-04-2010 06:21 PM

I find this quite interesting. I am an ancient Chinese history buff. This may follow the standardization of tools that occurred 2,300 years ago when the Han dynasty standardized building construction. According to archaeological records, The Han Dynasty produced books showing the construction of allowed buildings, the joinery to be used and the tools to perform the construction. The Chinese were casting multi-ton Iron objects and making steel long before Europeans discovered how.

-- Methods are many,Principles are few.Methods change often,Principles never do.

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4100 days

#8 posted 02-04-2010 06:23 PM

Thank you all for the comments.

TopamaxSurvivor, I suppose you could. The tools in the first photograph are Liu Shifu’s tools. He is a master woodworker and hence does not do peening. The other two gentlemen are temple carvers who are in process of carving large Buddha statutes. They would not do any peening either.

LittlePaw, as the where one can purchase these hammers. I am not aware of any vendor in the West who would carry this kind of hammer. in Europe started carrying a fair amount of low-cost Chinese tools, some of which are quite authentic. I don’t believe they have Chinese hammers.

Thank you all for listening.


-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4100 days

#9 posted 02-05-2010 03:57 AM

Hi UnionLabel,

I’d like to learn more about the books that show “joinery to be used and the tools to perform the construction.”
AFAIK the old Chinese documented pretty much everything conceivable. Building codes, standards of weights and measures, encyclopedias with 10,000+ volumes, details on construction materials, man hours needed, etc.
But as far as I know there is very little documentation on joinery and as good as no documentation on tools.
For example the Lu Ban Jing (the “carpenters’ manual”) has not a single sentence on joinery or tools.
I am familiar with Homel (tools) and Ecke (joinery); any pointers towards original or secondary sources greatly appreciated.


-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18286 posts in 3700 days

#10 posted 02-05-2010 04:09 AM

Chris, Lack of mention of “the common knowledge” is a problem in any area of research ;-)

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18286 posts in 3700 days

#11 posted 02-05-2010 04:15 AM

Little Paw, i just searched Chinese hammers on ebay. What popped up looked like carvers mallets. I would bet if you contacted those dealers in China, they would find you a hammer ;-))

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18286 posts in 3700 days

#12 posted 02-05-2010 04:17 AM

chscholz, It wouldn’t surprise me if the ancient chinese woodworkers used the straight peen end to tighten up their joints a bit.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

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