Hammers & Mallets - Are they just sticks with a weight, or is there more to them?

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Forum topic by Brit posted 06-26-2011 01:21 PM 7456 views 2 times favorited 59 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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7387 posts in 2870 days

06-26-2011 01:21 PM

Topic tags/keywords: hammers hand tools mallets

I’ve never really given much thought to hammers in the past, but recently I acquired a few different types and it made me wonder why a particular weighted and shaped hammer is better for a certain trade/task than another style of hammer. Isn’t it just a weight with a handle? To artisans of yesteryear, aparently not. Doubtless some of the variations can be put down to the fact that tradesmen/manufacturers in one country developed their hammers in isolation of tradesmen/manufacturers in another country, but I’m sure there is more to it than that. Also, why are there so many different shaped handles. Is it just decoration, or does the shape have a function too.

I’ve looked around on the web and there doesn’t seem to be much information about how hammers evolved to be differenct for different trades, so if anyone has any information on this subject, please let us know.

Also, please post pictures of your hammers (mallets are included here too). Which ones are your favourites? Why is that? What do you use them for?

There is wisdom in crowds, so let’s see if we can shed some light on this subject. To start it off here is my little collection.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

59 replies so far

View Don W's profile

Don W

18754 posts in 2594 days

#1 posted 06-26-2011 01:40 PM

I can really only speak in carpentry terms. 12 oz claw hammers are for extremely fine finish work. Typical finish work is done with a 16 oz. Both of these have a smooth face. 20 and 22 oz are for general purpose. I have a 20 oz estwing I use all the time. 28 and 32 oz are for framing. These will come in smooth faced or waffle faced. Waffle faced is like checkering, it keeps the head on the nail. It shouldn’t be used for work that will be seen, because it can leave a mark on the wood much easier than smooth faced. The heavier tha hammer the faster a 16 or 20 penny nails drives. It takes a pretty strong man to use a 32 oz. I used a 28 oz for framing. A friend of mine had a 32 oz, but he never used it much, it was to heavy. It would make my elbow hurt.

I like the estwing much better than the stanleys. We used to call stanley hammers “painters” hammers, just because painters used to carry them. They just don’t balance like estwings.

I’ll try to get pictures of my hammers later. Good blog. As with you, I never gave hammers much thought.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View BobTheFish's profile


361 posts in 2579 days

#2 posted 06-26-2011 02:33 PM

Well, a few hammers that I remember have different purposes: a claw end hammer is for removing nails, ball peen hammers can be used to shape metal with the ball end, and for burnishing I believe, the rubber mallet, and its predescessor, the rawhide mallet were idea for woodworking and other work where impact was needed, but surface treatments were delicate. The dead weight hammer is filled with sand, and unlike other solid hammers which had recoil (newton’s laws of motion in effect), the sand effectively deadens the recoil and give a straightforward, solid blow rather than something that might glance off to the side….

That’s pretty much all I can remember… and I may be a bit wrong.

The other thing about a hammer is it’s NOT just a stick with a weight on it. It’s a rather high impact lever. Although the head must have a little heft for the added striking force, and must be durable enough to take the impact, most hammers break in the same way that shovels do: in the handle, near the head. That’s because the impact puts some incredible tension and compression stresses on to it, and because of that, you need a really strong (yet springy enough) wood. You’ll never see a serious hammer with a pine handle for example.

Another thing is that when swinging a hammer, the best way is to do so in a looser, wrist snapping motion, rather than trying to swing it with your entire arm..

View Don W's profile

Don W

18754 posts in 2594 days

#3 posted 06-26-2011 02:40 PM

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Brit's profile


7387 posts in 2870 days

#4 posted 06-26-2011 03:54 PM

Don – thanks for sharing your experience with the rest of us. I think the heaviest claw hammer I’ve used is 26oz. I can imagine that a 32oz would take some using. It is interesting when you look at the radius of the claw on claw hammers. If you look at older claw hammers, the bend seems to be more extreme than it is in modern day hammers. I know that more bend means that you can pull the nail out further, but I’ve been in situations where I haven’t been able to angle the hammer enough to get the claw under the head (e.g. when you are working next to a vertical wall.. Some heads on claw hammers have a smaller claw on the side of the head also to help in situations like that. Thanks for posting your collection. I particularly like the little (brass?) one nestled between the two larger ball peins.

Bob – You’re first paragraph pretty much encapsulates my knowledge of hammers before I started to look into them more carefully. I also agree with you that thinking of a hammer as a high impact lever is a good description. I am sure that has a lot to do with the length of some of the handles. So you can hold the hammer in the appropriate place to achieve the right balance for the weight of the head. It isn’t always correct to hold a hammer right at the end of the handle, often 1/3rd in from the end provides the optimum balance. It also enables you to get a better ‘wrist snapping’ motion as you put it.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View WayneC's profile


13754 posts in 4124 days

#5 posted 06-26-2011 04:40 PM

I use a variety. I will look through my flickr account and see what I have photos of. I have warrenton pattern hammers, old claw hammers, rubber mallets, a plane adjusting hammer, a large mallet on my lathe for knocking stuff out of the head stock and a carving mallet.

Carving Mallet
Lignum Mallet

Extra Mallets

Plane hammer
Miter plane disassembled

Mallets on lathe

And for Al, a random photo of my dog working sheep with Trainer Nola Jones…
walk up

I will try to see if I can get some photos of my warrington and old claw hammers….

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View gfadvm's profile


14940 posts in 2717 days

#6 posted 06-27-2011 05:34 AM

Years ago I noticed my horseshoer had flattened the sides of ALL of his hammer handles [rounding hammer,driving hammer,cross pean, etc]. I asked him why and he replied that it really improved his control. I flattened one of mine, tried it, and now have flattened all of my hammers including my 8# sledge. It really did improve my control/accuracy. By the way, my farrier is a Brit as well : Isle of Mann.

-- " I'll try to be nicer, if you'll try to be smarter" gfadvm

View philip marcou's profile

philip marcou

264 posts in 2624 days

#7 posted 06-27-2011 11:28 AM

The exact nature of a hammer becomes apparent immediately after it has struck a finger tip. You want to be sure you always use the right weight, size and type for the job…...
I have a 6 ounce Chzeck made ball pein hammer I got when I was about twelve year old and this is my favourite for many things including peining stuff when making planes. Search any catalogue web site etc and you will find 4oz and 8 oz but not 6oz-why is this ?
I made a useful hammer, again for engineering purposes, using a drift punch for the handle.

View racerglen's profile


3112 posts in 2807 days

#8 posted 06-27-2011 01:13 PM

And I agree about the length of handle and where to hoild it.. My Warrington set started with a head bought for about a dollar in a junk shop, rehandled
it’s one of my favourites now..then I bought the clones sold by LV, polished heads, dark stained handles, some offshore maker..every bit as good, great ballance..then sigh, i bought the little Stanley, I think the lightest of the bunch, brand new, made in England. The head has grind marks, the casting was ouit of round on that end, not straight on the peen, and it just felt WRONG ! I put them all on the bench, and lo the little Brit’s handle was about an inch and a half longer than the others (even rehandling the old head with no reference I’d got that right) So I trimmed Lord Stanley’s misbegotten whelp to match..and it now has the right ballance. But yikes If I’d seen it in a store rather than buying mail order I don’t think it would be in my shop.

And if I spot an old one, it probably won’t.

-- Glen, B.C. Canada

View mafe's profile


11730 posts in 3116 days

#9 posted 06-28-2011 01:46 AM

That is another interesting talk here, but I haver no big thoughts, just few to share.

I have many, and even more in my tool boxes, and spread arround.
It is one of these tools where you could acually live with a few, but where the right one just makes the task a little easier.
My favorite is the one hanging next to the compass plane – why? – because I made it my self, cut it and filed it out of a steel block as a task at the pre school for constructing architects (one disipline there were the work of the smidth), it has a good size also, but with no doubt because I sweat several hours to make it and it has been with me for more than twenty years now.

I try always to find the right hammer or mallet for the right job.

This one was one of the first turnings I made, so it is a bit ugly, way too much ornament, but I added leather pads in both ends and now it is a wonderful hammer for delicate stuff.

These two American classics are also favorites, but I have as I say many types, one for each job, and weights from feather to a kilo or so.

These are also favorites, mallets, brass mallets, I made them my self, the brass together with Napoleon on his old work. The heavy one is a big bastard and I doubt it will get much use, the small for carving and the medium is exelent for the chisels.

My ohhh, do not get me started!

Best thoughts,

-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect. Democraticwoodworking.

View derosa's profile


1577 posts in 2863 days

#10 posted 06-28-2011 04:42 AM

Different materials can also have different purposes such as bronze for working around things that can explode due to spark, dropping a rusted out gas tank with a bronze hammer and drift isn’t a big deal doing it with steel could be quite exciting. Brass tools can be used for fine metal working to avoid damaging the material. If the pulling side is solid it could be a slate hammer which is used to shape the slate. There are lots of reasons for the odd varieties, the real fun can be figuring them out.

-- --Rev. Russ in NY-- A posse ad esse

View MichaelA's profile


778 posts in 2915 days

#11 posted 06-28-2011 06:09 AM

The hammer was so important to the carpenter back in its day. The claw was 16 oz. and mainly a finish carpenters hammer to be able to get into tight areas for finish nails. So the cut between the forks was designed for pulling finish nails. 16oz. to 22 oz. straight claw hammers were mainly for siding or any application for driving 8 penny nails. As you move up in weight 22oz. to 32oz. you have entered into rough framing. The reason for whether the head protruded farther from the handle depended on whether you were joisting or framing walls.The man who created the California framer style hammer was a wall framer and I used to frame with him. He took a Plumb rigging axe cut off the blade and welded Vaughn forks and filled in to blend the forks to the head. It weighed in at a little over 32oz. which any thing on a union job over 28oz. was illegal. We were always building our hammers because you could never find one in the store that the head sat a 90 degree to handle would be centered on the handle and the proper grain through out the handle with proper width if you were cracking wrist and then personnel preference of hex plus serrations. When a hammer is properly built, driving 16 pennies 8hrs. a day at one lick ea. Is a sight to see. But thats all it takes. Brit thats just barely scratching the surface in the carpentry world.

-- The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. "Helen Keller"

View Brit's profile


7387 posts in 2870 days

#12 posted 06-28-2011 11:38 AM

Thanks for sharing your experience Michael, that was really interesting.

I found some other incite into what the different hammer shapes are called and the trades they were made for, but I need access to a scanner so won’t be able to post it until I get back to UK at the end of the week.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View cloakie1's profile


204 posts in 2582 days

#13 posted 06-28-2011 12:08 PM

i have a few favs as well… 16oz claw is always with me. it’s a nice weight for use on the machines where a little tappage is required.i call it percival. then there is a large rubber headed mallet which i use for tapping stiles onto gates before pressing up. but my real favourite is called FBHwhen i really need to persuade something.they are my work ones but at home i have an old estwing that is about stuffed but i just can’t bare to get rid of glances off pretty much every nail cos the head has rounded but i still like to use it. my grandfather used to have a hamer that had a leather handle on it but in the head it had a t-shaped slot with ballbearing in it.i never knew what the purpose of it was very heavy,probably 26oz or more,had quite a curve on the claw and the head had a distinct taper on idea of it’s age but reading other posts i’m guessing it was a framing hammer.any ideas?

-- just get stuck in and have a go!!!

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4188 days

#14 posted 06-28-2011 01:14 PM

very interesting…

here is my favourite.
Don’t know what it was used for or when it was last used. It came from the barn at my great-grandfather’s.

I, also, used to have a little mini sledge hammer (not sure what it is called) but I used it a lot in the gardens, hammering in posts. It was used somewhere and never made it back to the house. I miss it: heavy enough to do a great job but light enough for me to use.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View racerglen's profile


3112 posts in 2807 days

#15 posted 06-28-2011 01:30 PM

Debbie.. I’m thinking a “club” hammer. Had one myself until the same thing happened, great tool.
Looked just like a sledge hammer, but only a pound or two on the head and a
handle about 8 or so inches long ?

-- Glen, B.C. Canada

showing 1 through 15 of 59 replies

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