Rules of thumb for hammers Which you purchase depends on what jobs you plan to do


November 17, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

FOR THOSE OF YOU bereft by the end of the recent (yawn) political campaigns, we offer a little post-election poll -- purely nonpolitical, of course.

The questions are about hammers: What kind do you have and where do you keep it? Is it the right tool for the jobs you perform?

If you have three different kinds of hammers hanging on a peg board above your workbench, each one outlined so you know exactly where it goes, and all the rest of your tools are hung by size, with outlines, you probably already know everything you need to know about hammers.

You readers can go put your CD collections in alphabetical order.

The rest of us can rummage through the junk drawer, past the warranties for the toaster, bread machine and yogurt maker, to see if we can find the household hammer.

When you locate it, you are probably going to find that it is a 16-ounce finish (or finishing) hammer with a smooth face and a curved claw for pulling out nails. (Lighter, cheaper hammers weigh less, 12 or 13 ounces, but they're useful only for simple household tasks such as hanging pictures.)

Hammers are distinguished by their weight, by the character of the "face," or striking surface, by the configuration of the claw, and by the length and balance of the handle.

A hammer may seem like a simple device, but some are actually fairly specialized and sophisticated, such as ball-peen hammers for working with metal, and masonry hammers that have a blade for cutting brick. There also are mauls for demolition and rubber-faced hammers for tapping furniture joints into place.

However, we're going to concentrate on hammers designed to drive nails.

The heavier the hammer and the longer the handle, the more force it exerts when it hits the head of the nail. Those common finish hammers are good all-around nailing devices.

But if you are going to be spending a lot of time with the hammer in your hand, such as while framing a house, you'll need a more specialized tool.

Straight-claw framing hammers are the Big Dogs of the tool belt. They start at 20 ounces and go up to about 24 ounces. A framing hammer usually has a longer handle, about 16 inches, compared with 13 for a finish hammer, and has a waffle design on the nailing face, designed to help it grip the nail better.

If you're going to be driving 3-inch framing nails all day on a project, you might try Randy's current type, a 24-ounce framing hammer with a 16-inch wooden handle. The wooden handle is more comfortable than steel because it creates less vibration in your hand and arm.

Fiberglass handles bounce when the hammer hits the nail, transmitting more vibration to your arm, but are less numbing than the steel-handled type and more so than the wood-handled.

There are also California framing hammers, which have weight-forward balance and a wider face that is mounted so it is a little closer to the handle.

Hammer selection tends to be a personal thing, so shop at a place that has a lot of hammers, and heft them until you get one that feels right. If you've always used a light finish hammer, it may take a while to find a framing hammer that's comfortable.

Randy prefers hammers where the weight is balanced between the head and the handle. He also likes the longer handle because, when you frame wall sections, a lot of the nailing is done at your feet and the extra inches in the handle provide more reach and less stress on your back.

The straight claw doesn't pull nails as well as the curved one -- you'll need something else for that task, such as a "cat's paw" nail puller -- but you can sink it into a beam and move the beam around without having to stoop over and pick it up. You can also use the claw like an ice ax to stop an unplanned slide down a roof.

Once you know which hammer to use, it's not too hard to put it into action.

If you find yourself consistently striking out and "kissing a thumb," you might want to try a hammer with a shorter handle. It's sort of like choking up on a baseball bat: You get greater accuracy, though at the sacrifice of power.

Randy's son Chris used to practice when he was 3 years old, nailing scrap blocks to the unfinished wood floor of a Baltimore rowhouse. He grew up to be a natural with a hammer. If you're starting out a little later than that, some practice in the back yard before you start framing might be worthwhile.

Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at, or write to us c/o HOMEWORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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