Are Hammer Heads Hardened?

Do you know the reasoning behind and process of hardening a hammer head?

Manufacturers harden a hammer head for strength and durability via tempering processes. In this article, we’ll talk about how a hammer comes to be, how to safely use it, and what the best hammers have in common. By the end of these few thousand words, you’ll be a hammer aficionado!

Before we begin talking about hammer specifics, let’s first create a foundation. We’ll review the parts of a hammer and their intended purpose. Then we’ll review how to make a hammer head and best practices when implementing such a tool. Finally, we’ll discuss what you should look for in a hammer, no matter which store you visit.

Name that Part: Hammer Anatomy

Describing a hammer in layman’s terms, you’ve got a head and a handle. Really, there’s a lot more thought—and parts—that goes into this seemingly simple tool.

Hammer Head

The first and most important piece we’ll discuss is the head of the hammer, which includes the face, poll/bell, neck, cheek, claw, and adze eye. The face of the hammer strikes the intended object (hint: not a body part). Most hammers have a flat face, while some hammer faces are waffled. Waffle-faced hammers are used by framers because the increased surface area digs into the nail head and drives it home true. Many hammers now feature a nail starter, which is a hole near the top of the hammer head that is often magnetic.

Stretching back from the face of the hammer is the bell or poll. Most people overlook this part of the hammer, considering it simply part of the face. However, the shape of the bell/poll and the taper of the hammer’s neck are key. “If your hammer didn’t have a tapered neck,” note the experts at ToughAssTools, “the bell and face would have a smaller surface area which would in turn make it more difficult to strike your nails.”

Hammer cheeks are probably the easiest to spot. They form the broad sides of the hammer head that are often great for picking the hammer itself up with. Almost as well-known as the face, the hammer claw performs the exact opposite function. What the hammer face drives in, the hammer claw pulls out.

Knowing what an adze eye is will surely earn you some brownie points. The adze eye is a hole in the hammer’s head into which the handle fits. While it might not seem like that notable of a part, the adze eye is responsible for keeping the handle and the head together. A solid union is of utmost importance.

Handling your Hammer

It’s important to know that hammers are classified not only by the weight of their head but by the length of their handle as well. Wood, steel, or a composite material comprises most handles. Each has their own pros and cons, including shape, grip, and ability to absorb vibrations, to name a few. We’ll talk more about hammer handles characteristics later, but a handle is a crucial part of the entire hammer.

Hammers vs. Mallets 

One of the biggest misconceptions states that anything with a handle and a head constitutes a hammer, in any situation. This is not always true. Manufacturers create many types of hammers for very specific purposes.

We think of hammers and imagine driving nails into wood. In fact, there are many other uses for these devices. Understand one thing: a mallet is not to be confused with a hammer. Mallets are the soft punch you want to give an object that firmly puts it in its place, causing little to no surface damage. Hand carvers use mallets with certain carving tools to control the cuts they make. Hammers, on the other hand,  exert a force upon an object with little or no regard for marring the surface.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of hammers out there. How many can you name?

Types of Hammers and Their Uses

Most people think of a hammer as having a face, a claw, and a handle. The common claw hammer was actually invented by David Maydole in 1840. The blacksmith’s design created such high demand that he had to start a factory to keep up. This is the origin of the typical hammers we see in stores today.

There are also framing hammers, which have a straight claw to pull boards apart. The ball-peen hammer has the same face of a claw hammer, just with a ball on the other end. A lot of people aren’t sure how to use the ball of the hammer. It’s best used for peening over steel rivets. The ball is small enough to reach into tight spaces and spread metal to shape it to the desired effect.

You might also be familiar with the tack hammer used for upholstery. Sledge hammers are a well-known tool, but do you know what an electrician’s hammer looks like? If you’ve never seen one, look up a picture. The neck of the hammer extends to compensate for the recesses into which electrical fixtures are housed.

Curious to learn more? Check out welder’s hammers and engineer’s hammers, or better yet, do a quick Google search. How many hammer types did you find?

Assembling a Hammer 

The majority of hammer heads available for wholesale are steel. Some, however, can be made from titanium, which is lighter and packs a harder punch. To create a strong hammer, begin with high-carbon steel. This steel is then heated to 2,200-2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. A heat treatment, or hardening process, rapidly cools the incredibly-hot metal, only to increase the steel’s internal temperature once again, multiple times.

Some manufacturers use a double heating method to increase hardness. The head is first heated to about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit and then quenched, or dunked, in water. After polishing, a red-hot steel rod enters into the adze eye until the smaller end of the hammer head begins to glow a yellow brown, at about 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the same color has appeared in the other end of the hammer head, the quenching process begins again.

This process of tempering and hardening the hammer head is crucial to producing a hammer that will last well beyond the use most customers will get out of it. The hammer head will strike a number of objects, often at a high rate of speed, so a strong, uniform surface prevents chipping or cracking. Hammer heads cannot be brittle. They must not budge when they meet whatever it is they are striking. 

Safe Behavior When Using a Hammer 

Beyond reducing—ideally, eliminating—the amount of tiny, sharp metal shrapnel produced by a hammer head during use, hardening also creates a safe work environment for using the hammer properly.

Using the hammer properly and safely means striking an object with the face of the hammer only. This, however, does not mean you should strike another hammer. The hardening process that creates the durable steel head strengthens the metal for sure, but it does not mean it will stand up to a head that is heavier and/or larger. If you want to understand what metals does when driven against another metal by a vectored force, picture a car crash. Albeit on a smaller scale, the same chaos can emerge.

There are a number of videos and horror stories about the misguided actions of those not familiar with proper and safe tool use. The weakest parts of the hammer are the cheek and handle. While the cheek is the broadest point of the head, it contains the hollow cavity that is the adze eye. Unless the handle is part and parcel of the head as well, it can easily break from vibration, tension, and misuse.

Simply put: “don’t hit something with the hammer that it’s not designed to hit.

What Makes a Good Hammer

Choosing the proper hammer for the job is all about applying everything you’ve just learned. It’s important to consider the hammer head and handle, as well as the types of jobs you’ll need the hammer for. Of course, your budget will most likely have the final say in your purchase.

A Hammer that Fits your Hand

We talked about how hammers are measured by head weight and handle length. Did you know hammer heads are typically 16-20 ounces? If you’re hammering around your home, a 16-ounce hammer will serve you faithfully. Heavier hammers tackle bigger jobs that require more force. However, don’t assume you need a heavier hammer.

A good hammer begins with staying balanced in your hand. This means that you’re able to swing the weight of the hammer comfortably, but it also requires that you can hold onto the hammer even when you’re sweating. Therefore, hammer handles are just as important as the head itself.

Most hammer handles range from 12 to 18 inches. If you’ve ever worked with tools, you’ll soon realize that the more leverage you have over a part, the easier it is to operate. They don’t make tire irons and breaker bars bigger just for looks. There’s important science behind it all. When we translate this to hammer handles, it means that the longer handle you have, the easier it is to direct a large amount of force onto whatever you’re hammering.

At the same time, a longer handle—like a heavier head—isn’t the one-size-fits-all answer. Go to the nearest hardware store and try out a few hammers and find the one that best fits you. Tools are only effective and efficient when they fit your hands. If you don’t like the selection offered, simply pick the hammer you like best. Figure out how much the head weighs and how long the handle is. Then, take these measurements with you and plug them in online. You’ll be in hammer heaven!

Vibrations Are Not Good

Depending on the type of material, the hammer handle will either absorb most of the shock of the impact or transmit it directly through your arm into your body. It goes without saying that the less shock you receive, the better.

Wooden handles are cheap, but notorious for doing little to absorb shock. Formed on lathes, they are often comprised of hickory or straight-grained ash. Hammers with wooden handles are lighter but it is this very same trait that prevents them from absorbing shock waves. The little material that is there is unable to make much of a difference in the scheme of things. In fact, FamilyHandyman.com recommends a non-wood handle as one of the 3 traits of the best hammer.

Fiberglass handles are a step up in shock absorption. Though they’re more durable than wood, they’re on par with one-piece hammers in terms of stopping shock waves from reaching your body. With one-piece hammers, you won’t have as much weakness near the cheek and adze eye area. However, a change in material often means shock waves lessen, even just by a bit.

Composite material handles are the best to purchase but even handles that are curved and have a surface you can grip will outperform wood and fiberglass handles. Grips ensure you control the hammer and your strike. A curved handle allows the hammer to better fit into the shape of your hand and reduces the amount of fatigue you’ll experience as you hammer away. There are even hatchet-style handles which are curved and feature a hooked end that prevents sweaty hands from slipping off the handle itself.

Personal Preference

As with all tools, personal preference is a key factor in your purchase decision. If you show loyalty to a particular brand, check out what they’ve got to offer. Like taking advantage of sales? Perhaps that’s the best time to pick up a new hammer. If you’re not sure what type of hammer to get or which one to choose, ask your friends and family. What hammers have they purchased and what advice can they give you?

In the end, the perfect hammer for you is the one that allows you to successfully and easily work with your hands. Technology certainly aids us in getting the job done, but some tasks require only a hammer and a pair of hands. So go on, get out there and start hammering away!

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