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Choosing the Best Hammer

What you need to know to nail down a great new hammer purchase

FH14JUN_HAMERS_01-2Family Handyman

Can't decide on the best hammer for you? We compared balance, strength and features of classic and modern hammers. See which ones our Editors preferred.

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Every-day hammers

A good hammer is like a best friend. Always by your side, always true, always dependable. If you’ve been trying to get by with a cheap hammer or Grandpa’s old war club to sink and pull nails or beat framing into alignment, you owe yourself a trip to the home center or hardware store. You’ll never believe how much difference a quality hammer can make.

We’re covering general-purpose hammers in this article. Not big, long hammers for framing carpenters, or little precision hammers for woodworkers. Not brick hammers or sledgehammers. Just regular, all-purpose hammers that will serve most DIYers (and many carpenters) for 99 percent of their work.

For a simple tool that pounds in nails, hammers have a surprising variety of features. That explains the wide array of hammer preferences among DIYers and professionals, and the many passionate opinions.

Every editor here at The Family Handyman has personal favorites too, but before you buy, it’s important for you to try out a bunch of hammers and pick the one that feels best to you. You can choose from traditional types, which have been around for decades, and innovative modern designs.

Whether you go traditional or modern, we recommend three design features:

  • a medium weight
  • a rip claw and
  • a non-wood handle.

Classic style

Traditional-type hammers

Pay close attention to these features when you’re evaluating a hammer.

These are time-tested, proven designs, in a variety of weights and handle materials. Shown here is a Vaughan 20-oz. with fiberglass handle.

Head weight
Classic hammers are designated by head weight: 16 to 20 oz. is good for DIY use, with 16 oz. good for trim and shop use, 20 oz. better for framing and demo.

Smooth face
For DIYers and general pro use, smooth face is best because it won’t mar surfaces. Some framing carpenters prefer a “milled face” hammer because it doesn’t slip off nail heads as readily.

For general DIY and remodeling use, the best hammers are steel or fiberglass. Wood handles break, and the grip is more slippery. They’re fine for the shop or trim work but less useful on a general-purpose hammer. Other things being equal, fiberglass handles are lighter; steel handles are more durable. Wood and fiberglass transmit less vibration to the user, though for many people (including us), vibration isn’t a problem.

Rip claw
We prefer straight rip claw hammers for general use.

Modern style

Redesigned modern hammers

In more modern hammers, every feature of the classic hammer design has been changed or tweaked.

These hammers have new features that give you a different, and possibly better, feel and performance. Shown here is a Stanley 20-oz. with steel handle.

Nail starter
This feature is typically a groove and magnet that hold a nail so you can get it started high above your head with only one hand.

Wide face
Common sense would say that you’d miss fewer nails, right? But in our experience, the difference is slight.

Hatchet-style handle
Classic handles are straight, with a symmetrical bulge at the end. Some modern hammers have a curved handle and a hooked end—a combination that feels more balanced to some users.

Anti-vibration design
Some people find that steel-handled hammers make their elbows sore after long periods of hammering. With that in mind, some designs claim to dramatically reduce vibration.

Head weight
Some modern-style hammers have head weights similar to a classic hammer. Others have a lighter head and a longer handle, which can give high striking force with less overall weight.

Features we like

Rip vs. curved claw

Often you’ll find the same hammer with either a rip claw or a curved claw. Some people believe that a curved claw makes pulling nails easier. We don’t see it. We prefer a rip claw for general use.

A rip claw is a multi-tool

Sure, a rip claw can pull nails, but it’s also useful for prying, splitting, demolition and even digging. We use it as a pry bar constantly.

Nail starter

This may seem like a gimmick, but it works. You can hold on to a ladder, start the nail above your head, then hammer it in. You won’t use this feature often, but some people swear by it.

The overall weight matters

There’s a lot of variety in the overall weight of hammers. If you carry a hammer all day or are physically small, lighter weight is good. In our experience, a lighter hammer with a longer handle can have the same striking power as a shorter, heavier hammer.

After testing all the hammers shown in this article, these features stood out as the most important for a general-purpose hammer.

Classic hammers

Widely available classic hammers

A. Plumb 16-oz. fiberglass. $10. China.

B. Vaughan 20-oz. steel. $26. U.S.A.

C. Estwing 16-oz. steel. $23. U.S.A.

D. Stanley 20-oz. fiberglass. $10. China.

E. Husky 20-oz. steel. $19. Taiwan.

F. Craftsman 16-oz. fiberglass. $19. U.S.A.

If you prefer a straightforward traditional design, you’ll find many hammers to choose from. Our recommendations: a non-wood handle, a 16- to 20-oz. head and a rip claw. The big differences among them will be exact head weight, handle material (steel or fiberglass), price and country of manufacture. You’ll also find subtle differences in grip, handle length and balance. There are more hammers in this category than we had room to show, but this is a good selection.

We can’t really pick a favorite in this group. We have used and loved classic hammers for years, and we own dozens of them. However, choosing one is a matter of personal preference.

Modern-style hammers

DeWalt MIG Weld 12 or 14 oz.

A unique design of welded steel, with a long handle for a general-purpose hammer, nail starter and moderately large face. Moderate handle hook. Made in Mexico, $41 to $50.

Pros: One of the lightest hammers we tested, but the longer handle gives it plenty of power. Good balance.

Cons: Claw is not as straight as many other rip claws. Higher cost.

Estwing Ultra Hammer 15 oz.

One-piece steel, nail starter, rip claw, straight handle. Has a sideways nail puller, unique in this group, that allows more leverage when pulling a tough nail. Made in the U.S.A. $35.

Pros: Side nail puller and overall balance.

Cons: Heavier weight than some 20-oz. steelhandled hammers.

Kobalt 20 oz.

One-piece steel, nail starter, moderately large face. Curved handle and strong handle hook. Made in China.

Pros: Straight, sharp claw. Good balance. Less than $20.

Cons: None.

Stanley FatMax Extreme 20 oz.

One-piece steel, very large face, nail starter. Anti-vibration design. Curved handle and strong handle hook. Very heavy-duty. Made in Mexico.

Pros: Straight claw. Very solid feel. About $21.

Cons: Heaviest hammer in our test; the balance was head-heavy.

Bostitch 20 oz.

One-piece steel, moderately large face. Anti-vibration design. Curved handle, strong handle hook. Made in Mexico.

Pros: Good balance. Less than $19.

Cons: No nail starter; claw not as straight as many.

This group has interesting innovative features that are worth a try. Some, like the nail starter, seem useful, even if you use it only once or twice. Others, like curved handles and big striking faces, may or may not feel good to you.

The modern-style hammers we tested all have solid steel construction. Compared with classic hammers, however, you may find the balance very different. A couple of hammers in this group have a lighter head and shaft; others have heavier heads. So it’s particularly important to try before you buy. Our favorite hammers are the ones with the features and balance we like best for general use. But choosing a hammer is very subjective, so try them all out and choose the one you like. They’re all high-quality hammers.