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Geological hammers – a guide

A good hammer is often considered the essential geologist's tool. They are certainly invaluable in the hunt for fossils.

Getting the right hammer is a matter of great importance. But there's a vast range of models out there – how does one decide between them?

This page attempts to address some common questions. If you have any other queries, please contact us using the box on the right!

Background

There is a huge variety of geologist's hammers out there, of all shapes and sizes. The one thing they have in common is the construction of their head from hardened steel. This is less brittle, so less likely to fracture; there is also less chance of shards of metal flying from the hammer and causing injury. Beyond that, hammer selection is largely a matter of personal preference.

Which hammer is right for you?

Before you splash out, it's worth spending a little time thinking about the most suitable hammer for your intended use. There are a number of factors to consider; it's usually a case of working out the optimal trade-off between those you will find most important.

Broadly speaking, hammers fall into three broad categories.

Generalist

16oz tubular shaft hammer
14.99
16oz tubular shaft hammer
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A "middle of the road" hammer is often the most sensible choice. Unless you are intending to do quite specific work, it is simpler to take one general hammer than a bagful for every possible occasion!

Perhaps the most important thing to look for in a hammer is that it is comfortable to use. A number of factors come into play here: the most obvious is the weight of the hammer.

The important weight to consider is that of the head, and it is this that is ususally quoted. This weight controls the force which can be transferred with each blow of the hammer – the heavier the head, the firmer a blow can be struck.

On the flip side, of course, is that a heavier hammer is more tiring to use – especially after a long day in the field!

24oz wooden shaft hammer
17.99
24oz wooden shaft hammer
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Most people are happy with a 16 oz head, and we would suggest that this weight is probably suitable for children from 14 years upwards. (That said, younger children always enjoy having a larger tool than is strictly suitable!) We tend to find a 20 oz head most efficient for prolongued use; a 24 oz head can be useful for heavy work, but anything heavier than this is rarely worth the extra bulk.

Another consideration is the balance of the hammer. The distribution of weight between the head and shaft greatly affects how the tool handles. The balance of a hammer is very hard to quantify, and the optimal weighting is unique to each individual person. We've seen some truly dreadful models out there!

Only through using a hammer extensively can you get a feel for its balance. We've tested a wide range of hammers during the course of our extensive field excursions, and stock only the models we have found a joy to use.

Heavy duty

20oz solid forged hammer
24.95
20oz solid forged hammer
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Another major factor which discriminates between hammers is the construction of the shaft.

The shaft of cheaper hammers is typically composed of hollow steel or fibreglass. Wooden handles are also still common; these may seem archaic but since the wood absorbs some of the impact, they can be more comfortable to use. Wooden, tubular and fibreglass shafts often make for a light, easy to carry hammer – but this is not always an advantage.

Fibreglass shafts, for example, are incredibly light. This means that the mass of the hammer ends up concentrated in the head. Because of this, we have never found one which is comfortable to use. Further, anything constructed in two parts will eventually, inevitably, disarticulate. My two-part tubular shaft hammer may well still be going strong after four years of abuse, but a solid forged hammer is truly indestructable!

Compact

Small chipping hammer
9.99
Small chipping hammer
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The smaller hammer is often overlooked. However, it has a number of advantages over a larger model. Aside from being easier to carry and less energetic to use, it is often a more appropriate tool for a responsible geologist. Granted, a small hammer is not ideal for breaking lumps of rock in two – but that's where a good chisel comes in.

A small hammer is ideal for students who merely need to obtain a fresh surface to assess the character of a rock. It can also be used to good effect on softer fossiliferous strata, and is a sensible size for younger children. As a light hammer is not used for bludgeoning, there is little advantage to having a blunt end. Therefore, a pick- and chisel-end are employed on the most useful hammers, to enable precise work.

This is a convenient point to mention the differences in ends of hammers. The conventional hammer has a standard, solid end, used to deliver a firm blow to a specimen; the other end is in the form of a chisel. This end makes it easy to collect small chips of rock and expose a fresh surface. It also comes in handy for removing vegetation from outcrops, and splitting very fissile shales (although damage to the hammer may result if it is used for prying – a pry bar should be used instead). Other hammers instead have a "pick" end, terminating in a sharp point. Aside from being slightly more dangerous, this form of end is occasionally advantageous when splitting very hard (i.e. igneous / high grade metamorphic) rocks. We've never found pick-ended hammers much use, though – a narrow chisel does everything a pick end does, and is often easier to use.

A smaller hammer is a valuable tool for a geologist concerned about causing the least damage possible to their environment, and is also a more suitable weight for younger children, providing a safer introduction to geology.

A cheeky plug

Hammer holder
4.49
Hammer holder
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If you'll excuse us a little shameless plugging, we thought it worth mentioning one of our favourite products here: our hammer holder. It's always a problem working out what to do with a hammer between localities, and this little gizmo is the solution!

It threads onto your belt, and keeps your hammer easily accessible and ready to use at any time. We think they're amazing! We hope you'll find them useful too.

See also