The Best Hammer
After testing 11 hammers and getting the opinions of two working carpenters and a former editor at This Old House and Popular Mechanics, we recommend the Estwing E3-16C, a 16-ounce, curved claw, steel-handled hammer for general around-the-house hammer needs.
It’s not burdened with a funky grip or any unnecessary features. It’s a pure and basic hammer and it provides everything you need: a comfortable place to put your hand, easy nail pulling, and great balance. It’s also indestructible because it’s made of a single piece of steel from tip to tail. The Estwing also costs a little more than $20—a small investment for something with a proven record of lifetime durability.
A hammer is a versatile tool to have around the house. It can be used for small indoor tasks like tapping in picture hangers or more aggressive projects like replacing a piece of rotted window trim or building shelves in the garage. Hammers are one of the primary tools for building, fixing, and demolition, so if you’re going to have a small toolbox kicking around the house, a hammer should be one of the first items in it (and don’t forget our recommendations for a multi-bit screwdriver and tape measure).
Why you should trust me
How we picked
Hammers, like most hand tools, are not a commonly reviewed item. There is some coverage online, but it’s mostly solo reviews of the big, hefty hammers used by professional house framers. For my research, I relied on what few general articles I could find, like one from BobVila.com (Bob Vila is the former host of This Old House’s TV series) and one from This Old House. I also spoke with Harry Sawyers—a former editor at This Old House and Popular Mechanics, Wirecutter/Sweethome contributor, and the author of another This Old House piece on hammers. In addition, I interviewed two high-end carpenters with a combined total of 25 years of jobsite experience. Added to that is my own decade of hands-on, hammer-swinging knowledge.
In the end, I determined that for around-the-house use, your best bet is to go with a 16-ounce, curved claw, metal-handled hammer. It provides unmatched durability, easy nail pulling, and a weight and size that can switch from dainty taps to more heavy-duty garage-style projects. Anything bigger is going to be awkward for picture hangers and little finish nails. Anything smaller will struggle with larger nails and bigger projects like raised beds, a garage workbench, or a deck repair.
Once we narrowed the criteria, I checked all of the major retailers and hand tool and hammer manufacturers. Among those were Amazon, Home Depot, Lowes, Grainger, Northern Tool, Douglas Hammers, Dalluge Hammers, Estwing, Stanley/Bostitch, Dead-On, Craftsman, Stiletto, and Vaughan.
I ended up testing 11 hammers. They were the Bostitch 51-854 AntiVibe ($20), Plumb SS16CN ($19), Sheffield 58551 ($25), Craftsman 9-38127 ($20), Wellforce 91516 ($45), Master Mechanic 704264 ($15), Vaughan R16 ($25), and the Estwing E3-16C ($21), as well as three generations of Stanley hammers; Stanley 51-941 AntiVibe (first generation, $18), Stanley FatMax Extreme 51-162 (second generation, $20), and the newly released Stanley FatMax FMHT51249 (third generation, $35).
During testing I spent hours pounding, pulling, bending, and prying nail after nail after nail. I hit everything, from large 3 ¼-inch 16d framing spikes to needle-thin picture hanger nails. Most of the hammers had one or more features that were off-putting, like an awkward, over-sized striking face or an uncomfortable handle. But there was a lone hammer that satisfied every requirement and stood above the pack with regards to handling, feel, reputation, and overall bad-assery.
The Estwing’s grip is another highlight. It is made of nylon vinyl, which feels like a dense rubber. It is comfortable to hold and the very, very slight ‘squish’ to it adds confidence to the grip. There is a nice little flare at the base of the handle and the grip area has a good tack to it, so the hammer won’t easily slip out of the hands during a hefty swing.
According to Estwing, theirs is “the best available grip for reducing vibrations caused by impact.” During testing, I didn’t feel any real difference between the hammers with regard to vibration, but my own extended use (10 years) of an Estwing hammer has proven to me that negative effects from vibration are not an issue with their hammers.
The thin neck has a slight diamond shape to it and the tool has a simple and classic design. Aesthetics don’t have much to do with our criteria, but the Estwing does have an elegant look compared to the rest.
As far the actual hammering goes, the Estwing’s standard-sized striking face (one-inch diameter) allows for a nice line of sight when hitting a small picture hanger nail or brad, while still packing enough heft to handle a framing spike in a manageable number of swings. This was a difficult task for the tools with over-sized striking faces like the Bostitch and the second generation Stanley.
The Estwing pulled nails with no problems, as did the rest of the hammers. This was the one area where the tools were basically all in the same ballpark. Only the first generation Stanley distinguished itself here due to the extremely steep curve of its claw, which adds a little leverage to the pull.
While it’s not really possible to test for long-term durability, I know that Estwing makes reliable, long-lasting tools from personal experience. For the past 10 years of construction work, I’ve used a metal-handled Estwing as my primary hammer (20-ounce, straight claw) and after years and years of daily aggressive use, the tool shows no signs of major wear. The milled edges aren’t as crisp as they used to be, and it has taken on a very weathered patina, but functionally the hammer displays no signs of failure.
But don’t just take my word for it. Both carpenters that we interviewed use Estwing hammers on a daily basis.
Mark Piersma, who has 12 years of construction experience and currently works for Thoughtforms Corporation, a custom home builder located in Massachusetts, has a 16-ounce Estwing that “is pretty much my go-to hammer for everything.” Piersma likes it “because it is just plain solid.” He went on with specifics: “I think one of the best features is that it is well balanced. I really get the feel that it is one unit and not just a heavy head on a handle that I’m swinging around like a sledge hammer. Plus, I’m not going to get splinters from the end. The grip is great and I like that the striking face isn’t obscenely huge.”
Mike Lancelotta, a high-end finish carpenter and remodeler with 13 years of construction experience, says that “when I first started doing construction, I noticed that all the older carpenters all had Estwings. And I noticed that some of them must have had them for over 30 years or so, because the blue rubber handles were so worn. They obviously liked them if they kept them around that long…It’s just a good all-around hammer”
“This is a durable hammer you will have for the rest of your life.” – Edward Grey
“The curved claw hammer is the best hammer ever. Very good grip on the handle.” – Rune Svendsen
“The most balanced hammer I have ever held.” – Kelly Petrie
“My framing hammer is an Estwing….my general shop hammer is an Estwing….and now my furniture hammer is an Estwing. These hammers don’t break or EVER fail.” – R. Dunaway
“All metal construction, sufficient mass, and quality craftsmanship combine in an exceptional all-purpose hammer.” – B. R. Kmack
“The handle is sturdy and solid, molded with a nylon/rubber synthetic that is permanently bound to the steel handle inside – will not slide or come apart.” – Czar Matt
“Great american product that will last longer than I will. Buy it and have no regrets.” – Arthur Pollock
“Unarguably the best hammer around.” – David Masters
And on and on and on.
Estwing also sells a series of metal-handled hammers that have a wound leather grip instead of the nylon-vinyl. In all other regards, it’s the same tool, but slightly more expensive. The leather handles certainly have a nicer overall look to them, but they offer less padding, and the leather grip has a coating on it so there’s no natural tack to it. I have an Estwing hatchet with this style of grip and after years of working over the kindling pile, the hatchet part is perfectly intact, but the coating has become cracked and is starting to chip off a little. Still, if you’re willing to accept that for the more aesthetic look of the leather-handled hammer and you don’t mind spending a few more dollars, we recommend the Estwing E16C ($33)
The bottom line is that the Estwing doesn’t try to outthink itself with its tool design. It looks and acts like a hammer. Pure and simple. It’s very basic with no flair, but also no missteps. And it is seen among professionals as a solid and reliable pick for its balance, quality, and durability.
A smaller option
It was the preferred hammer of the group of five female testers (all in their mid-to-late 30s) who looked at both the 16-ounce and the 12-ounce. Four out of five chose the smaller model. One summed up her thoughts by saying, “The bigger one wasn’t as heavy as I thought, but I like the little one because I feel like I have more control over it. I wouldn’t be doing anything crazy with it, just small stuff around the house, so I like that one.”
Using the smaller hammer for more aggressive use, you’re basically swapping the heaviness of the tool for time spent swinging a hammer. With the 16-ounce, it takes me, on average, four swings to bury a 16d framing nail (3-½-inches long), but with the 12-ounce, it’s at least five swings and I’m working much harder to do it. With a longer framing hammer, it can be done in two. Also, with the smaller hammer, your knuckles are much closer to what you’re hitting, so an overstrike or any kind of miss is more likely to put your hand as risk.
The top of the plug is exposed bare wood, so moisture could presumably swell and shrink it at some point down the road. But plug or no, this is a nice, quality hammer in the same price range as the Estwing.
A straight claw option
For aggressive tasks like pulling up a floor, removing trim, or prying two-by-fours apart, a straight claw hammer is invaluable. Because the claw sticks almost straight out of the back of the head (as opposed to curving downward), the tool can be used like a hatchet or a mini pickaxe. A well-placed swing can bury the claw between two boards and a twist of the handle pulls them apart. The design also makes for a better pry bar, if you’re doing something like trying to lift up a corner of the fridge to adjust a leg. Estwing’s E3-16S ($21) is the straight claw version of our recommended hammer.
A straight claw step up
Stanley 51-941 AntiVibe ($20) – The main problem with this hammer is that it’s being discontinued. It’s the first generation of Stanley antivibe and it’s a very nice tool, primarily due to the comfortable handle and steep curve of the nail pulling claws. When I asked Sawyers if there was a hammer he would recommend, he said the Stanley because it was “the most fun to use, the coolest looking, the best feeling, and the easiest to swing.” Unfortunately, as I was wrapping up my research, I discovered that it’s not going to be around for much longer. R.I.P.
Stanley Fat Max Extreme 51-162 AntiVibe ($27) and Bostitch 51-854 AntiVibe ($20) – These, the second generation of Stanley AntiVibe hammers, are identical (Amazon’s image of the Fat Max is incorrect). Unfortunately, they have enlarged striking faces, which I found made it difficult to perform tasks that required high levels of precision with small fasteners, like installing picture hangers. The bloated head just takes up too much of the sight line when compared to the hammers with smaller striking faces.
Plumb ($17) – This hammer has a curved hatchet-style handle that will keep this tool in your hands when you’re taking a baseball swing at a framing nail, but it’s awkward to hold for smaller tasks. Beyond that, the Plumb emits a high-pitched ringing noise when it strikes a nail. It sounds like someone continually hitting a tuning fork. The noise takes irritation to a new level and makes this a hammer to avoid at all costs.
Sheffield ($25) – This is an example of an overdone grip area (for some reason it’s not the one pictured at Amazon). The handle of the Sheffield has finger grooves shaped into the rubber. This doesn’t account for different sized hands or the occasional need to shift your hand up or down the handle (most people choke up on the hammer head for delicate hits). When using this hammer, I was constantly aware of the ridges against my fingers and that’s really the last thing you want on your mind while you’re concentrating on hitting a nail and not your thumb.
Master Mechanic ($15) – This heavy and poorly balanced hammer is marred by a fat, clunky handle with some cheap-looking plastic at the top and bottom. The milling of the steel is also rough in areas. There’s nothing about this tool that screams quality.
WellForce ($45) – This was the most expensive hammer tested and it was also the lightest at one pound, 9 ⅜ ounces. The vibration-dampening handle has a series of holes molded into it that make it uncomfortable to hold. I really felt no vibration difference between this tool and the far more comfortable Estwing.
Craftsman ($16) – The overall design of the Craftsman is nearly identical to the Vaughan, but it’s simply not as good of a hammer. At one pound, 15 ⅝ ounces, this was the heaviest hammer we tested—and it felt like it. The Craftsman also has an interesting feature in an additional nail puller: At the end of one of the claws is a small “V” cutaway meant for tiny nails. It’s a good idea, but I didn’t find it to be useful because the depth of the V is so great that it’s hard to hook a nail head. The Craftsman is also less polished than the Vaughan. Where the Vaughan has nice crisp edges, the Craftsman has dull rounded ones.
Snap-On Claw Hammer ($47) – I chose not to test this one for a couple reasons. At nearly $50, it’s not cheap and I can’t imagine that any steel hammer is going to offer an experience that is $30 better than the Estwing. From the looks and description of it, the Snap-On is too similar to both the Estwing and the Vaughn to warrant the high price. According to the Snap-On website, the hammer also has an “over-sized striking surface” which is a hindrance for general home use. There is also the fact that Snap-On tools are hard to come by: they’re available at Snapon.com, but because the company specializes in extremely high-end mechanics’ tools, you’ll never see them at your local hardware store or one of the big box giants. The Estwing, on the other hand, is easily available both online and in stores.
It’s worth noting that nearly all of the hammers that we tested arrived with a light protective coating, as if a thin film of polyurethane was applied to them as they left the factory. After a few days of hard use, the coatings all started showing scratches and chips. Over time this coating will wear off and the hammers will develop a nice used patina, like my old Estwing. There is nothing wrong with the hammer, it’s just part of the breaking-in process.
What makes a good hammer?
Whether you’re going for our pick or another choice, there are certain qualities to look for in a high-quality, long-lasting hammer.
Hammers are available with three different types of handle: metal, wood, or composite (fiberglass or graphite).
The main criticism of metal handles is that they have very little shock absorption, so the impact of the strike is transferred back to the arm. It’s true that wood, fiberglass, and graphite have more of a natural cushion to them and their two-piece designs allow the steel head to flex separately from the handle. But the only way to really feel the difference is to use a hammer in an aggressive fashion, all day, every day. Someone on a framing crew (where wooden handles are typically preferred) is swinging a hammer hundreds of times each day and they’re going to want all of the shock protection they can get. But there are also many, many carpenters, myself included, who have used steel-handled hammers for years and have felt no ill effects.1 Neither of the two interviewed carpenters had any vibration issues with metal-handled hammers.
If you’re using a hammer for around-the-house tasks, it’s unlikely that you’re going to notice any vibration improvement with a non-metal handle. I tested a number of fiberglass and wooden-handled hammers alongside eleven metal-handled ones and honestly couldn’t feel any difference.
Wood-handled hammers have a nice traditional look to them and they’re loved by framing crews for their natural shock-absorbing properties, but they have their drawbacks. When wood gets wet, it swells, and when it dries, it shrinks. So even just leaving a wood-handled hammer out in the rain by accident works against the security of the connection. I’ve had a $70 wooden-handled hammer loosen after only a couple days forgotten outdoors.
But even if you’re careful, it still might come loose after a while. John D. Wagner, writing at This Old House, states that “hickory handles are comfortable, but heads can work loose and may need periodic reshimming with steel wedges.” Unless you’re a serious DIYer or hobbyist, it’s doubtful that you’re going to want to deal with tuning up your hammer from time to time. A loose hammer head is a nuisance at best and a disaster at worst. We don’t even need to explain what can happen if one flies off during a swing.
Another action that puts strain on wooden handles is nail pulling. This action, which forces the metal head into the handle, can weaken the connection as well. Bob Vila, former host of the This Old House TV show, writes in an article at BobVila.com, “pulling a nail puts tremendous wrenching stresses on a hammer. If you favor a wood-handled hammer (and many of us do), use it sparingly for pulling nails.” He goes on to recommend using a nail puller or pry bar for any nails longer than 2 ½ inches. With metal handles offering far greater stability, there’s no need to purchase a hammer that has a limit on nail pulling.
Composite hammers consist of a fiberglass or graphite handle (like a tennis racquet) connected to the metal head with an epoxy. Wagner gives these high marks for their “durability and shock-absorbing qualities.” My own experience is that the handles can mar and dent very easily. If you’re ever going to use your hammer for light demolition like punching into a wall to install a cat door, pulling up a few rotted deck boards, or even busting up an old bookshelf before hauling it away, these handles will develop a lot of nicks and scars. I’ve also seen them crack and break during aggressive use or a serious overstrike (when the hammer head overshoots the target and the hit lands on the handle).
Compared to their metal-handled brethren, composite hammers also feel top-heavy and uneven in the hand. With the head so much heavier than the handle, the uneven weight distribution feels awkward. Metal handles carry the tool’s weight more evenly, creating better balance.
To sum up, a metal handle won’t break and eliminates all worry that the head will ever come loose or fly off. This level of durability may seem unnecessary around the house, but a hammer is a fill-in-the-cracks tool and who knows what you could end up using it for. Even someone with no DIY inclinations may have to bust apart an Ikea desk on its way to the dump, bang the basement bulkhead door back into alignment, or smash up an ice dam on the roof. Also, with the cost being relatively low (our pick is barely more than $20), why not choose the style that’s going to last until the End of Days?
The hammer head consists of the striking face and the claw. There are two variations on the claw: straight and curved. For normal, non-construction use, curved is where it’s at. The difference between the two is that a straight claw is better for prying and demolition while a curved claw is designed for pulling nails.
Hammer weight ratings are a little deceptive because they’re a holdover from the days when there were only wooden handles. The weight of a hammer is only the weight of the head. It doesn’t take into account the handle.
Smaller 12-ounce models don’t have the oomph to bang the rotted front step loose while larger 20-ounce models are too much hammer for smaller precision work like hanging pictures.
The big, hefty framing hammers range up in the 22+ ounce range, getting as heavy as 30 ounces for the real behemoths. Unless you’re on a framing crew and have an arm like Lou Ferrigno, they’re pointless.
Sawyers warns about hammers overloaded with features. For average use, he doesn’t see much point to overstrike plates, replaceable faces, and magnetic nail-starter grooves. Both carpenters interviewed stay away from these add-ons as well. “I like a hammer that isn’t too flashy, something simple and solid that I won’t have to worry about,” says Piersma.
Overstrike plates can be found on wooden-handled framing hammers. They’re extensions of the metal head that protect the front of the handle from overstrikes. They’re not often found on smaller handles and certainly not on steel.
Some pro-level hammers have a replaceable face for when they wear out. For a general user or even a regular carpenter, there’s very little (read: absolutely no) chance that you’ll ever wear out the head of your hammer. Don’t worry about this one.
Magnetic nail-starters are interesting, but again, a pro-only feature. They’re magnetized grooves that run along the top of the hammer, above the striking face. To use one, you set a nail in it (usually a large framing nail that doesn’t require pinpoint accuracy) and swing the hammer, nail and all, against a board. This pounds just enough of the nail into the workpiece so that it sticks in and the successive hits can drive it home. This prevents you from ever having to put your fingers in harm’s way. For the right situation, it’s a good trick, but it’s doubtful that an around-the-house hammer will ever be in one of those situations.
Other hammers come with side pullers, which are additional nail pullers mounted to the side of the head. Again, they’re really unnecessary for the average user and usually only available on larger framing models.
I would also add waffle-faced hammers to the list of unnecessary features. These hammers with textured striking faces are meant for framers. Not only do they not make sense in a home setting, but they also leave a magnificent stamp if you miss the nail and hit your nicely painted wall. Lancelotta agrees, “I have never really understood why you would need a waffle-headed hammer.”
Quality hammers of this sort are mostly priced at under $30. The next major pricing range is a massive step up that enters the $100 arena. The hammers sold for these uber-expensive prices are made of titanium. Titanium is lighter than steel and, as Rob Yagid explains at Fine Homebuilding, is more efficient on a striking tool. “A titanium hammer transfers 97% of your energy from swinging the hammer to the nail, while a steel hammer transfers only 70% of your energy to the nail.” That’s all good, but the pricing simply takes it out of the range for a homeowner.
Wrapping it up
As it turns out, the best hammer is really the most basic one. The Estwing E3-16C has no frills, is as durable as they come, and it has a phenomenal reputation.
Originally published: January 19, 2014