Olaf and Utzeg sat huddle around the camp fire outside of the mouth of their cave. Olaf grunted “uggh huh hugg” and Utzeg thinking it was a great idea picked up a smooth stone which had laid around the fire pit. With a mighty “Uggh!” Utzeg smashed the coconut open with the stone and the hammer was born.
Man Invents The First Tool:
While Olaf and Utzeg may have not really been the first cavemen to wield a prehistoric hammer we do know that the first hammers were nothing more than simple stones. While these worked for smashing shells, skulls and small animals the lack of a handle was a serious drawback.
Shortly thereafter man added a handle to the stone made out of wood. Archeologists estimate that this occurred somewhere around the 4th century BC. The handle was made out of wood and split at one end where the rock was wedged in and then lashed on with vines or strips of hide.
The problem with the heads becoming lose after only a few strikes was solved much later on when man figured out that by boring a hole in the head the shaft could be passed directly through the head. This allowed for a much better fit and prevented the head from loosening rapidly.
As man advanced through the ages the head of the hammer adapted to the changes. It’s spent time made out of wood, bronze, iron and thanks to the industrial revolution steel. Hammers today are made from a wide variety of materials according to the job the hammer is designed to do.
Before the Advent of Mass Production
Before man was able to mass produce them hammers were crafted by blacksmiths. He would shape the head from raw blocks of ore heating and pounding it into shape. A labor intensive process by anyone’s assessment the quality of the hammer was often seen as an tribute to the skill of the craftsman. Only the best craftsmen could afford hammers that were finely crafted and built to meticulous specifications. The blacksmith over time was able to come up with ways to improve the strength and durability of the hammer head through a process called tempering.
Tempering Brings Exceptional Strength to the Hammer
Two things revolutionized the hammer. The first was the production of steel which required a special heating process where carbon and alloy were melded together at high temperature. The ratios were closely guarded by the blacksmith’s of yore and over centuries of trial and error steel was perfected. The second process blacksmith’s developed was quenching. Quenching was done by dousing the hot metal in water or oil to rapidly cool the metal. This locked the alloy into specific shaped lattice structure on the molecular level and made the material much more durable than earlier hammer heads.
Man’s Ingenuity Comes Pounding Through
The local blacksmith was a pretty ingenious fellow. Over time they went on to develop specific shaped and weight hammer heads for all of the common trades. There were specialty hammers designed for farriers (you know the guy’s who shoe horses), barrel makers, woodworkers, bricklayers, shoemakers and for metalworking just to name a few. They quickly learned that by changing the size and shape of the hammer heads they could make tools that were much more effective at a given task. This adaption has continued to this day.
Craftsman’s Pride in their Tools Show
Families took pride in passing their tools down through the generations. They would often intricately carve the handles of hammers to reflect the family name or credo. Pride was taken in their tools, these weren’t disposable items back then they often cost a month’s salary or more! Most hammers for carpentry up until the industrial revolution were made of wood. This was ideal because houses and furniture back then were fastened together with wooden pegs. Many of these buildings are still around today which shows just how well finely crafted products last. Once metal nails were introduced a wooden hammer head was ineffective as a driving tool. The head would become quickly damaged by the metal shanks and iron hammers became more popular.
Modern Hammer Options are Practically Endless
Today there are hundreds of different types of hammers that are designed for a specific task. The metallurgy has become computer controlled and highly accurate which allows manufacturers to produce high quality hammers at affordable prices. The tempering process has been refined to allow different areas of the hammer’s head to be hardened to different degrees. This allows for extremely strong faces without the steel becoming brittle. At the same time they are able to harden the metal in the center of the head to a lower hardness which helps reduce shock and vibration. Be wary of cheap hammers which are often made of cast steel. They are much less durable and are more prone to chipping and mushrooming.
A man ain't nothin' but a man, and before I'd let you steam drill beat me down, Lord, I'd die with this hammer in my hand. -John Henry
Hammers Continue to Evolve
While wood was the dominate handle throughout much of recorded history, the advent of cheaper steel and fiberglass has allowed manufacturers to produce many new high performance handles. Wood remains many craftsman’s favorite due to its shock absorbing properties along with light weight and great balance. Steel handles provide greater strength and durability but provide much less shock absorption. Manufacturers are now putting rubberized grips along with specialty cores where the handle meets the head which are designed to reduce vibration which has greatly reduced the vibration traditionally associated with metal shafted hammers. Fiberglass handles provide a good balance between strength, weight and flexibility.