Rural Heritage Village Smithy

Hammer Command
by F. Thomas Breningstall

When you make a living using hammers, you have a different favorite hammer for each job. Rarely would you use the same hammer for more than one job. People who never pick up a hammer look at your assortment of hammers in total bewilderment.

They ask, “What do you use that hammer for? Or that one? Or that one over there?” Try as you may, it's hard to explain. I usually tell people I use the hammers “to hit stuff and things.”

I define a good hammer as one that is made or modified to be used for a particular job. I have five claw hammers, but only one good claw hammer that I use for carpenter work. It would be of little use in turning a horseshoe or for nailing a horseshoe to a hoof. In turn, my blacksmith hammer or my driving hammer (for nailing on horseshoes) would be of little use as a carpenter's hammer. And so on.

Anyone with an arm and hand can hold and swing a hammer. As important as a good hammer swing is, the hammer is of little use unless you have control of the swing.

No matter what you use the hammer for, or what it's made of, the need for control is universal. You would likely not consider a baseball bat or a golf club to be a hammer, but by definition that's exactly what each one is—“a tool used to strike, hit, or change another tool or object.” If you've ever played baseball or golf, you know the need for control.

There is only one way to get control of your hammer, and here is the magic secret: practice. Did you ever build something from wood? Then go back and look at the hammer marks on the wood. As the job progressed, the hammer marks became fewer. Why? Because you practiced as you drove each nail.

I'm going to give you a few tips on hammer control that will help you work on the anvil. First, stop reading and go get your favorite blacksmith hammer: ball peen, cross peen, rounding hammer, or whatever. But, hey! Remember to come back and finish reading.

The weight of a hammer is judged by its use—the heavier the hammer, the heavier the stock it is designed to work on. The lighter the hammer, the lighter the stock it will work. For most uses you will need a one-to four-pound hammer. Any hammer that's heavier or lighter will make your work more difficult than it needs to be. Since the cross-peen hammer is the most used blacksmith hammer, let's use that as an example.

Ok. Here's a two-pound cross-peen hammer. The handle is oval-shaped and about one foot long, including the head. Hold the head of the hammer in your hand, with the handle along your forearm. The end of the hammer should reach the bend of your elbow. Personally, I like my handles shorter, at about 10", which gives me better control than a longer hammer, and lets me work closer to the anvil. The best size for your hammer handle is the thickness that feels comfortable to you. You shouldn't need to hold the handle so tight that your hand gets tired. The face of the head should be slightly convex or rounded for a shoeing hammer, and flat with rounded-off edges for flat work.

To help you improve control, or just to see how good your control is, try this: get a piece of white pine lumber 1" thick, 4" wide, and about 2' long. Using a black permanent marking pen, draw lines across and along the board, 3" apart. If you wish, draw some horseshoe shapes, too.

Place the board on your anvil, or if you don't have an anvil put it on your work bench. Be sure the board lays flat, or the vibration when you hit the board with your hammer will hurt your hand. Hold the board securely with your free hand and start with light blows, aiming at the black lines on the board. After a few blows, stop hammering and look at the board.

The indents in the wood should be of equal depth and should be good imprints of the hammer face. The imprints should be dissected by the black lines into two equal sides. Tough, ain't it? You'll do better if you keep your eye on the spot you want to hit, not on the hammer. Develop a rhythm and swing that feels comfortable for you. Stand with equal weight on both feet. And don't over tax your back.

If your goal is to move large amounts of steel, swing your hammer with your body, shoulder, arm, and wrist. To shape the steel, swing the hammer with your forearm and wrist. The hammer should rebound off the work to start the next swing. That's why blacksmiths hit the anvil as they work—to keep up the rhythm as they move and turn the stock. For more power, hold the handle long; for more control, hold the handle short (choke up on it.) After you have made a large pile of kindling wood trying to hit the lines on your board, start a new pile of kindling by trying to repeatedly hit the same mark with each hammer blow.

Now heat up some steel and start hitting it. As you will soon see, when you control the hammer, how you hit the steel and how the steel responds are both in your control. So what are you waiting for? Go hit something.


F. Thomas Breningstall is a full-time farrier living in Fowlerville, Michigan. His column “Hoof & Hammer” appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column was in Summer 1997 issue.

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31 October 2011 last revision