In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery

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Blacksmith David Maydole was the SawStop of the 19th century.

Sometimes hammerheads would fly loose from their handles on the job site. This could be troublesome or deadly because occasionally the steel head would strike a fleshy one (the steel usually wins this competition).

So there were many efforts to improve how the tool’s head affixes to the handle. One early and successful method was to add metal straps that kept the head and handle together. Sometimes these straps were forged from the hammerhead itself. Sometimes they were added separately. In either case, the straps were then riveted through the wooden handle.

This worked (lots of strapped hammers survive). But there are disadvantages. These tools require more labor to make. Plus, replacing the handle is inconvenient because of the rivet.

Then, as legend has it, blacksmith David Maydole of Norwich, N.Y., began experimenting with metal and the shape of the hammer’s head. Hammerheads that are too soft get deformed. Heads that are too hard will split. Maydole found a happy medium: the hammer’s interior was soft and the exterior was hard , like a lobster.

But that’s not what made Maydole famous. History remembers Maydole because of the hole he made in the hammerhead. He made the hole longer, adding a metal neck below the head, which is the form that is familiar to all of us today. And he shaped the hole like one found in an adze: At the top the hole is wider and it gets narrower at the neck. Once this hole is wedged up, the handle is much more secure.

The joint is not, however, bulletproof. I have had several Maydoles that had loose heads. I have not, however, had one fly off the handle. (That is allegedly where the expression comes from.)

When Maydole’s hammers were first sold in 1840, carpenters were delighted.

“(H)e could hammer away with confidence, and without fear of seeing the head of his hammer leap into the next field unless stopped by a comrade’s head,” according to the 1873 account “A Captain of Industry.”

I’ve got lots of these so-called adze-eye hammers. Plus I have some earlier ones with a straight hole (including one that flew off on a backstroke , very exciting). But I’ve never owned a strapped hammer.

I remedied that omission last week by purchasing the hammer in the photo above and have been using it on a side project that has hundreds of nails. The strapped hammers I’ve seen tend to have longer handles , this one is no exception. And many of them have an interesting and elegant swelling at the base of the handle (this one does not).

How does it work? Like a rock on a stick. That’s my highest praise.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 3 comments
  • Daniel Grant

    My initial thought when I first looked at the ‘strapped’ hammer in the photo was of concern as well – it seems the hole introduced for the rivet would be a significant weak point in the fairly slender handle, so you likely still have the problem of flying hammer heads after prolonged use, only with splintered fragments of the handle along for the ride.

  • Wilfred Wright

    I did a "Google" search on "madole hammer"and came up with the following:

    Husband: Gaylord MADOLE
    Born: 8 JUL 1893 at: Near Whitten, Hardin Co., Iowa
    Married: at:
    Died: 19 DEC 1945 at:
    Father:Thomas Robert MADOLE
    Mother:Paulina (Nina) Elvira HAUSER
    Other Spouses:
    Wife: Eva HAMMER

    My spelling of ma(y)dole was not correct but the result is really strange. Here is the link:

    freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~hausers/html/fam00081.htm

    Wilfred

  • John Walkowiak

    Chris, it looks like your hammer has seen better days. The handle appears to be a quickly made replacement, too thin for the head. And these handles are already much thinner that the Maydole types we are used to using. It should swell beyond the straps. It must have been quite time consuming to properly fit a handle to these strapped heads. I have a couple of these with original handles, and they are well balanced and a pleasure to use. Having one with a proper handle would be a better comparison and will give you a feel of what the old guys really used.

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