After concluding my very subjective series on the best design for round-headed mallets, I decided to dedicate one (or two) entries to the cabinetmaker’s hammer. Traditionally, hammers are used for driving nails head on, driving nails using a nail set, and for persuading stubborn furniture parts to get together during glue-ups. But because the craft of making quality furniture has became predominantly associated with wooden joinery techniques, and with the advent of rubber, rawhide and plastic no-mar mallets, the role of hammers in our shops has diminished.
However, with the contemporary interest in high-quality hand tools and the return of heirloom nails in furniture construction (see Christopher Schwarz’s blog entries on nails) I hope that we might be on the verge of a cabinetmaker’s hammer renaissance.
What is a Cabinetmaker Hammer?
It is essentially a hammer with a long and tapered cross peen (also spelled “pein”) that comes in two patterns, English and French/German. The English has a roundish body with a cross peen located on the long axis of the head; it’s commonly known as a Warrington hammer. The French/German hammer (also called a “joiner’s hammer”) has long rectilinear proportions with the cross peen forged as a lower protrusion of the head.
What are they Good For?
Perhaps the first questions you might ask are, “Are the advantages of the cabinetmaker’s hammer so significant that I should consider owning one, and is it so much better than my vintage carpenter’s claw hammer?”
There is no doubt that both hammers can do a good job, and in fact I own a few of each and use them often. In general, I use my carpenter’s hammer to drive heavy nails on big construction jobs where the claw comes in handy to extract mishaps, and for dismantling nails and parts at the the end of a temporary installation.
Still, I prefer my 10 oz or 12 oz cabinetmaker’s hammer for nailing jobs related to woodworking. Why? For a few reasons: It is a compact hammer that is nicely balanced; I like to use the cross-peen end of the head to initiate the penetration of small nails and brads; I use the cross peen for all kinds of tasks and especially for forming and bending hardware when needed; and, I’ve found out that the cross-peen end is very helpful in straightening up bent nails after extraction. I speculate that the latter, among other advantages, is what made this hammer so successful for cabinetmakers. For centuries nails were used in many aspects of woodworking, but nails were not cheap and could not be tossed away when accidentally bent, or when a furniture piece was pulled apart for restoration. This hammer, with its narrow head, could be very handy in coercing deformed nails back into usefulness.
Which of the Two Patterns is the Best?
The Warrington, or the English pattern, feels more balanced in my hand, probably because the head is forged symmetrically. However, the French/German hammer has the advantage of having a square head, which can be useful when hammering in tight spaces – close to an inside corner of a frame, for example. This design is also handy if you need a makeshift anvil; just place the hammer side-down on the bench, or brace it in your vise for added controlled. In addition, the right-angle corners of the hammer and its cross peen can be very useful for folding over nails before clinching, or, as I’ve mentioned, to straighten them after extraction.
How Heavy Should the Hammer Head Be?
I would say that the 10/11 oz (300/330 gr.) head is the probably the jack of all trades. The 8 oz head is useful for nailing smaller nails, and the 12 oz hammer is great for hammering bigger nails, such as when joining the sides of a tool box and likewise heavier joinery chores.
In my next post, I’ll talk about where to buy hammers.