• An Introduction to Hand Saws

    Though power saws are fun, there are times where they have much power, not enough precision, or are too unwieldy or inconvenient for a cutting job. When that happens it's time to reach for the hand saw.

    Just because they're muscle-powered doesn't mean they have to be a pain to work with. A correctly chosen, well maintained hand saw can be a downright pleasurable to use.

    Even though hand saws look pretty straight-forward, there are few details to know before choosing one.

    The teeth-per-inch (or centimeter) has one of the biggest influences on cutting ability. Bigger teeth (and lower TPI) are typically for softer materials, and smaller teeth (higher TPI) are for harder materials. Coarse blades with 2-8 TPI are good for ripping soft woods with the grain. Medium blades with 10-20 TPI are for crosscutting and moderately hard materials. Fine blades with 20-30 TPI are for very hard materials and/or very precise cuts.

    Bigger teeth cut faster, but because they remove more material with each pass, sometimes more than its made to cut. If you're having a hard time starting a cut or getting your saw through your material, try a blade with a higher tooth-count. Trying to push (or pull) a coarse saw through a hard material will not only wear you out, but can damage the saw. Coarser blades also mean rougher cuts. If you need a smooth finish, user a finer blade, though it will take longer to cut.

    The teeth also have a "set", which is the distance they stick out from the center of the blade. This makes the cut wider than the blade, which is important to keep the saw from binding in the cut. (The width of this cut is called the "kerf".) Most saw blades bend out each tooth in alternating directions to create the set, but very fine blades, like hacksaw blades, are simply wavy on the blade edge.

    The shape and orientation of the teeth determine how and what they cut. For hand saws there are two common layouts: rip and crosscut. Crosscut saws are for cutting across woodgrain. They have narrow, pointy blades with alternating sharp edges. These work like tiny knives cutting along both sides of the kerf. Crosscut saws typically cut in both the push and pull part of the stroke, but will cut better in one direction, depending on the angle of the teeth. Rip saws are for cutting along the grain of wood. The have coarser teeth than crosscut saws, and only the bottom edges are sharpened. These work like tiny chisels that chip away the wood as you saw, and only work in one direction, either push or pull, depending on the saw.

    Sawing Basics:

    • Use light pressure. Start slow and let the saw to do the work.

    • Don't twist the blade. Keep it perpendicular to your work.

    • Use as long of strokes as possible. This will help you make straighter, smoother cuts, will make the blade last longer, and help the blade remove sawdust efficiently.

    • Clamp your work securely and support it well. Double check the area behind the material so that you don't saw into your sawhorse or anything else you might regret. Be sure to remove any nails or staples that might be along your cut line.

    • If 90º or 45º angles are critical, use a miter box. If you're making a long cut, clamp a 2×4 along the cut line to keep the saw on track.

    • To get straight cuts, pay more attention to where you want the saw to go than where it is.

    • To minimize splintering, apply masking tape along both sides of the cut, and run a utility knife along the cut line before you saw.

    Saw Care:

    • Keep your blades sharp and true. Before you start sawing, sight down the blade to make sure it is straight, flat, and none of the teeth are bent too far from the center. Sharpen or replace dull or bent blades.

    • To protect the blades (and protect you from the blades) either slit a length of garden hose, or visit the office supply store and get some slide bars for binding report covers. These cheap U-channel plastic strips slip easily over smaller saw blades and help keep them straight.

    • Keep your saws clean and dry. Dirty blades are more likely to rust and bind. Most saws will stay rust free when kept clean, in a climate-controlled area. Rust can be prevented by rubbing the blade with a light oil, however don't oil or wax blades used for fine woodworking. The oil can penetrate the wood and cause blemishes.

    • Sharpening and setting saw blades can be done by hand, but it takes special tools (or a lot of experience) to do it right. Doing it wrong can ruin the blade. But a dull saw can ruin your work.

    saws-carpenters

    Carpenter Saw

    The carpenter saw is the stereotypical hand saw. A large sculpted handle and long, slightly tapered blade.

    While they're the most common, they're often not the best saw for the job. The one thing they surpass all other saws on this list is by being the biggest. They have the widest kerf, and beginners often find them hard to use. That said, they are incredibly popular, and most basic workshops will have one.

    The blades are removable, but actual replacement blades are hard to find. They come in both rip and crosscut styles, though crosscut are more common because they're more versatile. You can rip with a crosscut saw, it will just take a little longer. Trying to use a rip saw to crosscut will take a long time and leave a very ragged cut.

    When using a carpenter saw, hold it at 45º to the work for crosscut saws or 60º for rip saws. Start your cut with a few, slow back strokes, using the knuckle of your thumb to keep the blade perpendicular and along your cut line. Once you have your cut started use long, consistent strokes.

    Use for: General rough cutting of soft materials–if you don't have a better saw available.

    saws-back

    Back Saw

    Back Saws are similar to a carpenters saw, but shorter, and with a reinforced top edge to reduce flexing. The weight of the spine helps put even, gentle pressure on the thinner, fine-toothed blade. These features make it easier to control and produces more precise cuts.

    Since the brace along the back is wider than the kerf, it can't actually pass completely through its cut, so you'll have to choose another saw when cutting through that railroad tie or piece of plywood.

    Like a carpenter's saw, the blades can be sharpened, and most of them can be replaced–though it's hard to find replacement blades.

    Use for: Creating tenons, dovetails, and other joinery. Working with a miter box.

    saws-japanese

    Japanese Pull Saws

    Japanese pull saws are becoming more common in non-Japanese toolboxes, and Western manufactures are starting to sell their own versions of these traditional woodworking tools.

    They're popular because, for most beginners, they're easier to use than Western saws. Unlike the carpenter's saw, they do most of their cutting on the pull part of the stroke rather than the push. Although it's a small change it has a dramatic effect on how they work.

    Cutting on the pull stroke automatically tensions the blade straight as it cuts. This creates straighter and more accurate cuts. Unlike cutting on the push, where the user tends to put their weight into the cut (and where novices often get into trouble, flexing the blade), pulling ensures gentle downward pressure on the saw, making it bind less.

    Pull blades are also thinner than their push counterparts, since they don't have to withstand the pressure of pushing while they cut. Thinner blades mean smaller kerfs. Since less material is removed you can saw with less fatigue.

    The down side is that cutting on the pull stroke puts most of the sawdust on top of what you're cutting. That can obscure cutting lines, though experienced carpenters know the secret to straight cuts is to pay more attention to where you want the saw to end up than where it is right now.

    There are several different kinds of Japanese saws, but the most common are the ryoba and the dozuki.

    Ryoba are functionally comparable to a carpenter saw, though they're shorter, and double sided. One side has coarse teeth for ripping, the other has finer teeth for crosscutting. The smaller size and dual blades make them an excellent multipurpose saw. The blades are replaceable and come in lengths from 200-300mm (8-12", not including the handle).

    Dozuki are comparable to a back saw, with a single fine-toothed crosscut blade and a reinforced back edge. They have the thinnest blades you can find (0.3mm or 0.01", with a 0.5mm or 0.02mm kerf) making them a favorite of woodworkers doing fine joinery.

    Use for: Cutting with precision and ease. When you want to impress people with how worldly your toolbox is.

    saws-hack

    Hacksaw

    Hacksaws are often shamed by their powered cousins because cutting steel by hand can be fatiguing. That said, hacksaws are cheap, light, and easy to keep in your toolbox for light-duty or occasionally metal cutting. And they fit in places where their powered cousins can't.

    They come in two popular shapes. The more popular bow is for serious sawing since it can hold longer blades and tensions the entire blade. They have adjustments to tensions the blade, and many models are adjustable for different length blades. Mini hacksaws–essentially just a handle for a hacksaw blade–are good for very tight spaces, but are otherwise harder to use since they tension only part (or none) of the blade, making it harder to push through material.

    While the blades can be installed to cut on either the push or pul stroke, they're generally mounted to cut on the push to get more power into the stroke. Full-sized hacksaws have thumb screws to tensions the blade. It should be turned until the blade is tight and secure, and won't flex when pushing it through your material. Avoid over-tensioning, which can make blades break more often.

    The blades are affordable and easy to replace. Pair the blade with the task. General purpose blades are fine for copper and mild steel. Use bimetal blades for harder metals, and specialty blades for other hard materials like brick, tile, or glass.

    Use for: Cutting metal, masonry, tile, and glass. Also make quick work of very soft plastics like PVC and styrofoam.

    saws-coping

    Coping Saw

    Coping saws are the first choice for cutting fine details. They get their name from one of their common uses: coping a moulding (e.g.: Shaping the edge of a piece of wood to match the intricate profile of a moulding.) It's horrible at cutting straight lines, but peerless when you need a tight or complex curve.

    The blades can be oriented so they cut on the pull or push stroke, but cutting on the pull generally breaks fewer blades. If you need to cut a completely enclosed shape, drill a 1/4" hole in the center of your work and put the blade through the hole before fastening it into the saw. Don't bother sharpening these blades. Buy them by the dozen and replace them as needed. They break often.

    Turn the handle to tension the blade. The tensions will be correct tension when the frame is taut and you can saw without the blade visibly flexing. Don't over-tension or you'll break blades. Since the handle controls the tension, and it's hard to saw without holding the handle, regularly check the tension while sawing.

    For highly detailed work look for a fretsaw, which is like a coping saw with a deeper frame for working on larger pieces, and a thiner blade for turning sharper corners.

    If you're working with metal, look for a jeweler's saw. It's smaller for finer control, and has more blades appropriate for cutting metal. They're often used with bench pin, a tongue of wood with a gap cut out to support and guide the metal while sawing.

    Use for: Tight curves and fine details.

    saws-flush-cut

    Flush Cut Saw

    Flush cut saws are special purpose saws for making a flush cut without damaging the surface you're cutting along. They're typically used to cut the protruding bits of dowels and other joints and fasteners.

    They look a lot like a tiny Japanese ryoba, with a thin, double-sided blade, but they are subtly, and importantly different. The blade is extra thin, designed to bend so it can slide along a surface, even while the handle is at an angle. More importantly (and why you shouldn't use a ryoba for flush cuts) the bade typically has a no, or minuscule set. This will keep the teeth from scratching the surface you're cutting along. But it also makes them bad for longer cuts since the narrow kerf will tend to bind the blade. Their flexibility also makes them bad at cutting without a flat surface to guide them.

    Check that the teeth are all in line before using them. A bent tooth can quickly scar the surface you're cutting along. The blades are disposable and replacements are pretty cheap.

    Use for: Cutting off dowels and any time you need to make a short cut in a confined space. They're also small enough to carry in the toolbox for quick, small cuts through most soft materials.

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  • Intro to measuring tools

    Measuring Tools

    Experienced builders have finely honed estimation skills, but a single bad measurement is still one of the quickest ways to ruin a project, or at least a part of one. As my uncle would say, "I cut it twice and it's still too short."

    A big part of measuring things well is using the right tool for the job. Length, depth, angle, weight, level, diameter and circumference all have different tools designed to get it right. The precision of the measuring tool is also important. That is, how sloppy will the measurement be? The length of floor joists can safely vary by a quarter inch, but a hundredth of an inch variance will ruin the threads on a small bolt.

    And finally consider whether you need an absolute or relative measurement. Rulers measure absolute length. Inches, millimeters, furlongs, etc. But framing squares are relative, in that they only show how close to 90º an angle is, not the angle itself. If you need to know the degrees (or radians) use a protractor.

    While you rarely need to spend a lot for a measuring tool, spending a few extra dollars can pay off. Cheap measuring equipment can be surprisingly inaccurate. If you do choose the cheapest model check its accuracy against a verified source before trusting what it tells you.

    It's also important to treat them with care. Some are more durable than others, but dents, dings, and dirt will harm the accuracy of even the hardiest device.

    Here are some of the most common and useful measuring devices to keep around a workbench:

    ruler

    Ruler

    Scientists and engineers call a straight edge with graduated markings a "scale", but everyone else calls them a ruler. They were one of the very first measuring tools, used to standardize the size of various body parts, which had done the job for millennia.

    The markings should match the result you want. Don't use a metric ruler if you want inches, don't use a ruler with only 1/4" markings if you want 1/32" accuracy. Metal rulers tend to be more precise than plastic or wood simply because of the manufacturing methods. Metal rulers also make better straight edges since they're more durable. Using a plastic or wood ruler as a cutting straight edge is a good way to ruin it as both a ruler and a straight edge.

    Don't measure from the very end of a ruler because it can be damaged or the markings could be simply misaligned from the stick. Good rulers have their zero point a bit from the end to account for this. If the zero on your ruler is at the very end, start measuring from the 1" (or 1cm) mark (and be sure to subtract 1 from your measurements to compensate). This will counteract any inaccuracies with the zero point.

    Center-finding rulers put the zero in the middle and count up in both directions. To find the center of something, move the ruler until both sides have the same measurement and the center will be at zero.

    Try to use a ruler that is at least as long as what you're measuring. (Or use something longer, like a measuring tape.) Inaccuracy adds up quickly if you have to move the ruler while measuring.

    Pros:

    Cheap and plentiful. Available in many sizes, materials, and measuring units. Can double as a straight edge.

    Cons:

    Bad a measuring distances more than a yard. Precision not better than 1/16" or 1.5mm.

    Use for:

    Everyday measuring of person-scale objects.

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  • How to stay safe in the workshop

    Safety equipment
    Our bodies are pretty robust, but they can seem downright fragile when they go up against a slipping power tool, a flying piece of metal, or toxic fumes. If everything went right all of the time, no one would need safety equipment. But nothing goes right all of the time, and for those times it's better to be safe than bleeding.

    Nobody likes safety equipment. It's sometimes uncomfortable and can limit what you can do. It's another expense and something else to maintain. But all of those things are better than a trip to the ER. Or morgue.

    Here are some basic, easy safety rules for any workspace:

  • Avoid anything that can get caught in power tools. Remove loose clothing and jewelry. Long hair should be tied back or covered.
  • Have a well lit work area.
  • Keep your tools in good repair. Make sure your cutting edges are sharp and all the manufacturer's safety features are in place.
  • Don't work when your attention is impaired. (Exhausted, drunk, in a hurry, etc.)
  • Keep your workspace clean. Well, okay. No one's workspace is clean. But avoid creating obstacles, piles of debris, and other things that can snag, trip, or slip.
  • Have good ventilation and a flow of fresh air.
  • Make sure anyone who might enter the work area knows all the safety rules, or keep them out of the work area. (This is true of adults as well as toddlers and pets.)
  • Understand the dangers of your tools. This is usually covered in the operation manual. Yes, it reads like lawyer-fueled overkill, but behind those words was a serious, preventable injury.
  • Don't use power tools if you're not in complete control of both the tool and the material. Whenever you think "I can get away with this just this once", think a little more. There's always a way to do what you want without endangering yourself. That flange is not worth a finger. Still not convinced? Do an image search for "[tool name] accidents". (This is not for weak stomachs!)
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  • A beginner's guide to drills and bits

    There are a dizzying number of ways to put a hole in something. Choosing the right way not only means that you get the right hole in the right place, but that you get it with the least amount of trouble and without damaging the material, your tools, or yourself.

    Just about anything can be drilled, but what you're drilling is the biggest question when picking a bit. Soft materials can be drilled safely with most any bit, but hard or brittle materials like glass or acrylic might require specially designed bits. Accuracy and finish can also affect your choice of bits. Some are designed to produce accurate, clean holes, others are rough, but fast and cheap. The last big choice is what tool you're going to turn the bits with. Some bits are difficult (or dangerous) to use with handheld drills and require a drill press. Others are easy enough to use with hand or even hand-powered drills.

    Virtually all drill bits are designed to spin clockwise, which isn't a problem on a drill press, but many hand drivers are reversible, so if it's spinning but not cutting, make sure you're going the right direction. Also make sure the shank of the bit (the end opposite the cutting end) will fit in your drill chuck. Chucks come in 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2", which is the maximum diameter of shank that will fit inside. 3/8" is a good general purpose size, and most large bits have reduced shafts to fit in a 3/8" chuck. Shanks commonly come in round or hexagon shapes. Round shanks center more reliably than hex, but hex shanks are less likely to slip and are better for drilling hard materials.

    Before you start drilling be sure to fully tighten the bit in the drill chuck and make sure it's straight or you'll quickly break the bit. The quickest way to check if it's straight is to run the drill without drilling a hole. The bit should stay straight as it spins and not wobble or turn into a blurry cone. If you're sure it's chucked right, the bit might be bent and should be discarded.

    Let the tool do most of the work, applying steady pressure directly parallel to the bit. If you're leaning into it and nothing happens either the bit is dull or you're using the wrong kind for your material. (One exception can be large Forstner bits which require a fair bit of pressure to cut.)

    Mind the speed of the drill on hard materials with large bits which can heat to the point where it will stop cutting and can burn, melt, or otherwise damage what you're drilling. It's impossible to go too slow to be safe, but most drills don't provide much power at low speeds. A 1/2" bit cutting hard steel should turn around 500 RPM while a 1/8" bit in wood can go up to 10,000 RPM without problems. A good rule of thumb is: If it starts spitting out smoke or discolored chips, slow down. Use cutting oil when drilling metal, which will not only lubricates and cool the bit, but help remove chips. You won't typically need more than a few drops per hole and it will dramatically improve the life of the bit.

    twist_bits

    Twist

    The most common type of drill bit and the most general purpose. It has a pointy end and a spiral groove (called a flute) to help cary chaff out of the hole. They're so popular because they work in a wide range of materials and come in sizes from a fraction of a millimeter up to multiple inches. The main difference between them is the quality and coating of the steel. From softest to hardest are Steel, High Speed Steel, Carbite Tipped, and Cobalt steel. Harder bits are not only better at drilling through harder materials, but will stay sharper longer when drilling softer materials. Plain steel bits really only useful in soft woods. Cobalt steel bits are heat resistant and particularly good for drilling hard metals, though they're brittle and should be handled carefully.

    Bits often have coatings to improve their performance. Black oxide mostly lubricates and prevents rust, while titanium coatings improve the hardness and heat resistance. However the coatings are thin and once they've worn off you're left with an ordinary bit. Sharpening them just removes this coating, and they'll never get return to their original performance.

    The points of the bit come in two styles. Spade points are the most common and require the bit to be pressed into the material before it starts to cut. On hard surfaces like metal this can mean it will skate around before making a hole, which will often put the hole in the wrong place. This can be minimized by using a center punch or drilling a pilot hole to mark the hole, but split tip (aka: pilot point) bits reduce wandering and eliminate the need to punch or drill a pilot hole.

    When drilling deep holes in soft materials be sure to occasionally pull the bit out and clear the flutes. Otherwise the flutes will get packed with chaff, and it will stop cutting.

    Pros:

    Good in just about any material. Common and usually pretty cheap. Can be sharpened when dull. Available in just about any size.

    Cons:

    Small bits break easily. Large bits are very expensive. They dull quickly in certain materials. Small flutes mean they can fill with chaff when cutting soft material.

    Use for:

    Most general purpose drilling.

    spade_bit

    Spade

    Spade bits (sometimes called paddle bits) have a simple design intended for ripping quick holes through wood and other soft material. Spade tip in the center helps keep the bit on target, but it's the nature of these bits to splinter out the back side of the hole when they cut through. They require more torque than a twist bit, so if you're using them with a hand drill be sure to hold on tight.

    Their simple construction means they're easy to sharpen and cost less than other bits. They're readily available in lengths of at least a foot. Long bits are handy for drilling extra deep holes or in hard to reach places. Many spade bits have a hole near the tip to pull wire back through the hole after drilling through floors and walls.

    Pros:

    Quickly cuts through soft wood. Works well in hand drills. Cheap.

    Cons:

    Only really useful on soft woods. Leaves a ragged hole. Hard to start an angled hole. Lack of flutes mean deep holes can fill with chaff.

    Use for:

    Rough construction. Making holes in studs, joists and walls to run cables. Any other time you need a quick hole in wood and don't care how it looks.

    Auger

    These are similar to twist bits, but they have a large single flute to remove chips and a screw tip to help get it started and stay centered.

    They have a lot on common with spade bits. They are made for wood and other soft materials, they can be readily sharpened, and are usually long. But unlike spade bits they leave neater holes and require much less torque to turn. In fact they turn so easily they were the first choice back when hand powered drills were popular. They're also better at drilling deep holes because the large flute easily removes the waste material from the hole. However those improvements make them more expensive than spade bits.of the same size.

    Pros:

    Better at removing material than a twist bit. Smoother holes and less blowout than a spade bit.

    Cons:

    Limited to soft materials and holes 1/4" to 1-1/2" in diameter.

    Use for:

    Drilling medium-sized and/or deep holes in wood. Drilling with a hand brace.

    forstener_bits

    Forstner

    Forstner bits are flat bottomed with a point in the center to keep it on target. They tend to be expensive, but provide high precision and finest finish of any drill bit. Unlike most bits which simply have a cutting edge on the bottom, Forstner bits cut two ways at once. First a blade around the outside keeps the hole from splintering, then a set of blades parallel to the surface shave off the material as they're pressed into it.

    Because of the way they work they cut holes with extremely smooth sides and flat bottoms, which makes them attractive for many woodworking projects. However they also require a lot of pressure to make them cut, and bits bigger than 3/4" require a drill press.

    Pros:

    Flat bottom holes. Smooth-walled cuts. Sizes from 1/4" to 3".

    Cons:

    Limited to wood and similar soft materials. Larger bits require a drill press. Expensive.

    Use for:

    Woodworking projects where the holes will be visible. Where precise, large, or flat bottom holes are necessary.

    step_bit

    Step drill

    These get their name from their stair-stepped profile. They tend to be expensive, but a single bit can cut many different sized holes. The deeper you drill the bigger hole you get. They're typically labeled by the minimum and maximum size of holes they can cut, and the increment between the steps. (i.e.: "1/4in to 1-3/8in with 1/8in increments"). The size of the hole is typically inside the flute at each step.

    They're peerless for drilling precise holes in sheet metal. The straight flute prevents the bit from deforming the metal as it cuts through. (The spiral flutes on twist bits often grab and pucker sheet steels when cutting larger holes.) They're accurate and quick, allowing you to drill many different size holes without changing a bit, and by lowering the bit to touch the beginning of the next step you can easily produce a perfectly deburred (smooth edged) hole.

    The most obvious limitation of step bits is that they only work on material thinner than the individual steps on the bit, usually 3/16" or so. That limits it to sheet metal, plastics, and laminates. The bits are also difficult to sharpen and the smaller sizes (lower steps) of the bit will go dull before the larger sizes further up.

    Some step bits have a blunt end and require you to drill a pilot hole the size of the first step before you can use it. When cutting metal be sure to use cutting fluid to extend the life of the bit.

    Pros:

    One bit cuts many sizes of holes. Clean, precise cuts.

    Cons:

    Only for thin material. Difficult to sharpen without ruining the accuracy of the bit.

    Use for:

    Cutting neat holes in thin sheet material, like control panels, project cases, and linoleum.

    Hole saws

    These are literally a saw blade bent into a circle, with a twist bit in the middle to help keep it centered. Unlike other bits they don't chip away the material, they only cut around the outside, leaving a plug of solid material in the center. Since they're not removing as much material they don't need as much pressure as a Forstner bit the same size. They cut neat holes with minimal splintering on the back. For very clean back sides, stop cutting when the pilot bit comes through the back, then move the drill to the back side and finish the cut from there.

    Hole saws have a removable mandril that includes a twist bit, the shank that fits into the drill, and an attachment point for the outer saw. This lets different sized hole saws to be affordably swapped out and dull ones replaced. They're commonly available in sides from 1/2" to 6" diameter.

    If you're using a hand drill hold on tight; they tend to grip hard and bind easily, which can twist the drill right out of your hands. Drilling a pilot hole the same size as the mandrel bit can help keep it under control, and it's important to keep the bit parallel to the surface. Bimetal blades can even be used to cut soft metals up to about 1/4" thick, and diamond grit saws can cut masonry.

    Pros:

    Can cut large precise circles with minimal effort.

    Cons:
    Have to cut all the way through the material to get a hole. Limited to thinner materials. Plugs often get stuck inside the bit.

    Use for:

    Making holes in doors for locks. Cutting holes in drywall for lights or other installations. Making holes in joists for plumbing.

    Specialty Bits

    There are a lot of specialty bits that aren't covered here. Like most specialty tools they're really only good for their stated purpose, so don't try to use a concrete bit for acrylic (or vice versa). On the other hand they often perform very well at their job. Masonry can quickly destroy general purpose bits, and general purpose bits can easily melt or crack acrylic. For drilling wood and metal the above choices will work well, but don't be afraid of a specialty bit if you're faced with a difficult material.

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  • A beginner's guide to hammers

    Hammers are the literal blunt instruments of the construction world. They can be used to build or destroy, shape precisely or demolish definitively. And picking the wrong one for the job can cause the latter instead of the former.

    While they look and work the same, the differences are important. The best shape, weight, and material of head depend on what you're hitting and why. Narrow heads deliver the entire force of the blow into a small area, broad faces spread it around. Longer handles allow more powerful swings, shorter allow more control. Wood handles absorb some of the vibration but can break, steel handles are durable but can be a literal pain to use. Fiberglass and other composite materials are durable and comfortable, but cost more.

    Always use a hammer that you can control. Keep your eye on where you want to strike and not on the hammer. Let the weight of the head do most of the work. If you can't hit the same spot twice in a row you're out of control, and that can damage things and break bones. Use a hammer with a lighter head or grip the hammer closer to the head for more control.

    Here's a rundown of the most common types of hammers:

    claw_hammer

    Claw

    Unsurprisingly the most common hammer is the most versatile, though it's primarily for driving nails and light demolition. A small flat head puts all the force of the swing into a small area making it best for driving nails.

    Opposite the head is a split claw that give it its name. The claws come in two basic shapes, a hooked version for pulling nails, and a straighter "rip" version for prying (or ripping) boards apart. Standard claw hammers come in weights from 8 to 16 oz. Framing hammers, used mostly in construction, have head weights from 20 to 32 oz, a longer handle for more power, and a rip claw. Heavier heads and longer handles give a more powerful blow, but it's also harder to control and can wear you out faster. Swinging a hammer when tired is a danger to everyone around. Choose a the heaviest weight that you can control easily.

    Cheaper claw hammers come with wooden handles, which are reasonably comfortable but are the easiest to break. (But they can also be easily replaced.) For more comfort and durability get one with fiberglass or composite. For maximum durability, steel handles. Framing hammers often have steel for the top half of the handle to give a more powerful swing and increase durability.

    Pros:

    Good general purpose hammer for most domestic hammering needs. Can both drive things together and pry them apart. Lots of different variations makes it easy to find a comfortable size and weight.

    Cons:

    Easy to damage materials (or fingers) with a wild swing. Or even an accurate one.

    Use for:

    Driving nails, removing nails, and light demolition.

    ball_peen_hammer

    Ball-Peen

    The "peen" is the name of the side of the hammer head opposite the face. Claw hammers have a claw back there, but ball-peen hammers have a round ball. They come in similar sizes and weights to claw hammers, but since they're often used to shape metal the heads are made of harder steel than claw hammers. The round head stretches and shapes metal better than a sharp head which can causes creases and tears.

    The ball-peen has hammer siblings with cross, straight, and point shapes for more refined metal shaping. (Straight peens are a wedge parallel to the handle, cross peens aren't X shaped, but are a straight peen turned 90º.)

    Pros:

    Rounded end good for getting smooth shapes on steel. Small head applies a lot of force to a small area.

    Cons:

    Not as versatile as a claw hammer. Rarely used outside of metalwork.

    Use for:

    Shaping sheet steel, pounding out dents, and rounding off rivets, and striking steel chisels and punches.

    Sledge

    Sledge hammers let you apply a big force over a wide area. The heads are usually 7 to 20 pounds with a long handle so you can get a good two-handed swing. Since sledge hammers are so heavy it's particularly important to choose a weight that you can easily control. (Though I can't deny the feeling of power that some with swinging a 20 lb. sledge around.)

    While the heavy head makes it famous for smashing things, the broad face makes it possible to hit things really hard without destroying them, like when driving wooden posts.

    Pros:

    It's a really big hammer.

    Cons:

    Hard to control, easy to smash things that don't need smashing.

    Use for:

    Destroying masonry, plaster and drywall. Driving stakes, posts, and railroad spikes.

    engineers_hammer

    Engineers/drilling/club:

    This family of hammers has many names but they all boil down to a single handed sledge. They have a large flat head with a 1 to 8 pound head and a short, single handed handle.

    Blacksmiths hammers are essentially the same thing, but have a cross peen for shaping steel.

    Pros:

    More control than a sledge. Shorter handle lets you use it in confined spaces or while stabilizing the material with your other hand.

    Cons:

    Less precise than smaller hammers. Less power than a full sledge.

    Use for:

    When you want to hit something very hard but need more control than a sledge. Light demolition, shaping metal, driving stakes, posts, or wedges.

    mallet

    Soft Hammers And Mallets

    Mallets and other soft hammers are fundamentally different than other hammers. Instead of being as hard as possible, mallet heads are soft to minimize damage to whatever you're hitting. They have a broad face so they spread the force over a wide area, and are made from materials softer than steel. When choosing a mallet, choose one that is softer than what you're hitting. Rubber is the most common, but brass, plastic, rawhide and wood are all popular.

    Because mallet heads are soft they will wear out. Some mallets have removable faces, making it cheaper to replace and allowing you to swap in harder or softer faces deepening on what you're working on.

    Hammering on flexible material or using rubber mallets can cause the mallet to bounce which is a problem. The bounce makes it difficult to control

    To solve the problem there are dead blow mallets with hollow heads filled with lead or steel shot. This reduces bounce by putting all of the blow into the strike.

    Pros:

    Can pound on things without damaging them. Some have interchangeable faces for working different materials.

    Cons:

    Useless for driving nails. Not as heavy as other hammers. Can wear out quickly.

    Use For:

    Forcing joints together, driving wood chisels, forming sheet metal, working on soft metals, sitting dowels or stone.

    Speciality

    There are more kinds of hammers than I can list. They're made for working with shingles, tacks, drywall, rocks, bricks, glass, and more. They might be made of copper to prevent sparking, have a magnet to hold tacks, a hatchet to shape wood, or a notch to cut twine. They look interesting but are typically only good for the task they were designed for, so avoid them unless you know what you're getting into.

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  • Make your own: Hardback Reading Light

    Nothing compliments a nightstand like books. They're beautiful, timeless, and illuminating, knowledge and experience collected and bound. But not every book is destined for greatness. Many languish unread and unwanted, others sit on the remaindered shelf waiting futilely for someone to take them home. Publishers themselves destroy around 40% of the books they print.

    Here's a project to find give new life for those old, ignored, or doomed volumes by turning them into a pleasant source of illumination. Open the Hardback Reading Light and it will provide a soft glow, perfect for reading your favorite volume.

    The Hardback Reading Light is a straight forward project that will take a few hours and about $25 in materials. The pages of the book are replaced with a light box lined with LEDs. They're powered through a plug in the spine and a switch in the corner turns it off when the cover is closed. It can be dimmed mechanically by simply closing or opening the cover different amounts.

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