It’s hard not to think of hammers when you hear the word “smith”. While the dominant image is often of a burly blacksmith, there’s still a place for hammers in silversmithing regardless of what you’re doing. It’s just a bit different than laying a three-pound sledge into a bar of steel.
There’s a lot more to learn about hammers than most people suspect, so let’s learn the basics and I’ll help you find the right hammers for your shop.
Top 3 Hammers/Mallets for Silversmiths
Rating hammers against each other is harder than you’d think. The following three would be a great start for a new silversmith, giving them the capabilities they need to begin their smithing journey and figure out which hammers will be best suited for future endeavors.
A ball peen hammer is the most basic metalworking hammer. They’re used for everything from forming golden rings to beating out dents in the side of old muscle cars. You’ll need a good one for your silversmithing needs, and Estwing tools produce some of the best. It’s also remarkably cheap for the value, although more costly than a generic tool.
I recommend starting with a 12-16 ounce ball peen. If you’re primarily planning on working with big cuff bracelets or you’ll be doing a lot of forging of thick pieces then a 16-ounce model is better, but 12 ounces is more than enough for most workshop tasks.
Chances are this hammer will outlast you, but having a hardwood handle on it is a nice touch. You generally don’t need any extra shock absorption when working silver but you can give it a nice wrap with leather or paracord if you feel it doesn’t have enough grip for you.
Bottom line: if you’re only going to get one hammer then pick up this 12-ounce ball peen. It’s made of good steel, has a hardwood handle, and it’s available in the sizes we most need when working with our metals.
This is my shop’s workhorse. My poor cross peen has been used, abused, thrown across the shop more than once, and generally been through a lot. It still only takes about five minutes to clean it back up to a mirror finish and get back to work.
The cross peen on this hammer is a bit smaller than it looks at first glance. Many cross peens come in as a wedge, with only one side being angled, but both ends of the peen come together to meet on the back of this one.
The hickory handle is practically indestructible, the weight is just right for most lighter forming tasks, and it feels quite balanced. Hickory is an ideal handle material and the entire reason that I bought this one in the first place. It does transfer a bit of shock due to the rigidness of the material but it’s not bad.
This is a great cross peen hammer that will take a ton of use and abuse. The hickory handle, well-formed head, and light weight make it excellent for any kind of lighter tasks in the workshop requiring a hammer and the cross peen can be used for texturing as well.
There are few tools as distinct to jewelers as the rawhide mallet. They lack the weight needed for working steel and they’re too expensive for most household mallet use when you can buy a $2 rubber model. Rawhide still comes out ahead, in my estimation, due to longevity and its ability to strike remarkably hard without leaving a mark.
The linked Garland mallet is a size 1, meaning its head is 1 ¼” across. This is an appropriate size for most jewelry but you may want to go up to a size 2 or 3 (1 ½” and 1 ¾” respectively) for heavier work. I’ve had mine for about three years and I’ve yet to find a task it’s not suitable for.
The handle is also made of good material. Don’t be surprised when the head feels hard, and may even have tiny pointy bits, when you get it. Down below I describe a method of conditioning your mallet so that it’ll be properly broken in before you use it on silver. It’s an easy mistake to make if you’re a newbie, this mallet will mar metal before you condition it.
Overall, this is a great mallet for a new jeweler. It’s durable, lightweight, and the right size for most jewelry tasks. There are certainly more specialized mallets out there, but this one fits just right for the majority of things a newbie is trying to accomplish in their workshop.
Let’s Talk About Silversmithing Hammers
A hammer is, in general, a lump of something hard on a handle that you bash things with. It doesn’t seem like there’d be any more to it but there’s… well, there’s a lot of factors that separate a good hammer from a bad one.
Type of Hammer
Hammers can be divided into two main subgroupings: hammers and mallets. A hammer will have a steel head, while mallets will be made of something softer like brass, ABS, or even rolled rawhide.
Different hammers have different uses, a slight change in the shape of the head can produce drastically different results.
In general, a beginning smith should make sure they have the following:
- Ball Peen Hammer- Your basic workhorse. The flat head is good for pretty much every basic task in the shop, while the ball on the back is sufficient for minor texturing. They’re usable for forming, texturing, and hitting punches among other tasks.
- Rawhide Mallet- Some prefer rubber, but if you buy a decent rawhide mallet now it will last most of your career. These are used for forming, smacking, and general brute force tasks where not marking the metal is essential. Think something like forming a cuff with a delicate texture around a mandrel.
- Small Plastic/Brass Mallet- A tiny mallet can usually be had for a couple of dollars. I’ve been using a cheap one from Walmart for over two years, they tend to last. These are useful in places where the rawhide mallet would be too large and for work hardening small pieces of metal.
With those three you should be able to accomplish your basic tasks in the workshop. Other basic hammer types include the following:
- Cross Peen Hammer- Similar to a ball peen hammer but has a backside that’s formed into a wedge. These can be big or small and the angle may be very tight or very loose. My personal workhorse falls into this category.
- Stamping Hammer- A heavy, modified brass mallet. Brass is the preferred material for stamps, possessing a high density while remaining soft enough to absorb impact when striking. They’re essential for preserving metal stamps long-term.
- Texturing Hammer- A modified hammer with a textured face on both sides. These can be removable so you can switch textures. They’re used to transfer the face’s texture to the metal’s surface.
Hammers for more advanced tasks that won’t be covered here include the following:
- Planishing Hammer- Meant specifically for planishing metal over a stake. You can use a cross peen or ball peen hammer for this task in most cases but it’s not a bad idea to get one if you’re doing larger tasks.
- Chasing Hammer- Intended for chasing and repousse, two art forms that require you to raise or lower the surface of the metal to create designs. It has a wide, flat face meant to strike tools from different angles and a handle designed to allow tight control over applied force from the same awkward angles.
- Raising Hammer- Used for raising metals, which is the process used to create a bowl or vase. This is a specialized task for large pieces of metal. Useful if you intend to create a silver bowl, but not of much use for jewelry-related tasks.
There are many, many styles of hammer out there. Some artists get into them, others will only have the basics lying around. It depends on what you’re planning on doing.
That said, few would argue against the idea that every silversmith’s shop needs a good ball peen hammer and a good mallet.
Weight is a big factor for your hammers since it controls how much force you can transfer to the tools or your metal.
For jewelry use you don’t need any particularly heavy hammers. The heaviest in my set is a 3-pound ball peen hammer that only gets used if I’m fighting a blob of silver that doesn’t want to get into the rolling mill.
Most of your hammers will be 1 pound or lighter, but brass mallets are often a bit heavier.
Weight isn’t the only deciding factor behind how a hammer interacts with the metal. The strike itself is very important as well, your hammer will do different things depending on where and how you’re holding it.
I’d aim for most of your hammers being around one pound. It matters less with your mallets, but a 1-2 pound brass mallet is ideal for larger forming projects.
It would seem at first glance that the material only matters in defining a mallet versus a hammer. That’s not quite the case.
Mallets are differentiated based on the material, and there’s a wide range used from rolled-up rawhide to brass to more modern rubber and acrylic plastic.
For the most part, brass is best for stamping and other applications where force absorption is important. Rawhide is the best to use for heavier forming without marking the workpiece, and plastic/rubber is a viable alternative to rawhide that requires less prep in exchange for a shorter working life.
It’s the hammers that make things complicated.
You see, steel isn’t just steel: there are thousands of different commercial alloys with varying qualities. Metallurgy isn’t a simple science, even when the ingredients of steel (iron and carbon) often are.
Hammerheads should always be made of some sort of solid steel. You’ll occasionally see chrome-plated hammers available and they look great until you actually use them. Then the plating starts chipping away in short order under repeated impacts.
Tool steel, 1056, is a great material for hammers.
You want steel that’s hard enough to not mark easily. Silver and other nonferrous metals shouldn’t pose much of a problem, but the steel of your block or anvil will. All steel is going to mark eventually, but the goal is to keep maintenance to a minimum.
Unfortunately, most hammers aren’t labeled for their material, but the truth is that the steel which makes up the head of a hammer is responsible for most of the expense. Good steel is priceless, but a bad steel hammer won’t stay polished for long enough to be useful for many types of silversmithing.
Your best bet is to go with an established brand, like Fretz, or you may have to buy another copy of the hammer in the future.
You can use hammers without great steel, it’s just more work. I’ll describe how to prepare your hammers properly below.
Handles are the least important part of the tool, from a longevity standpoint. All but the worst hammerheads are going to far outlive the handles that let you wield them.
And, frankly, there’s not a whole lot to mess up with a hammer’s handle. The main problem that I see with cheaper hammers and their handles is cheap woods. Fiberglass and most of the other plastic/polymer compounds used to make handles work great and have great longevity. Just keep them out of the sun or UV damage can lead to a premature end.
Handles made of hardwood are the best, in my opinion, since they’re long-lasting but still absorb a good amount of shock from the hammer’s strike. Softwoods make the worst handles and are acceptable only on small, cheap mallets.
The way the handle is shaped doesn’t vary much from brand to brand. Instead, it’s determined by the type of hammerhead that’s placed on it.
Maintaining and Preparing Your Hammers
In most trades, the idea of hammer maintenance would be laughable.
After all, it’s a lump of metal that you hit things with to make them move. What possible maintenance could there be?
A lot, at least if you’re following best practices and trying not to mark your metal any more than necessary. Silver isn’t too expensive so sanding out a mark or two isn’t a big deal but it can be a serious problem if you work with other precious metals further down the road.
The key here is that all of your hammers should have an appropriately shaped head that is polished with no major scratches.
Hammers take dings over time. Whether it’s striking the edge of your block on accident, missing the mark, or just from the repeated stress of bashing something soft into steel.
Sanding the head until there are no visible scratches with 400 grit sandpaper, then 800, before hitting the head with a polishing felt on a flex shaft or bench grinder is the easiest way to do things. A good, shiny hammer will maintain its condition for longer, and removing the larger dings will prevent any pattern transfer to the metal you’re working with.
You can do the same with brass.
Rawhide mallets, on the other hand, require a bit of odd prep. They’re made with a roll of lacquer-coated hide held together with a screw or nail on top of the handle. This lacquer is quite hard and it can damage softer metals. More than one newbie has picked up a raw hide mallet only to find out it marked their material despite the high costs.
The good news is that prepping one is easy:
- Sand or file the faces of the mallet flat, removing the outer layer of lacquer.
- Drop the mallet head down into a container full of water, making sure the head is covered.
- Leave for 1-3 hours.
- Find a quiet spot with some concrete, a curved edge like those on a curb isn’t essential but makes life easier.
- Smash the mallet into the concrete repeatedly for 5-10 minutes per face, striking deliberately and moving around the face as evenly as possible with the corner of the curb.
- Once the face looks a bit smashed in and shows fraying fibers your slightly deformed mallet is prepared for use.
It’s simple, but it can seem time-consuming. As I noted above, however, rawhide mallets are a very long-lasting tool.
Rubber and acrylic mallets can sometimes be sanded to have their face restored if they’re damaged after prolonged usage. They’ll also wear down much more quickly than rawhide and any serious requirements for reshaping will require you to replace the tool.
Like all tools, take care of your hammers and mallets and you’ll find out that they take care of you.