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Most of us here know how to use a hammer. Although it seems pretty basic, I thought I'd put together a short primer for those who are not as comfortable with, or are new to, hammering in the field. If you have any other tips to add, let me know and I can add them in here and give proper attribution for the sage advice. 

 

Hammering Techniques

 

For those of us who break and split rock, hammers are by far among the most essential tools in the collecting kit. However, there are a number of best practices we can observe for hammer-use that can increase our power, precision, and reduce the chances of injury. This small primer is designed for those who may not be as comfortable with using a hammer in the field, and those who want to increase their existing skill. The hammer is the extension of your hand, which is an extension of all the muscles that lead up to it.

 

Part 1: The Hammer Itself

 

Just like any class of tool, using the right tool for the job is important. Just as one would not use a sledgehammer to drive a nail into a wall to hang a picture (unless they were a maniac like me), there are certain types of hammers that will not be ideal for the job - and in some cases, may cause injury. Having a range of hammers at your disposal is recommended. Having a good arsenal keeps you ready for whatever may come. 

 

Using the right kind of hammer requires an understanding of the material that will be subject to numerous blows. When dealing with hard, blocky matrix, a heavier hammer head with a sufficient shaft is required. When splitting fissile shale, mason or brick hammers with a chisel-sided end is more appropriate. Geologic hammers with a pick end are the gold standard as they can also be used to pry. Big, dense blocks need sturdy sledge hammers, while cracking nodules or small chunks can be done using a crack hammer.

 

Unless there is no other option, hammers used for woodworking are not recommended. A nail claw hammer, for example, is simply not made for busting rock. So unless you are oddly trying to drive nails into rocks, leave the claw hammer for work around the house.

 

For serious rock-busting, the shaft of the hammer should be either a solid steel-forged piece, or fibreglass joined securely to its head. Metal head + wood shaft hammers are not recommended for serious hammering as the head may fly off the shaft and cause injury. Fossil collectors of yesteryear did not have access to drop-forged hammers, but had they the choice they might have opted for not using a wood shaft. 

 

To supplement the hammer and its brute force, a range of chisels with different ends is effective in better channeling and distributing force, as are pry bars. These are extensions of the hammer blow that channel its force where you want it to go. 

 

In terms of your hammer, determine the following:

 

  1. What kind of hammer is required for the rock and/or task at hand?
  2. Is the hammer of a comfortable weight to be wielded for an extended period of time?

 

Remember that the hammer has to be right-sized for you. Some may be comfortable with a 10, 5 lb or 3 lb sledge. If the hammer is too heavy or too light for your needs, your results in the field may suffer.

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Part 2: Holding the Hammer

 

There are three main “stations” along the body for effective hammering, pending the kind of hammering you intend to do: from the wrist, elbow, or shoulder.

 

Hammering from the wrist provides the most control, but the least power. In this case, the hammer may be held higher up on the shaft towards the head. Quick, controlled taps against the rock are used when the occasion does not require serious bashing. Holding higher on the shaft and delivering heavier blows is ineffective and can cause wrist and hand injuries as the kinetic force is not properly distributed. If the task demands lighter taps, use a lighter hammer so as not to have to rely on holding it higher on the shaft closest to the head. Wrist-based hammering is also effective for an angled approach in trying to extract a piece or specimen from a larger slab. 

 

Hammering from the elbow provides less control, but more power. The procedure is to lift the hammer up so that the arm is positioned at about a 45+ degree angle in relation to your body. Applying force, bring the hammer down on the object, but allow gravity to do some of the work.

 

Hammering from the shoulder involves maximum power with a minimum of control. This is generally used for two-handed sledgehammers in busting large blocks. While the sledgehammer is in its fully recoiled position for an overhead blow, the shoulder and triceps lift the hammer to its apex, and gravity takes over in delivering the blow as the hammer is lowered.

 

How one grips the hammer is also very important. If the grip is too loose, the hammer will fly out of one’s hands; if it is too tight (“white-knuckling”), this increases the possibility of injury due to transfer of kinetic force into the delicate bones of the hand and wrist. A good grip to maintain is a happy medium between the two. A good comparison might be the grip you use for a firm (but not crushing!) handshake. 

 

Posture is also important. Much of your power derives from the hips, and in being mostly erect in posture. As a test, compare throwing a punch while sitting down compared to standing up! If you are slumped over too long while hammering, this puts unnecessary strain on the back while reducing the power of your blows.

 

Position. Where you are situated in relation to the rock being hammered is also important. If you are standing or seated at an oblique angle to the rock, not only will you sacrifice power and control, but also risk strain to the body that is all twisted. Of course, sometimes we don’t have much choice when what we are trying to extract is at an awkward angle. Ideally, you should be directly in front of the rock being hammered.

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Part 3: Guarding Against Injuries

 

There are many typical injuries associated with prolonged hammer use, as well as inappropriate uses of the hammer. 

 

  1. Perhaps first and foremost is to wear suitable eye protection! Rock chips fly and seem to have an uncanny attraction for human eyeballs. Eye protection may also guard against any unforeseen hammer head slivering, or mitigate the damage from a flying hammer head (did you bring the claw hammer to the site?). 
  2. Take frequent rest breaks. If your arm begins to feel tingly and fatigued, or you cannot maintain a suitable grip, hammering through the pain will likely result in avoidable injury to your tendons and joints. And, when the grip is weakened by fatigue, the chances increase that you will miss your target and bash your hand instead of the rock — ouch! 
  3. Get in the habit of warming up and cooling down. As hammering can be an intensive activity, what is good practice in physical exercise is appropriate here as well in reducing the probability of injury. Rather than start off with some “hulk smash!” hammering, begin by applying lighter hammer blows. In the field, warm up the hammering arm by tapping/breaking smaller pieces of talus. 
  4. Consider support gear to minimize joint and tendon strain such as wrist and elbow guards. For long periods of hammering, consider investing in a padded glove to reduce vibration which can otherwise cause repetitive strain injuries and nerve damage (such as “white finger” and carpal tunnel syndrome).
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Part 4: Hammer Training Exercises

 

There are a number of exercises one can do to improve strength and range of motion. It is important to have an understanding of which muscle groups are being activated for hammering, and to tailor exercises accordingly. The following muscles are employed in hammering: shoulder, triceps, bicep, forearm, back.

 

  1. Shoulders: The function of the shoulder in hammering is to stabilize the arm for any more than just wrist-based hammering. Improper use of the shoulder, such as in over-reliance on the shoulder to compensate for other muscles, can result in rotator cuff and other shoulder-related injuries. Shoulder joint pain is more common as we get older. Overhead shoulder presses, and lateral shoulder raises will target the all three deltoid heads (medial, anterior, and the strongest emphasis on the anterior through the pushing and lockout motion). Bench press or pushups will target the anterior deltoid, while rows or bent-over lifts will target the posterior deltoid. 
  2. Triceps: These are largely “driving” muscles used to apply downward force, and when coupled with gravity can very much help crack through stubborn rock. The triceps are composed of three “heads” that form a horseshoe shape behind the biceps. Effective exercises to activate each of the heads include skullcrushers, weighted or unweighted parallel bar dips, and push-down cable extenders (keeping the elbows tight against the body, not flaring, to isolate the muscle).
  3. Biceps: the use of the “guns” is primarily to lift the hammer up. The biceps and triceps in concert help stabilize the arm to prevent it from being overextended, and thus maintaining control of the hammer. Exercises include bicep curls, rows, chin-ups. The benefit of the last two would be in enlisting the rear deltoid and upper back muscles, respectively, making these good compound movements.
  4. Forearm: As maintaining grip is important, the muscles required to do so are located largely in the forearms in terms of extensors and flexors. These help stabilize the hand and wrist, and contribute to both the strength and endurance of our grip. Grip exercises can include wrist curls and squeezing a tennis ball.
  5. Hammering should not be relying too much on your back muscles, but these are important to stabilize all the other muscle groups enlisted to to the task. Upper back muscles are even more important if using overhead two-handed sledgehammer blows. Upper back exercises can include rows and chin-ups.
  6. Back: a strong back is just a good thing to have, as it improves posture, core stability, and minimizes on injury. The trapezoid muscles are also engaged in hammering. Targeting the upper back can include pull-ups, or compound motions like military overhead presses. The benefit of the latter is in also engaging the shoulder, triceps, and biceps brachii. Overhead presses alone, as part of a regular strength training regimen, can increase swing power by up to 30%... And in hammering terms, being able to impart more force makes all the difference in breaking harder rocks with less fatigue-inducing blows!

UPDATED: Oct 2.

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Tidgy's Dad

My hammer is my friend. 

I love my hammer. 

Give your hammer a name. 

Mine is Harry (after my dad) 

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18 minutes ago, Tidgy's Dad said:

Mine is Harry (after my dad) 

So Harry is Tiddy's dad's dad and Tidgy's great grand dad. :P 

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 Very useful post indeed . Some top tips. That reminds me I do need a new hammer I just bought my freind one for his birthday. 

 

Kane I think this could be a good post  to be pinned.

 

Cheers Bobby

 

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Raggedy Man
20 minutes ago, Bobby Rico said:

 Very useful post indeed . Some top tips. That reminds me I do need a new hammer I just bought my freind one for his birthday. 

 

Kane I think this could be a good post  to be pinned.

 

Cheers Bobby

 

I agree. In all seriousness, these are great tips to ensure you're able to stay healthy for years huntin fossils without injury caused by repetitive hammer swings. Last fall I smashed my leg with a 4 lb sledge blow that glanced off a piece of rock I was splitting. I had a golf ball sized welt on my tibia for months. I now use shin guards...lol

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  • Fossildude19 pinned this topic

One underestimated how important hammering is in respects to fossil hunting, an offense I am guilty of.

I used a screw driver instead of a chisel for longer than I care to admit. Don’t do it. And get a geologic hammer, it is amazing just how much a difference it makes. 

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On 8/4/2018 at 6:11 PM, WhodamanHD said:

One underestimated how important hammering is in respects to fossil hunting, an offense I am guilty of.

I used a screw driver instead of a chisel for longer than I care to admit. Don’t do it. And get a geologic hammer, it is amazing just how much a difference it makes. 

I started with a claw hammer and a wood chisel. :DOH: The fact that I didn't get injured was the only silver lining; my ability to bust rock effectively with those kinds of tools was horrible, and thus the finds were very limited. 

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You are a wealth of information, @Kane, and much appreciated for sharing it!

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Fossildude19

Topic has been Pinned! 

Excellent information for not only those who have no prior experience with using a hammer to bust up rocks, but even those who have long thought they knew enough about hammering. :)

Well done, sir. 

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Raggedy Man
On 8/4/2018 at 6:33 PM, Innocentx said:

You are a wealth of information, @Kane, and much appreciated for sharing it!

Absolutely 100% agree with you. I always look forward to Kanes posts and the seeing his finds especially since where he hunts coincides with the ordovician I hunt.

I do get :envy:  sometimes because the matrix he works with is much easier to deal with than with the matrix (dolomitic limestone) I work with.

The trilobites seems to preserve better than the preservation bias we deal with down here. I wish I knew this information or bother to look it up when I started getting into this addiction. I actually developed ulnar neuropathy and had to stop "laying the hammer down" for a while to allow the nerves to heal. Through trial and error I've learned to let the hammer do the work and not to force the split. Hopefully the next time im at Penn Dixie Kane is able to come down for some fun. I've heard some amazing stores from Devonian Digger about Kane and would love to see the "human backhoe" at work ...and maybe even learn something new I can utilize in my neck of the woods. Thanks again Kane for posting this!

 

Best regards,

Paul

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On 8/4/2018 at 8:22 PM, Raggedy Man said:

Absolutely 100% agree with you. I always look forward to Kanes posts and the seeing his finds especially since where he hunts coincides with the ordovician I hunt. I do get :envy:sometimes because the matrix he works with is much easier to deal with than with the matrix (dolomitic limestone) I work with. The trilobites seems to preserve better than the preservation bias we deal with down here. I wish I knew this information or bother to look it up when I started getting into this addiction. I actually developed ulnar neuropathy and had to stop "laying the hammer down" for a while to allow the nerves to heal. Through trial and error I've learned to let the hammer do the work and not to force the split. Hopefully the next time im at Penn Dixie Kane is able to come down for some fun. I've heard some amazing stores from Devonian Digger about Kane and would love to see the "human backhoe" at work ...and maybe even learn something new I can utilize in my neck of the woods. Thanks again Kane for posting this!

 

Best regards,

Paul

After messaging with @Kane a few times, reading his posts, and looking at his website I have reached the conclusion Kane is not human and is, in fact, a cyborg endowed with the knowledge of the universe.  How else can one man do so much in one day or know so much.  Seriously though....yeah, robot.:default_rofl:

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45 minutes ago, Raggedy Man said:

Thanks again Kane for posting this!

 

Any time, Paul! :) I'm hoping we'll get a chance to break some rock together at PD, maybe this autumn! 

 

And thanks, all. :dinothumb: If there's one thing I love to do, it's hammering! :D 

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  I never would have thought that one could write more than a sentence or two about a hammer but this is purty good stuff.  Good on ya Kane.  As for #3 Guarding against injury,  I myself have used all kinds and sizes of hammer including sledge hammers.   Im my early days and with some very large concretions I would wear shorts in the summertime.  One day whilst swinging one of my sledges, the rock exploded and a small but very sharply pointed piece going at bullet speed went into my shin.  I had to wiggle it to get it out of my shin bone.  I always wore pants after that. 

 

RB

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Reese the Rockhound

I can attest to wooden-handled sledge hammers being a poor choice.  My father was using one at Penn Dixie a few months ago, and suffice it to say that it was the only tool we didn't bring back in good condition.

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Mark Kmiecik

I would like to add one precaution to this thread. Avoid using any hammer that has a flat steel shaft like this for any kind of hammering on anything. One mis-strike and you will chop off that thumb or finger just as surely as if you hit it with an axe.

 

 

Claw-hammer.jpg

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10 hours ago, Mark Kmiecik said:

Avoid using any hammer that has a flat steel shaft like this for any kind of hammering on anything. One mis-strike and you will chop off that thumb or finger just as surely as if you hit it with an axe.

This makes too blanket a statement. Most Estwing rock picks have a shaft as you describe, and is the preferred tool of choice among many fossil collectors. I can say from experience with several fossil collectors who have used Estwings for decades that they still have all their fingers and thumbs intact. I would think most of us would not put our hands in the vicinity of where the hammer will strike, and barring exigent circumstances such as sudden blindness or disorientation, safe and proper use of any tool will mitigate against injury.

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Fossildude19
10 hours ago, Mark Kmiecik said:

I would like to add one precaution to this thread. Avoid using any hammer that has a flat steel shaft like this for any kind of hammering on anything. One mis-strike and you will chop off that thumb or finger just as surely as if you hit it with an axe.

 

I've used Estwing rock hammers almost exclusively, for the past 24 years. (My sledge is wooden handled.)

The only injuries I've sustained from using them are when I am holding a piece to try to split, and usually, not at full force. 

Bruised thumbs and egos only. 

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10 hours ago, Mark Kmiecik said:

I would like to add one precaution to this thread. Avoid using any hammer that has a flat steel shaft like this for any kind of hammering on anything. One mis-strike and you will chop off that thumb or finger just as surely as if you hit it with an axe.

 

 

Claw-hammer.jpg

A cheap claw hammer? Leave it on the woodworking bench, and get an Estwing.
I'd worry more about metal shards than guillotined digits!

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Maybe I’m just lucky but in 50+ years of hammering I’ve never hit my fingers with a handle of a hammer.. the head yes but never the handle. And I know a number of current and old school construction workers and carpenters who swear by those handles over other kinds. But a word of caution using tools is never misplaced.

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