A geological hammer is often seen as an essential part of any field geologists equipment. Often called rock picks or geopicks, the geological hammer is also a symbol of our profession. And let's face it, who doesn't like to swing a hammer into rock to get that fresh sample?
Geological hammers are not all the same - in shape, size, use and quality. Like most things in life, buying a good quality hammer will save you money in the long run as they last (until you lose them) and provide you great service.
After years of taking people into the field and owning a variety of geological hammers, I want to offer these tips to help you decide what geological hammer will be the best for you - your forever hammer!
It is not about 'keeping up with fashion', but a real issue about safety. Good quality hammers are made from one piece of steel - the head and the handle are all one! The metal is high quality to reduce splitting or splintering (and eye protection should ALWAYS be worn when swinging a geological hammer).
Cheap hammers are easy to spot. Their head and handle are two pieces joined together. In my opinion, a metal head with a wooden handle is more acceptable that a metal head on a metal handle, but I would avoid both. If I have no choice (ie. I am borrowing another geo's equipment) I swing gingerly and expect them to chip or break.
Choosing a forever geological hammer
There are a few things you need to know before you start shopping for your forever hammer. You need to know if you are:
- A splitter or a cracker
- A leather rings or rubber grip lover
- Want to lug around the weight
Splitter or Cracker?
The biggest decision you need to make in deciding what type of geological hammer to own is its major purpose. I divide this into two major tasks - splitting and cracking.
Splitting hammers normally have a hammer and chisel as part of their heads. They are often called chisel heads.
Splitting hammers are wonderful for use on sedimentary rocks. They are the hammer of choice of most paleontologists. The beauty of these is that the chisel can be used to split along bedding plains, while you still have the hammer to break rocks against the bedding.
That said, I also find them useful to pry open cracks in igneous rocks while hunting for minerals.
Cracking hammers have a hammer and point as part of their heads. They are the 'true' geological pick!
Cracking hammers are great for use in igneous/metamorphic rocks when you want to concentrate the force of your blow to a specific point to open up a crack, extract a mineral or break off a small sample using the pointed end. Again, the hammer end is used to break off a sample.
There are also some hybrid versions that have dropped the hammer end and replaced it with a point or chisel, so you end up with a multipurpose tool that is more like a pry-tool than a hammer. These are really quite a specialist tool...and until you know for certain that it is the hammer for you, then stick with one (or even both) of the types above.
Leather rings or rubber grips
This may seem to not be a major consideration, but the style of the grip on the hammer can be important. One major brand, Estwing, has produced excellent geological hammers for decades that have a leather ring covered handles. It really is a great design for reducing jarring, which if you are working with hard field sampling (like quartzite, granite etc) is a real bonus. However, I have had the experience more than once of the rings cracking and even falling out, leaving a space which can close and 'bite' you when using the hammer.
Rubber grips seem to be more durable. The manufacturers of good quality hammers seem to have perfected rubber grips so that they reduce the jarring almost as good as the leather rings. But again, poor quality hammers have a tendency to have poor rubber grips that can perish and split or completely come off!
Geological hammers come in a few different sizes, and therefore weights. My experience has been that hammers around the 22-24 oz weights (680 gms) are perfect. They are heavy enough to provide a good impact when swung but don't weigh you down when hiking around the field. Larger heavier hammers also have their place - but more as an in-vehicle tool that you pull out when you are close to an outcrop with your car.
Finally - your budget
I bought my first geology hammer as a university student. I took my Dad's advice about tools - always buy the best quality your money can buy. I want to stress that this is not just good advice, but it could save you money and an injury.
As well as a hammer, it can be a great investment to buy a hammer holder that goes on your belt etc.
HINT: By the way...get your contact details engraved on your hammer. An email or a phone number. That way if it is found by another geologist in the field, they can return your 'baby' to you. 🙂
GEOetc's hammer recommendations
I know I keep mentioning safety, but a geological hammer can be a dangerous piece of equipment and should be used with care. Never swing in a crowd. Always protect your eyes. Never use a hammer to hit another hammer or chisel. Use common sense (which maybe not be so common in others).
At the end of my career, I will have a small collection of geological hammers. Some I have bought. Some have been gifts. One or two I have found in the field. Others make this almost a hobby. But I still have my favorite - and it was the first one I purchased after I knew what I needed!