Rock hammers come in all different shapes and sizes, and are generally marketed in wild and wonderful ways. From geological hammers to rock picks, fossicking hammers to prospecting picks – which hammer is right for the job? If you break it down, there really are only two different types of rock hammers out there. Both look quite similar to each other, but also serve quite unique functions.
Firstly, there is the standard pick-end rock hammer. Essentially, this tool has a flat face on one side of the hammer’s head and a pick-end on the other. Simple as that. You’ll often find it marketed as a “geologist / fossicking / prospecting hammer / pick” (or just plain old 'geo pick' or 'g pick'). The flat-ended hammer heads come in two different finishes – a smoothed flat-end, or a milled-face. There actually isn't much of an advantage (if at all) of having a milled-face. Our Dr G just carries a flat-end, which seems to be the most common type of face available anyway. You would generally use the flat-end for cracking rocks in half. This is particularly useful even for the toughest rocks out you’ll likely encounter- igneous and metamorphic rocks (e.g., rocks with a highly-crystalline structure). You can also use the flat-end for driving chisels, but the standard rock hammer isn’t even nearly as effective (or safe) as using a crack hammer. The pick-end is designed exactly like that of a standard pick. Of course, your strike isn’t going to be as powerful as using a full-sized pick, but the design is great for allowing you to dig mineral samples out of hard rock. The pick-end also allows great ability for prying as well.
The other major type of rock hammer out there is the chisel-end. Again, you might find it marketed as a ‘palaeontology / archaeology / fossil hammer’. Similar to the pick-end rock hammers, this tool as has a flat face on one side of the head, but a chisel end, rather than a pick-end, on the other side. Yes, of course the flat-end can be used in a similar purpose as above, but it’s the chisel-end that makes the big difference. The chisel-end provides a lot broader striking surface than the pick-end and is designed for opening up layers of sedimentary rocks – the types of rocks that are most likely going to yield fossils or artefacts.
So, both hammers do hold quite different functions. Take your pick on which hammer is best for you. Personally, we think that it is most wise to carry both types of picks in your arsenal. That way it gives you the best of both worlds, especially if your work is multi-disciplinary, such as mine. Of course it’s more expensive to buy more than one hammer, but if you can make ends meet, we would definitely recommend holding both types. If you're on a budget, just think about what field you work in. If you're a geologist, go for a pick-end rock hammer. If you're a palaeontologist or archaeologist, a chisel-end rock hammer would be a better choice.
For other basic hammer specs, you need to keep a few things in mind. Firstly the handle. Rock hammers and picks come with a variety of different handles, from wooden, to fiberglass, to tubular steel, to solid steel. There are advantages and disadvantages of each type. By far the safest are the drop-forged hammers crafted from a single piece of steel, head and handle. They are a bit weightier than other designs, but they are extremely safe- the head is highly unlikely to ever fly off during mid-strike. With safety in mind, Dig It Up only stocks such hammers. They may be a bit more expensive than other types of hammers, but hands down, they’ll last you way longer. Wooden and fiberglass handled hammers may be a lot lighter, but with the head and handle being made from two different types of material, they are not as safe as a single piece drop-forged hammer. There is always the possibility of the head flying off and causing you or your fellow bystanders injury. The handle will not last as long as a solid steel handle, but in many cases, they are replaceable if you do manage to ding them up. As for tubular steel handled hammers, they would probably be my third choice. Again, they’re not as safe as a single drop-forged model, plus it may be difficult, if not impossible, to replace the handle if you severely damage it.
Let’s look at the weight of the hammer. You’ll often see hammers at various weights such as 20 oz, 24 oz, etc. Remember, those weights reflect the weight of the head only, not the weight of the entire rock hammer. So for example, if you look at two 22 oz rock hammers such as the Estwing E3-22P (short-handle pick-end rock hammer) and Estwing E3-22LP (long handle pick-end rock hammer), they weigh around 800 g and 1,000 g respectively. The difference in weight is governed by the longer handle of the E3-22LP. Of course, a single piece 24 oz drop-forged steel hammer is going to be heavier than a 24 oz wooden-handled or tubular stelel-handled equivalent.
Finally, a quick word on hammer safety. Don’t be a fool with your hammer – they are one of the most dangerous field tools out there. Nearly every hammer comes with instructions that go along the lines of advising (we should say, “demanding”) that every user and bystander at least wears some sort of eye protection. Hammer strikes commonly give off chips, whether they be from the rock that you are trying to crack, or even the rock hammer itself (especially if you are hitting something particularly hard). Those chips can fly out at you at a million miles per second. If they hit your eye, you’re going to be in some serious trouble. As a minimum, make sure you wear at least some sort of safety glasses. Safety goggles are better, a full face shield is the best, but not always practical in the field. Be courteous to others when you are about to strike a rock – give notice to your fellow bystanders. And finally, never use a rock hammer to strike another rock hammer! Hitting two tools of similar density and strength at force is not only likely to damage either or both hammers, it’ll also send off fine debris into the unsuspecting eye.