Picking the Right Rock Hammer

01
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Geologist or Prospector's Hammer

The usual geologist's hammer
Rock Hammers. Photo (c) 2007 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

Geologists and rockhounds have several different rock hammers to choose from. One is usually enough for a day trip, as long as it is the right one. Suitable hammers can be found in most large hardware stores, although they may not be labeled as rock hammers. For many users, these are all they need for a lifetime.

Hammers of higher quality and different designs are available from specialty manufacturers and dealers. Heavy users, people with unusual physiques, rockhounds who want a wide choice of options and someone looking for a special present should seek these out, but most people do not need a premium tool. The important thing is to never use a carpenter's hammer and avoid cheap, off-brand tools from discount stores. These can be made of soft or poorly tempered metal that may splinter or bend in heavy use, endangering the user and anyone standing nearby. Cheap materials in the handle may also strain the arm and wrist, perform poorly when wet or turn crumbly after long sun exposure.

This is the most typical rock hammer, and may also be called a rock pick or prospector's pick. The hammer head is used for breaking and trimming small rocks as well as light chisel driving, and the sharp pick end is for light prying and grubbing in loose or weathered rock. It's a good compromise for a variety of uses. All rock hammers should always be used wearing eye protection, because chips from rocks or from the hammer can fly in all directions. This hammer must not be treated as a chisel, being struck with another hammer, because the hardened steel head can send off chips. Chisels are made of a softer steel suitable for being hammered.

This hammer is not the well-known Estwing, but one made by Vaughan that I bought at a large hardware store. It is the one I keep in the car most of the time.

02
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Chisel, Mason's or Bricklayer's Hammer

The fossil hunter's hammer
Rock Hammers. Photo (c) 2007 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

This is the hammer used to split and trim stratified rocks or dig into sediments. Its chisel end is handy for splitting shale layers in search of fossils. It's also well suited for carving clean exposures of sediment layers like varved clays or lake beds to prepare them for sampling or photography. The hammer head is suitable for light chisel work. This hammer must not be used as a chisel, that is, by hammering on the hammer's face, or it may chip. All rock hammers should always be used wearing eye protection, because chips from rocks or from the hammer can fly in all directions. Proper chisels are made of softer metal. For paleontologists or workers in sedimentary rock country, this may be the only rock hammer needed.

This is an Estwing hammer, which is widely available. Its chisel end is also very handy for gardening, especially if you aren't a bricklayer.

03
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Cross-Peen Crack Hammer

A versatile hammer
Rock Hammers. Photo (c) 2007 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

This is a two-pound hammer, although cross-peen crack hammers can also come in larger sizes. I call this one a crack hammer because it functions like one, even though a real crack hammer is blunt on both faces. It's suited for breaking outcrops and boulders of hard rock to collect large specimens, and also for driving a chisel or drill. The pointed cross-peen end will split thick-bedded rocks, so it's a decent all-in-one tool. If you do a lot of hammering rocks or work in metamorphic terrain, this hammer can do things that the standard ones can not. It weighs more than them and is useless for prying or grubbing. All rock hammers should be used wearing eye protection, because chips from rocks or from the hammer can fly in all directions.

I got the head of this hammer as a gift, discarded by another rockhound, and installed a new handle. It's made in Japan and is very solid. I have also made good use of it in demolition work around the yard.

04
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Chisel-Tip Rock Pick

Suited for prospecting
Rock Hammers. Photo (c) 2009 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

This antique tool is classified as a chisel-tip rock pick, with the back end for splitting rocks and the front end for digging, grubbing and breaking up ore. This is an exploratory tool. The prospector who used this kept chisels and crack hammer handy for the separate work of breaking and excavating hard rock. It is not a commonly made style today and was probably custom forged.