I love hammers. I started framing before air-powered tools and compressors were very common. I worked on a wall crew as a nailer with a big farm boy named Emit. He and I would each go through about two boxes of 16d nails (that's 100 pounds) a day. We swung big, 32-ounce framing hammers and could sink a nail in two hits. One hit set it; the next sunk it.

Now that we all use air tools for just about everything, the two-hit sink is pretty much a lost art. And while hammers may be used less these days, they're still the definitive framing tool. Hammer designers are taking their tools to new levels. Today's framing hammers are one part science, one part art, and two parts power. These tools combine tough materials, smart engineering, and sculptural beauty rarely seen in other tools. Here's a look from the field at the latest generation of framing hammers.

Douglas Tool

DFR20S. The Douglas DFR20S is a 20-ounce hammer with good balance and feel. It's also designed tough: Instead of fitting the wooden handle into the hammerhead, the guys at Douglas designed the head with a steel shank that fits into a notched wooden handle. The shank flattens out on both sides of the handle to form a protective face that provides good overstrike protection. It's a good, cool-looking system.

Instead of the standard raised diamond corrugation, Douglas uses a recessed traction face. The traction face held up a lot better than most of the traditional corrugated heads when we hit anchor bolts and nail pullers as well as nails. Of course, if you don't hit that stuff, any face surface will last for years. But in the real world hammers have to take as much punishment as they dish out. The traction face is a great idea.

The rest of the head is packed with features, too. The head's front end has a magnetic nail-starter notch that's as slick as can be. I also like the stout chisel claw. It's useful for splitting plates and digging out stubborn nails. The cheek has a notch for side-pulling nails. The notch works pretty well, but every time I use it I'm afraid I'm going to break the handle. Douglas says this isn't a problem and so far the tool is holding up just fine. At $60 it's a bit pricey, but it's a great hammer. If you love tools like I do, the price probably won't put you off.

Hart Tool Co.

California Special CS21. This classic hammer is near and dear to my heart. The company has produced top quality framing hammers for years, and the California Special is a beautiful tool. It has a highly polished steel head and a long, sleek, curved Hickory handle. It's got clean lines, but it's all business. You can hang this little piece of framing history from your belt for only $31. That's a lot of style and quality for a good price.

Woody HW-22. Hart's Woody (similar to the Douglas model) is another cool tool. Hart beefs up the wooden handle with its Strong Back system, which adds a lot of life to the handle. A 3/8-inch-wide steel band runs from the top of the head, down through the hammerhead, and about 3 inches down the handle's claw side. This helps distribute nail-pulling stress down the handle. The tool also has a steel overstrike plate. The Woody used to have a side-pull feature like Douglas' tool, but Hart eliminated it because the wooden handles kept breaking.

The Woody's handle is slightly curved and feels good. I like a tool that has personality; this one is that kind of tool. The 21-ounce model costs just $31. This is a well-made, well-priced, high-quality hammer with plenty of style and innovation.

Estwing

E3-22SM. This is the tried-and-true Estwing 22-ounce, straight-claw framing hammer. It's built on a solid steel shank and is pretty much indestructible. Buy one of these, and -- unless you lose it -- you'll have a hammer for life. The tool has a new Shock Reduction grip. It looks just like the old grip as far as I can tell, but the company tells me it's supposed to reduce vibration by up to 50 percent. Unfortunately, I couldn't feel the difference. The street price on this little jewel is a modest $29, which makes it a very solid, no-nonsense tool at a very reasonable price.

The Stanley Works

51-947 AntiVibe III. Stanley's new AntiVibe hammer is a 22-ounce, corrugated-face tool with a hatchet-style handle. A heck of a lot of engineering went into designing this model. It's sleek, solid, and well-balanced. The handle's curved design helps reduce wrist strain and the AntiVibe system (a tuning-fork design that dissipates vibration in the handle before it reaches your arm) really does take a lot of the impact out of pounding nails. At $40 it's a good value, too. It's a solid tool that's built to last and packed with high-tech engineering -- all at an affordable price.

51-402 FatMax 22. The FaxMax hammer is a fantastic tool. It has a 22-ounce steel head with straight claws and a magnetic nail holder. It's mated with a sleek, curved hickory handle that has one of the best-shaped grips I've ever felt. I swear these guys must have snuck into my house and molded this thing to my hand while I slept. It's a perfect fit! And at just $31, it fits my wallet just fine, too. The FatMax is a darn good tool -- well-made and priced right.

Stiletto Tool Co.

TI16MC. The TI16MC is one of the fine, easy-on-the-elbow titanium hammers Stiletto designs and manufactures. This 16-ounce tool weighs 2 ounces more than the company's typical framing hammer. Stiletto calls this model a musclehead, and it delivers impressive driving power. I get the feeling I can drive nails as well with it as I can with most 22-ounce steel hammers. The lightweight head is fitted to an ax-style handle that's well-shaped and provides a good, solid grip. The head has a magnetic nail holder for setting nails beyond your reach. With a suggested street price of $68, it's a little on the expensive side, but it's a very fine tool.

TiBone TB15MS. Stiletto's TiBone is one of the wildest hammers I've ever seen. The head and handle are a single piece of molded titanium with an injection-molded nylon grip. The hammer has a removable steel striking face. You can replace a worn or damaged face with a new one, or you can switch from a corrugated face for framing to a smooth face for siding. This is one of those tools everyone on the site will want to hold. It's very cool, stylish, and definitely expensive. It costs $195, and you need to switch hammer faces that'll each cost you another $30.

Shark Corp.

High-Brow Claw Hammer. I was surprised when I pulled "The Duck" out of its box. This 24-ounce Asian hammer is unlike anything I've seen before. It has a long nose like a trumpet, a rounded, high-brow head, and sharply curved claws, all set atop a long, straight, wooden handle. You can fit a nail between the claws and the back of the head for starting beyond your reach. Little hammer faces on each side of the head let you drive nails or hit nail pullers with the hammer cheek in a tight spot.

I'm intrigued by the tool, but it wasn't well received in the field. The guys said it was poorly balanced and they didn't like the "Duck" head. And, although you can yank out a 16d in one pull, they didn't like the curved claws, either. The straight handle threw them, too. It only costs $25, but even this bit of good news did not sway their opinion of this strange bird.

Vaughan & Bushnell

Ti-Tech. Vaughan enters the titanium hammer arena with the new 16-ounce Ti-Tech. Its interchangeable steel striking faces let you switch from a smooth face to a corrugated head and back again. I like being able to use the same hammer for siding on Monday, wall framing on Tuesday, and finish soffit on Wednesday. Vaughan says it also offers a head with a magnetic nail holder, but I didn't see it.

The Ti-Tech models I received came in two flavors: wooden and fiberglass handles. I like the fiberglass handle the best. It seemed to absorb more shock, and I know I can't break it. The wooden and fiberglass Ti-Techs each retail for around $90, and the interchangeable heads run about $15 each. This is a very nice tool. It's well designed and solid, but a little pricey for my taste.

Dead On Tools

DO21. The DO21 is Dead On's popular 21-ounce framing hammer. It features the standard magnetic nailset atop a well-crafted solid steel head. The new twist is a very nice graphite wrap on the tool's hickory handle. The wrap gives you a great grip and the traditional wood handle provides great shock absorption.

Because it's made by Dead On, the tool is black with a skull-and-cross-bones logo. The younger guys on my jobs are crazy about that stuff. I like Dead On's hammers because they're good-quality tools. Now that I've turned 40, the skull thing just doesn't blow my skirt up like it used to. At $55 the DO21 seems a little pricey, but if a bad-boy image is worth an extra $10 or $15 to you, then Dead On's the way to go.

Ti7. The Ti7 takes an innovative approach to the titanium hammer. Dead On has come up with a way to bond a steel hammer face to a titanium hammer body. The tech types say this is quite a feat of metallurgy. The bottom line is a hammer that looks and feels pretty darn good. The Ti7 has the same magnetic nail holder as the rest of Dead On's hammers. It's mounted on a long, black, ax-style handle and is an impressive tool. The suggested retail price is $99. That's not cheap, but it's right in line for a titanium nail banger.

Sources of Supply

Dead On Tools
800-331-4495
www.deadontools.com

Douglas Tool
831-420-0456
www.douglastool.com

Estwing
815-397-9558
www.estwing.com

Hart Tool Co.
800-331-4495

Shark Corp.
800-891-7855
www.sharkcorp.com

Stiletto Tools
800-987-1849
www.stilettotools.com

The Stanley Works
800-782-6539
www.stanleyworks.com

Vaughan & Bushnell
800-435-6000
www.vaughanmfg.com

Michael Davis is president of Framing Square, a large framing, siding, and trim company in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.