I met Chaz Arthur because we both “liked” the Facebook page of the Cole-Bar, an ill-fated hammer that will likely never go into commercial production. If it had gone into production, Arthur would have bought one, even though it’s a terribly impractical tool. Why? Because he collects framing hammers and his goal is to have one of every mill faced model ever produced. What’s more, he wants them to be unstruck, having never been used to strike or pull nails.
Arthur began collecting in 1992 after encountering the original Hart California Framer, a famously beautiful axe-handled model with a chromed head and milled face. His collection now includes more than 220 hammers, plus patent documents and a wealth of information about the tools and their development. Arthur is too modest to say this, but he probably knows as much about framing hammers as any man alive— having studied the category and met or interviewed many of the folks who design them.
According to Arthur, framing hammers are used almost exclusively in the U.S. and Japan, and as hand tools go, are a fairly recent development:
As early as the 1960s, Stanley, Vaughan, and Plumb had hammers with a milled face and a rip claw, called decking hammer in most cases. In the 1970s quite a number of individual carpenters fabricated their own version by cutting the blade off of a riggers axe and welding on claws.
A rigger’s axe has an axe blade on one end and a hammer face on the other. As the story goes, these tools were originally used by carpenters building wooden oil derricks they became common on West Coast framing sites during the building boom after WWII. Heavy enough to drive 16d nails in a single blow and better balanced than most hammers, they fell out of favor as safety agencies cracked down on their use, tool companies produced better hammers, and framing contractors began to buy nail guns. Rigger’s axes are still available from Estwing and Vaughan, with most being sold to outdoor enthusiasts.
Like any tool, the framing hammer has evolved over time:
In the1980s, both Hart and Dalluge produced variations with a larger milled face and a longer axe handle, this adaption was referred to as the "California framer" before Vaughan Tool copyrighted the term.
With the success of these brands, all of the big hammer producers came out with their own versions of the framing hammer. Startups like Stiletto created the titanium headed versions, and Douglas creating an entirely new head to handle interface. There were numerous short-lived inventions like the Ted Hammer triangle face, the Gossage side striking head or the Hurley Cobra with its quick change head. A patent search will net over 60 patents relating to this hammer type.
The 2000s brought a marked increase in the number of makers outsourcing manufacture to foreign countries. Proud names like Plumb and True Temper are American in name only. Stanley/DeWalt/Bostitch hammers are all foreign made. Only the TiBone hammers of Stiletto are American made, the rest are now foreign made.
Estwing and Vaughan still make most of their hammers in the US. Several fresh startups are committing themselves to the Made in USA mantra, most notably the HardCore and PowerStrike brands.
The slideshow on the left contains some of the more interesting framing hammers in the collection. Be sure to see the captions.
I would like to extend a special thanks to Chaz Arthur for generously sharing his photos and knowledge of framing hammers with the ToTT audience. If when you finish the slideshow, you are thirsty for more, check out his album on Flickr.