Hammers & Mallets

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Throughout the Early Medieval there are a number of different hammers and mallets in use by the various trades. Even by the mid 20th century over 250 examples were known from Viking Norway alone . While there is a lot of crossover between period hammers and modern hammers stylistically, there are also many differences.

A downloadable guide can be found here

Modern vs Period

The primary difference between modern (within the last 100 years or so) and ancient hammers is the technique of manufacture. Period hammer heads were handmade in a forge by a blacksmith, modern ones are mass produced by machinery and often cut from a sheet before being hardened. Immediately this precision makes a modern head look very different to period hammer. The addition of maker’s marks, a narrow neck, and various other alterations distinguishes a modern hammer head from the plainer period heads.

Wooden mallets are much the same. Obviously all materials other than wood are not suitable for a period mallet, but even a modern wooden mallet is often unsuitable as they are mostly machine made and look it. The squared head and corners of a modern mallet are totally at odds with the found examples of period mallets. Even though some of the styles can be broadly similar, it can be safely assumed that virtually all shop bought modern hammers and mallets will be unsuitable for use in the LHE.

Hafting a hammer

Correct hafting of a hammer is just as important both from an authenticity and safety perspective. Details of how to haft can be found elsewhere; here we will cover what is necessary to make the handle acceptable for the LHE. Probably the best period wood to use for hammer (and axe) handles is ash. Oak is also acceptable but ash would be better. As a modern imported wood, hickory should be avoided.

Once fitted snugly to the head, the end of the shaft can be wedged with either hardwood wedges (again ash or oak for preference) or with iron/steel wedges (such as with the Tattershall Thorpe hammers). All wedges should be basic wedge shapes, not the modern style with additional spurs and flanges.

Acceptable styles of head

There are a number of styles of hammer that are suitable for use in the LHE ranging from heavy blacksmithing hammers down to light pin hammers for jewelry making and light riveting. One of the best single collection of hammers is from Mästermyr, Gotland, Sweden. Further examples of period hammers can be found throughout Northern Europe, with particular fine assemblages from Saebo, Norway and Bygland, Norway. There are English examples from York and Thetford. (these citations re not exhaustive - there are others). As well the following generic advice for hammers, there are also occasional finds of hammers that may have been made for a specific task but would not necessarily commonplace items ; some have specific comment made below.

Hammers that can be easily used in one hand are the most common of all hammer styles. Two handed hammers are less prevalent, but still chronologically and geographically widespread.

Generally the shape of period hammers is rectangular with a wedge shaped tail and straight pein. The pein is the back edge of the hammer head opposite the main striking face. This generic shape gives rise to the name sledgehammer, because if the head is viewed top down the side view resembles a very crude sledge. In modern nomenclature a sledgehammer is a heavy tool, but in our period sledge shaped hammers come in all weights and sizes. The name sledgehammer is also modern. Not all period hammers are sledge shaped, hammer head shape can vary, especially for hammers designed for specific tasks such as riveting.

Some hammers have a slight flare where the head and handle meet. This is formed partly by the way a hammer head is made but can be accentuated by design. This flare gives rise to the classic 'thor's hammer' or Mjolnir shape which has significantly extended flares. (note this is NOT the Marvel comic's Thors hammer which is a plain square block). The flares can be pushed/hammered into the shaft to better fix the head in place, but care needs to be taken to prevent too much damage to the shaft or else it may snap where the flares cut into it.

Note that the hammer face shape can vary. For general purpose use the hammer face needs to be flat, whereas for riveting the best shape is domed. The pein shape is also important because a straight pein can be used by smiths to stretch hot metal in one direction, whereas a dome will stretch in all directions. Even today an 'engineers' hammer tends to have a domed pein for riveting, whereas a carpenters hammer has a cross or straight pein, although nowadays that is to get nails started and is not a smithing tool.

As well as the variation in head shape, the hammer handle position within the head can also be different. In some examples it is at the rear of the head rather than in the centre (e.g. Bygland), so that the head and handle form an “L” rather than a “T”. These hammers have no tail behind the handle, and are designed for riveting especially in confined spaces (e.g. inside cauldrons). This design of hammer can still be found being used today by metalsmiths in Mediterranean cities with Arabian Souk style markets where craftsmen hand form coffee pans and sugar bowls.

A study of the archaeological record of period hammers suggests that the vast majority of general use hammer heads fell into a particular weight range of 400-750gr. The larger hammers from Mästermyr weigh between approximately 1600gr and 3400gr and are therefore made for heavier work ; maybe splitting logs or assembling larger frames (e.g. houses - maybe ships).

Small or “Pin” hammers

After the sledge shaped hammers described above, the next most common style of Early Medieval hammer head is the so-called “pin hammer”. While some of these are superficially similar to a modern pin hammer, many are more like smaller variants of the sledge shaped hammer or are more similar to a small solid cross pein hammer.

These hammers generally are both smaller and lighter than general use hammers. They are often found in association with other evidence suggesting that the owner was a metalsmith of some description (most likely a jeweller), but not a blacksmith (e.g. Hinton 2000). Another possibility is that some of these smaller hammers were used by comb makers as riveting hammers.

Some examples of “pin” hammers are very delicate, with an example from Tattershall Thorpe weighing only 33gr. As with hand hammers, they are found across Britain and Scandinaviaand are present from the 7th C through to the eleventh century.

Claw Hammers

This claw hammer is more of a modern tool designed for removing nails using the claw. The way that nails were used in our period significantly reduces the usefulness of such a design of hammer, which is essentially both a hammer and a crowbar. Note that nails were used like rivets, with their tails bent over or clenched, and did not relying on friction like modern nails. Nevertheless there are examples of period claw hammers. One of two Saxon examples from Goltho, both of which date from the 11th C. Another example from the late 11th/early 12th C is known from Winchester. It must be stressed that these are quite rare finds and most probably would not be an item that would be a standard feature of every carpenter’s toolbox. It is possible that they were farriers tools for extracting nails when re-shoeing a horse ; horse shoes being in common use by 1000 AD.

Mallets and Beetles

The poor preservation of wood on most sites means that complete examples of wooden hammers are rare. However they are not totally unknown and a few examples do exist. As today, mallets in the past could be either be turned from a single piece of timber or they could be in two pieces assembled the same way as a metal hammer, comprising a separate head and handle such as the example from York. A mallet in one piece is known as a 'beetle', and this name can be used to differential between that style of wood hammer and the two piece 'mallet'.

Based on both the archaeological finds and modern examples, single piece mallets can be made from willow, oak or beech (depending on their use) and for composite mallets willow, oak or beech for the head with an ash or hazel handle.