Hammering Nails 101: Tips for Good Technique

Where to Grip, Hammer Types, and Maintenance

Hitting nail into wooden beam
Robie Price / Getty Images

Almost every household has a hammer or two. Like painting walls, hammering nails is something everyone thinks they know how to do. After all, a hammer is just a simple hand tool, not a power tool like a circular saw or power drill, so what possible technique could there be to using a hammer? You'd be surprised. 

Here are eight essential tips for using a hammer correctly and how to effectively hammer into various materials.


Never Hammer Your Fingers Again!

  • 01 of 08

    Choose the Right Hammer

    Close-Up Of Hammers Over White Background
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    A hammer is a hammer is a hammer....

    Not really. There are many types of hammers. The hammer that is found in most homes—and a decent choice for all-around versatility—is the 16-ounce curved-claw hammer on the far left, shown here. If you're going to have one hammer only, this is a good choice. But if you're looking for a little lighter version of this hammer, consider its little brother, the 13-ounce curved claw hammer. A smaller hammer will be easier to control for many people.

    Most homeowners can stay away from specialty hammers, such as the 20 to 30-ounce ripping-claw framing hammer, though this hammer is often used to drive concrete nails. Those are for pro carpenters or very experienced DIYers who are doing a lot of rough-carpentry work or demolition jobs. Framing hammers look similar to standard claw hammers, but the claws are straighter, the handle is longer, and the head is considerably heavier. 

    Remember that both of these types of claw hammers are designed for striking hardened nails and wood. They are not meant to pound on stone or concrete, and should not be used to drive steel masonry chisels or other metal objects. 

    Some of the other specialty hammers to consider:

    • Tack hammer: This tool usually has two striking surfaces at either end of the head; it is used for driving small brads and tacks, such as carpet tacks. Some tack hammers have a magnetic head that can hold tiny tacks by the head to make them easier to drive.
    • Ball peen hammer: This hammer has one flat-faced head and one rounded head; the specially hardened steel is designed for metalwork.
    • Mason hammer: This is a hammer that has a striking face on one side and a chisel-shaped cutting pick on the other side. It is available in many sizes. It's designed specifically to score and split bricks or break small pieces off of rocks.
    • Mallet: made of wood or rubber; designed to strike wood without leaving damaging marks. 
    • Drywall hammer: This tool has a small ax face on one side of the head which can be used to knock holes in drywall. The other side of the hammer has a flat face for driving drywall nails. 
    • Cub hammer or sledgehammer: These are different sizes of the same basic hammer design—heavy-headed tools used for demolition or masonry work. 

    Let's now consider some tips for effectively using the curved-claw hammer to learn the proper way to hammer a nail like a pro.

  • 02 of 08

    Wear Eye Protection

    Carpenter in workshop using hammer
    JPM / Getty Images

    Because it is not a power tool, most people don't realize how important it is to wear eye protection while hammering nails. But nails can get deflected and sent flying toward your face, pieces of concrete or wood can splinter off and get sent hurling, or pieces of the hammer face itself can chip off and go flying. 

    It is a very easy protective measure to wear a pair of lightweight, inexpensive eye protectors whenever you are hammering. Never go without eye protection. 

  • 03 of 08

    Hold the Hammer Correctly

    Carpenter hammering nail into wooden plank
    Maskot / Getty Images

    Get used to holding the hammer correctly. Don't "choke up" on  the hammer and grab it by the neck to start a nail by tapping on it. Nothing sends the message "I have no idea what I am doing" like using a hammer this way.

    To properly hold the hammer, grab it near the end of its handle. Get used to the feel. Swing it loosely in your hand. A well-made hammer will have a nice balance to it and a little sweep or widened section at the end of the handle to help you hold on.

    Once you have the hammer perfectly gripped, you're ready to swing.

  • 04 of 08

    Hold the Nail Properly

    Person holding a nail towards the top

    LWA / Getty Images

    A very common mistake when starting a nail is to hold it down near the bottom, against the wood. This is exactly wrong because if you miss the head of the nail (and this will happen, especially when you are a novice), the hammerhead will very likely crush your fingers against the wood. By holding the nail near the top, you have a bit of leeway and are less likely to badly bruise or break fingers when mishaps occur. 

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Swing Correctly and Hit the Nail

    Young woman hammering nail into wall at home
    Hero Images / Getty Images

    Although this sounds self-evident, striking the nail square on the head is the goal when using a hammer. If you've ever watched a beginner, though, you'll understand that this isn't as easy as it sounds. 

    Here's the proper procedure to hammer a nail without bending it:

    1. Hold the nail near the top, just under the head, with the sharp tip positioned where you want to drive the nail. Hold the nail perfectly perpendicular to the nailing surface. 
    2. Place the hammerhead centered on the head of the nail. 
    3. Draw back the hammer primarily with elbow motion, along with a slight backward bend of the wrist. 
    4. Watch the head of the nail (not the hammer), as you swing forward with an accelerating motion. Just as you contact the nail head, there should be a slight forward snap of the wrist. The blow should not be violent, just a gradually accelerating swing. 

    Once you get the hang of nailing, you'll find that using a few smooth, well-placed blows is far more successful than trying to ferociously pound a nail with great force. 

    If you watch a good professional carpenter at work, you will notice that most of the force applied when using a hammer comes from elbow and shoulder action, with the energy coming from the momentum of the hammer's head. Novices, on the other hand, tend to use an excessive amount of muscular wrist bending when they hammer, leading to inaccuracy and a lot of wrist stress over time. 

  • 06 of 08

    Blunt the Tip of Your Nail

    Close Up Of Nails On Table
    Bianca Grneberg / EyeEm / Getty Images

    If you find that your nails are splitting the wood (most common with narrow pieces of hardwood lumber), try blunting the tip of the nail before driving it. Wood splits because the fibers are bent and deformed as the nail forces its way between them. A blunt nail tip tends to sever the wood fibers rather than bend them, so the nail is less likely to split the wood. Be aware, however, that the holding power of the nail is slightly reduced with this method, as it can't be gripped as tightly if the wood fibers are severed. 

    How do you blunt the tip of the nail?  A tried and true technique is to turn the nail upside down with the head resting on a hard surface and the tip facing up. Then, lightly  tap the nail tip with your hammer to slightly blunt it.

    A slightly blunted nail is really no more difficult to drive, and it almost never will split the wood. 

  • 07 of 08

    Drill Pilot Holes

    4074 / Bootsbau
    Construction Photography/Avalon / Getty Images

    Another method of avoiding splitting, as well as to make driving nails easier in dense hardwoods, is to drill a pilot hole in the wood, using a bit that is slightly smaller in diameter than the shank of the nails you are using. 

    Like blunting the tip of the nail, drilling pilot holes will slightly reduce the holding power of the nails, but it is a good technique when installing trim moldings or other work that doesn't require maximum holding power. 


    If you are hammering into concrete or cement, you will also need to drill pilot holes for the nails using a hammer drill and a masonry bit.

  • 08 of 08

    Make the Last Blow Count

    African man hammering nail
    Tetra Images / Getty Images

    If you examine the face of a hammer, you'll notice that the striking head has a slightly rounded, convex shape. This profile is designed so that you can drive the head of the nail head flush or just slightly below the surface of the wood on the final blow of the hammer. 

    If you correctly time your hammer strikes, the last blow will drive the nail head slightly below the surface of the material you're nailing into. Done right, the shape of the hammer's head will slightly countersink the nail but will not mar the wood surface at all. If you watch a skilled finish carpenter, you will see that the very last blow of the hammer is a vigorous one, intended to slightly countersink the head of a finish nail. When done correctly, there is no need to follow up and countersink the nail heads with a nail set tool.