D.I.Y. Power Hammer: Do You Really Need One?

D.I.Y. Power Hammer: Do You Really Need One?
Every smith seems to wish they had a power hammer, but does the tool really fit their needs.

Why a power hammer may or may not be for you.

I think almost every smith wishes at some point he or she had a power hammer. 

It’s loud, powerful and moves metal quickly. It’s also the key to improving the production speed of forging and making damascus steel, and speed without sacrificing quality quickly translates into increased revenue and more fun.

It’s under such conditions that the smith turns to the Internet and begins to look for a hammer. Quickly he or she discovers several things. 

First are stories of people who got incredible deals on a hammer stored in a barn somewhere. These are like hunting stories of novices killing giant whitetail bucks, or fishing stories of a kid catching a 12-pound largemouth bass. The stories are true but it’s not likely to happen to you that way. If you’re one of the lucky ones who find a running Little Giant 50-pound power hammer for $200 at a garage sale, I don’t like you and I don’t want to hear your story. LOL!

Jason Fry and Travis Fry
According to the author—at left with his brother/fellow maker Travis Fry at BLADE Show Texas—a good power hammer improves forging production speed without sacrificing quality. His sub-hilt fighter features “Trashcan” canister damascus. (SharpByCoop knife image)

The next thing the smith discovers is there are running hammers to be had in the world, and they’re expensive. Along with just about everything else, the prices of hammers have increased the past few years. The odds of finding a working used hammer in your area are slim, even if you are willing to pay retail.

Whether you’re looking at the new production hammers or rebuilt old ones the price tag is steep, sometimes even $5,000 or $10,000. That’s a lot of knives and for many folks, there’s no way to justify the cost. On the other hand, if you can swing it, there are many high-quality production hammers on the market that will serve you well.

Meanwhile, desperate for a tool that seems just out of reach, the smith turns again to the Internet and searches “how to build a power hammer.”  

Little Giant was manufactured in 1917
This 50-pound Little Giant was manufactured in 1917 and is a clean-running example of what’s available on the used hammer market. (James Rodriguez image)

My D.I.Y. Power Hammer

I competed on the History Channel’s Forged in Fire in May 2018 (season five, episode 26, Qinglong Ji). I thought about several ways to prepare for the show. 

One was to practice various smithing techniques. I forged quite a few blades and practiced my forge welding. Another way to prepare is to work on equipment. I built a new forge out of castable refractory suitable for forge welding. I also decided to build a power hammer. 

I figured that if I made the final round on the show, I’d sure like to have a power hammer to use in the final build. If I were eliminated in the first two rounds I’d be disappointed, but in the end, I’d still have a tool that few smiths get to have.

Consequently, I spent five weekends in April and May building a spring helve power hammer, a style often called an Appalachian or Rusty hammer. Because I had a friend with an epic scrapyard, I was able to build the hammer for under $250. I did end up trading a few knives to my friend for the metal as well.

I spent about 50 hours of work building my hammer over the course of a month. I could have built roughly $2,000 worth of knives during that time, maybe more. Between the time I spent and the knives I traded, I estimate I have roughly $3,500 in my hammer. For that price, I could have purchased a running and functional hammer. The reason for me to take the DIY path was cash outlay—I had more time than money. 

D.I.Y. Power Hammer Considerations

I believe strongly that in order to successfully build a power hammer, you need several things. 

Piotr Delega DIY power hammer
Poland’s Piotr Delega, who goes by SteelCraft on YouTube, built his own hammer. He’s a great fabricator with engineering skills and a completely stocked machine shop. He started with a fully functioning LEGO model, created a 3D software model, and then built this fine functioning hammer.

Mechanical Inclination

The first is to be mechanically inclined. Building a hammer from scrap is exactly like building a racecar from a tub of LEGOs, and nothing at all like building the same from a boxed LEGO set. In a set, there are step-by-step instructions with pictures and perfectly shaped pieces that fit together. If you build a hammer from scrap, there are no plans, instructions or pictures. You’ll have to sort through materials looking for a piece that fits or that will serve the purpose you need, just like when you dig through the LEGO tub looking for four matching wheels. 

If you don’t have the necessary experience in mechanical design and fabrication, if you can’t visualize and then build, if you can’t anticipate future problems before you weld everything together, you may be better with a tire hammer or purchasing a complete hammer.

Welding Ability

Second, you need to be able to weld, and you need a welding machine with high enough amperage to weld thick steel. An import 110v wire feed doesn’t have the power to weld the sizes of steel that you’ll need to build a hammer. I used a 220v 180-amp class wire feed, and it was underpowered for some of the heaviest welds on my hammer, requiring multiple passes to get adequate penetration. It’s not what I’d recommend, but it’s what I had.

Regarding your welding method, stick or MIG or flux core wire feed is up to you, as all can do the job if the machine is powerful enough and you have the skills. SPECIAL NOTE: If you don’t have confidence you can weld steel well enough for the weld to hold up under extreme stresses, then you should buy a hammer.

LEGO power hammer
This is the fully operational LEGO toy power hammer made by Piotr Delega. He built a 3D software model based on it and used the model as the game plan from which to construct the full-size functioning hammer shown above.

The Right Shop

Next, you’re thinking of building a machine that is loud and heavy.  If you work out of a one-car garage or live in an apartment, it just won’t work.  If you are a member of a homeowner’s association (HOA) or live in a city with zealous code enforcement officers, good luck. 

If you have employees and need OSHA approval or insurance for your shop, you should buy a hammer instead of trying to make one. If you have touchy neighbors who already don’t like the fact that you forge in the backyard because they’re irritated by your two-hour hand-hammer-and-anvil sessions on Saturday afternoons, good luck. I’m fortunate enough to have neighbors who think my hobby is cool, a city with weak code enforcement, and I have a shop in my backyard. 

With a proper base plate and a heavy anvil, you’re building a tool that could easily weigh 1,500 pounds. If you work in sales, oilfield, church or some other vocation where you move every few years, you need to think about how you’re going to move your hammer should the need arise. I built mine with several bolt-together joints so I can break it down into parts of a few hundred pounds each that can be lifted with an engine hoist.

Materials Source

Finally, a good source of scrap metal is a must if you want to build your hammer economically.  If you have to go buy steel at retail, you’ll end up spending as much as a new hammer costs. If you can score your steel for cheap to free, you’re good to build.

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