Field Gear – What’s with All the Hammers?

Geologists use hammers. We all possess at least one of the easily recognized ‘rock hammers’ (I have four!). But we don’t all use the traditional rock hammer. And, as I showed in an earlier post, I often take more than one type of hammer to the field.

These five hammers will definitely be going to the field with me.
These five hammers will definitely be going to the field with me.

So, why all the hammers? What difference does it make?

Well, let’s look at the pros and cons of each type of hammer.

1) The classic rock pick

One of four of my classic rock hammers.
One of four of my classic rock hammers.

A decent all-around hammer, but light, so not of much use if you’re trying to break what are traditionally called ‘hard’ rocks, those of igneous and metamorphic classification. The pick end is good for wedging into cracks and prying, but more often, mine’s gotten stuck in my shin. I mostly use my rock picks to put nails in the wall.

2) A masonry hammer (my favorite)

My goes-with-me-everywhere hammer.
My goes-with-me-everywhere hammer. I do wish it had a slightly longer handle.

It’s the same mass as the regular rock pick, but has the wedge end, rather than a point. The flattened wedge is great for work with ‘soft’ or sedimentary rocks, because you can slip it between layers of bedding and pry them apart. It’s also handy for trenching and digging holes – which you wind up doing frequently in the field.

3) A crack hammer

Admittedly, this is not a true 'crack hammer,' because it only has one blunt end.
Admittedly, this is not a true ‘crack hammer,’ because it only has one blunt end.

A crack hammer is a two or three pound, short-handled sledgehammer with two blunt ends. Mine has the cross peen (wedge) end, which is handy just like the wedge is handy on the masonry hammer. Mine is still three pounds, and does everything a true crack hammer does. This is what you want when working with ‘hard’ rocks.

4) Hoe-pick (or pick-axe)

My hoe-pick
My hoe-pick

I purchased this my first summer of field work as a graduate student. I love this thing. I use it for trenching and also for taking down cliffs and moving lots of rock when quarrying. It also makes a convenient chair. Really. It does.

5) Sledge hammer

6 pound sledgehammer
6 pound sledgehammer

This one is tough to beat if you’re trying to collect large samples of very hard rock. Since I don’t usually need to do this, I don’t often bring a sledge hammer. Maybe I’ll toss this in the truck, since I pulled it out to photograph it.

6)The latest thing: the Burpee pick!

My brand-new, shiny, Burpee Pick
My brand-new, shiny, Burpee Pick

This is all the rage. New this year, Estwing started selling the Burpee Pick, which is supposed to have the benefits of the wedge and pick ends of the light rock hammers above, but with a little more mass and a longer handle. It’s an updated version of the “Marsh Pick,” a tool specifically designed for paleontology. I just bought mine. We’ll see how it does over the next few weeks.

So what you see is that there’s no one ‘perfect’ hammer for doing geology or paleontology. A good field scientist carries several, because each has it’s own optimal use.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Great information, rocks away


  2. Eva Polites says:

    Hi Penny,
    Thanks for the post on hammers. I need your help. My daughter is a geoscience major and is heading to field camp this summer. She wants/needs a rock hammer. This is a birthday gift, so I want to buy her a really good one, but I am confused by the different choices. What should I get her for field camp?


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s