Pay close attention to these features when you're evaluating a hammer.
These are time-tested, proven designs, in a variety of weights and handle materials.
For DIYers and general pro use, a smooth face is best because it won't mar surfaces. Some framing carpenters prefer a "milled face" hammer because it doesn't slip off nail heads as readily.
Classic hammers are designated by head weight: 16 to 20 oz. is good for DIY use, with 16 oz. good for trim and shop use, 20 oz. better for framing and demo.
We prefer straight rip claw hammers for general use.
For general DIY and remodeling use, the best hammers are steel or fiberglass. Wood handles break, and the grip is more slippery. They're fine for the shop or trim work but less useful on a general-purpose hammer. Other things being equal, fiberglass handles are lighter; steel handles are more durable. Wood and fiberglass transmit less vibration to the user, though for many people (including us), vibration isn't a problem.
In more modern hammers, every feature of the classic hammer design has been changed or tweaked.
These hammers have new features that give you a different, and possibly better, feel and performance. Shown here is a Stanley 20-oz. with a steel handle.
Common sense would say that you'd miss fewer nails, right? But in our experience, the difference is slight.
This feature is typically a groove and magnet that hold a nail so you can get it started high above your head with only one hand.
Some people find that steel-handled hammers make their elbows sore after long periods of hammering. With that in mind, some designs claim to dramatically reduce vibration.
Some modern-style hammers have head weights similar to a classic hammer. Others have a lighter head and a longer handle, which can give high striking force with less overall weight.
Classic handles are straight, with a symmetrical bulge at the end. Some modern hammers have a curved handle and a hooked end—a combination that feels more balanced to some users.