How to Clean and Maintain a Hammer

old hammer

If you believe that dirty tools are more manly tools, think again. You always run the risk of a tool not working properly when it’s not clean. Even hammers are affected by dirt, which is why it’s important to keep them clean and well-maintained.

A hammer relies on impact force to do its job. Force is maximized when the head of the hammer makes clean, even contact with the head of the nail you are driving in. But if a hammer head is dirty, you might not get a clean strike. Your hammer could glance off the nail or drive it sideways.

Perhaps you’ve never thought about dirty hammers before. If so, this post is for you. You’ll learn how to clean and maintain a hammer over the long term. And yes, you will be happy you learned this information once you see how much better your hammers seem to work.

Note that what you read here applies to all kinds of hammers. It doesn’t matter whether they are claw, club, or ball peen hammers. Cleaning and maintenance principles are the same.

Cleaning the Striking Surface

You might not be looking at hammers that are extremely dirty. In fact, you might make a point of storing your hammers in such a way as to not allow them to get to dirty. Still, you notice that your blows are glancing more often than not. This could very well be due to a dirty striking surface.

Turn your hammer over and look at the surface. If it looks dull and gritty, it’s dirty. Cleaning is a breeze. All you need is a piece of sandpaper and a damp rag. Use the sandpaper to polish the surface until it shines. You will be removing dirt and simultaneously scuffing the surface for better friction.

Simply wipe the surface down with your damp rag after sanding. For maximum grip, sand the surface in multiple directions. This will scuff the metal at multiple angles in much the same way the treads on your tires intersect, giving you more traction with every blow.

Cleaning Dirty Heads

Though you might get away with cleaning just the striking surface, it is quite possible the entire head of your hammer needs to be cleaned. Once again, it’s not hard as long as you’re not looking at an excessive amount of rust. You can sand the entire head the same way you do the striking surface, then wipe it down with a damp rag.

If you are looking at dirt and debris other than rust, WD-40 works well as a cleaner. Don’t apply it directly to the metal. Rather, apply it to a rag and then wipe the head down. Whatever you do, don’t use WD-40 on the striking surface. Remember, you want friction.

Dealing with Excessive Rust

Have you ever opened a toolbox that hasn’t seen the light of day in years? If so, you know that hammers are subject to rusting if they are not used regularly. Moreover, rusty hammers tend to stink. The foul odor is attributable to the oxidation process that causes rust.

For this job, sandpaper and WD-40 isn’t going to cut it. You are going to need to go a little more extreme. If your hammers have wooden handles that are easily removed, go ahead and remove them. Otherwise, be careful with the next step. You don’t want the wooden handles to get wet.

Fill a jar with enough vinegar to fully submerge the rusted hammer heads. Place the heads inside and let them soak for 24 hours. Vinegar is a wonderful substance that loosens rust so you can merely wipe it away. And that’s exactly what you’re going to do.

Remove the hammer heads after 24 hours and rinse them under cold water. Use a damp rag to wipe off any remaining rust. If a small amount of rust still remains, a wire brush or a piece of sandpaper should take care of it. If not, you may have to soak the heads again for another 24 hours.

Finally, you want to treat the heads with a bit of WD-40. This will prevent them from rusting so quickly again. Just remember not to get WD-40 on the striking surface.

Cleaning Wooden Handles

On occasion, you might run into a hammer with a pretty dirty handle. Dirty handles are problematic as they can prevent you from getting a tight, solid grip. That’s the last thing you want when you’re swinging for a nail with full power. No worries, though. Cleaning wooden hammer handles is pretty straightforward.

If all you are looking at are surface dirt and stains, start with a wire brush or a piece of sandpaper. A stiff wire brush will knock off pretty much anything. Then you can wipe the handle down with a damp rag. Should you decide to use sandpaper, start with a low grit product. You want to be as gentle as possible so that you don’t sand all the way through the finish.

Should your cleaning reveal any bare spots, you will have to make a decision. You can:

  • leave them alone
  • cover them with a shellac or varnish
  • completely strip and refinish the handle.

A completely finished handle is going to last longer. So your decision might be influenced by the size of the bare spots. If they are just small spots, you can probably get away with one of the first two options. If you are talking fairly large bare spots, stripping and refinishing is probably a better option.

Flaking Shellac or Varnish

An extreme situation would be one in which the actual shellac or varnish is flaking. Now you are looking at a bigger job. You probably don’t want to use sandpaper to clean the handle for the simple fact that flaking shellac and varnish will tear right through it. You’re better off using a spoke shave, file, or even the edge of a piece of broken glass (obviously, be very careful if using the glass).

Once you have smoothed out the service you will be faced with the same choice as before. You are probably going to have to think about refinishing the handle if the remaining finish is in rough shape. If so, use a power sander or a chemical stripper to get down to the bare wood. Then finish the handle with a good varnish or oil.

Dealing with Unfinished Handles

It is not so unusual to come across a hammer with an unfinished wood handle. Older tools are more likely to be unfinished for obvious reasons. Just remember this one important fact: unfinished wood dries out and cracks more easily. This is why woodworkers recommend oiling it.

If you are cleaning a tool with an unfinished wood handle, be sure to complete the job by applying some oil. Three very good choices are linseed oil, tung oil, and teak oil. Avoid using mineral oil as it can make wood feel sticky. That will only attract more dirt in the future.

Regular Hammer Maintenance

Cleaning dirty and rusty hammers is a lot easier than it sounds. Still, you can cut down on the amount of cleaning necessary by following some simple maintenance procedures. To start with, make a practice of wiping down your hammers before you put them away for the day.

You’re going to wipe down both the head and the handle. You are also going to take a look at the striking surface to see if it has picked up any dirt or debris. If it looks dull even after wiping, quickly scuff it with a piece of sandpaper.

Your hammers’ wooden handles can be treated every couple of weeks to keep them in top shape. If you are a casual tool user and only pull out your hammers a few times per year, you don’t need to treat them so often. At any rate, treat finished handles with a bit of furniture polish and unfinished handles with some oil.

This is a good time to take a look at the joint between head and handle. If it is loose, do not ignore it. Tighten heads in whatever way is appropriate to the style of tool you’re working with. Secure heads are safe heads.

Preventing Rust

Let me close by talking about preventing rust. Hammers rust when they are exposed to moisture and certain kinds of chemicals. Preventing rust is all about coming up with a good storage solution. Store your hammers somewhere safe, where they are unlikely to be exposed to the elements.

Make a point of drying your hammers thoroughly if they ever get wet. Whatever you do, don’t put a wet hammer into a toolbox. The toolbox is likely to trap moisture. Not only will your hammer rust, but some of your other tools could be affected as well. I have a post about removing rust from tools if it ever becomes an issue – just click on the link to read it.

Like just about any other tool you use, hammers will last longer if you keep them clean and maintain them. And a clean and well-maintained hammer is one that works the way it should.


I am a content creator by profession but I love tools. Merging the two created this website...

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