These Are the 3 Best Steels for Making Hammers


The real beauty of blacksmithing lies in the fact that you can build your own tools. This is great for a variety of reasons; saving money, learning a new skill, and potentially start selling them. Every blacksmith needs a good-quality hammer that will last a long time, so learning to forge one is a very important blacksmithing skill.

After experimenting with a lot of different types of steel for making blacksmithing hammers, we concluded that 1045, 4140, and 5160 are some of the best choices for making blacksmithing hammers. All of them will produce a nice and good-quality product.

Consider that there are many more steel types that will serve you well for hammer making but we found that these 3 worked well for us and many other blacksmiths. We will discuss their benefits and disadvantages, but first, we have to understand what makes a great hammer.

What Are Charasteristics of a Good Blacksmithing Hammer?

As you know, the hammer is one of the most important blacksmithing tools. Besides anvil, it is probably the largest association for blacksmithing. So, without a hammer, there is no blacksmithing. You can choose between many types of hammers, but cross peen and straight peen hammers are the most common in blacksmithing.

Keep in mind that every hammer has its own purpose, so not every hammer is convenient for any job. So, before making a hammer, first, you have to know what you will use it for. Understand your needs before starting.

Factor like skill levels will greatly affect your hammer choice. For example, beginners are most likely to use cross peen or straight peen due to their simplicity of usage.

Before jumping into a discussion of each steel, we must first understand which factors are important when it comes to choosing ideal steel for making your hammer. First and most important is heat resistance. How does a material perform on forging temperatures?

Shock resistance of steel is also a very important factor in hammer making. How strong and tough is steel? Hammer with a low toughness is not of much use, moreover, it can be dangerous to work with. Another factor we have to consider is its wear resistance, meaning how well it holds an edge. Also, how easy is it to heat treat that particular steel?

You will see that some steels are excellent choices for hammer making but they require complicated heat treatment and advanced equipment which often cost a lot.

But after all, it all comes to availability. If the material is not available to you, it doesn’t matter how good it is. If any of these steel, which we will discuss next are available to you, use it.

You may hear from someone that some particular steel from Company A is different than the same type of steel from Company B. While there are examples of that, for our blacksmithing purposes, you will probably not notice any difference.

Both of them will work just fine, so don’t lose your head about that. If someone does tell you that, it is „ my steel is better than yours“ marketing game. We suggest everyone who is new at blacksmithing to understand the naming system of steel and its alloys.

It is actually very simple. Every steel is named using a 4 digit number and each number represents information about various alloying elements, including carbon.

Normally, the first number represents the class of the alloy. For example, 5160 steels first number is 5. This number represents alloys that utilize chromium as the main element. Now, the second number represents the concentration of the previously mentioned element.

In this case that is chromium. So 5160 steel is 1% chromium by mass. The last two numbers represent the amount of carbon. These 2 last digits label that the steel is 0.XX % carbon. In the case of 5160, this is 0.60% of carbon which makes it medium-high carbon steel.

1045 Steel for Making Blacksmithing Hammers

This is one of our favorite steels for hammer making. It will work basically for most types of blacksmithing tools, except for cutting tools. 1045 is medium carbon steel with a tensile strength of 570-700 MPa (megapascal) which is a reasonable strength for a blacksmithing hammer. The hardness of 1045 is ranging between 170 and 210 on a Brinell scale. Again, enough for making a good-quality hammer.

The best thing about this steel is the fact that after it is forged, you can normalize it. After normalizing, you can reheat it again to somewhere between 850-1250 degrees celsius. Also keep in mind that immediately after heating, you should take it out and quench it in water. Make sure that your peen is not too thing as it can crack more easily.

Note that all 10xx series steels, from 1030 to 1095 are considered as a water hardening tools steels. This means that you will not obtain a full hardness by quenching them in oil. Now, a lot of people quench them in oil, mainly because it is safer.

That way there is a less tendency to crack or have some stress fractures but this is mostly due to the improper forging technique. For instance, it can be that they didn’t take enough time to properly anneal the tool or they heated it too quickly.

This type of steel can be found in normalized or a black hot-rolled condition. In regards to its chemical composition, 1045 is primarily composed of iron, which makes about 99% of all chemical composition. After iron, the second largest element found in 1045 is carbon, which takes somewhere between 0.043-0.50%. This is considered a medium carbon content. By providing correct procedures, this steel can also be welded and machined.

We recommend this steel for all beginners as it is “forgiving steel”, meaning it is much easier to heat treat. It does not require any advanced equipment like some of them, like D2 steel. Every hammer I made with 1045 steel served me very well for a long time. Actually, yesterday I finished one project with a hammer made from 1045 steel.

4140 Steel for Making Blacksmithing Hammers

Along with 4340, 4140 is one of the most common tool steel used for making all sorts of tools, including hammers. Compared to mild steel, 4140 has much greater toughness and strength. It is low alloy steel consisting of elements like chromium, manganese, and molybdenum.

Low alloy steels are considered those who rely on other elements rather than just iron and carbon to increase steel properties.

4140 is also very versatile steel. It is made by mixing iron, carbon, and other elements into either electric or oxygen furnace. Once they are mixed together in liquid form, they are allowed to cool down. After that, 4140 is usually annealed several times. Then, steel is heated again so that it can be made into the desired shape.

Chromium and molybdenum are elements that give this steel corrosion resistance effect. Manganese acts as deoxidizer and provides this steel a good hardenability. 4140 steel has a good strength to weight ratio and is harder than standard steel, which makes it great for our purposes of creating a blacksmithing hammer.

Related to heat treatment, 4140 steel requires more advanced heating schedules compared to 1045 steel. 4140 steel must first be heated to its austenitizing temperature, which is 1570°F (855°C). After heating, it should be quenched in oil. Now, it is time for the tempering process. For 4140 steel, tempering is done at 950-1100°F (480-595°C) to achieve a hardness of around 30 HRC.

It is recommended to temper this steel at a lower temperature. The hardness of fully hardened 4140 ranges from 54 to 59 HRC. It is important to note that it should be tempered for any heavy use. Many blacksmiths prefer 4140 over the 1045 steel, but those are mostly experienced blacksmiths.

If you are a beginner, we don’t recommend using 4140 for your first hammer. A lot of things can go easily wrong during heat treatment with this steel.

5160 Steel for Making Blacksmithing Hammers

When someone says „spring steel“, that person is usually referring to 5160 steel. It is low alloy steel which is incredibly tough and resilient, therefore an excellent material for making a blacksmithing hammer. 5160 steel presents a high resistance to fatigue. It is also known for its high ductility.

While 5160 is not so easy to weld or to machine, it can be heat-treated and annealed. On the other hand, as most steels, 5160 steel is susceptible to corrosion. The oxygen is simply too strong for the iron molecules forming iron oxide which is responsible for newly formed cracks and weak spots in the steel.

If you thinking that just because this steel contains chromium that there will be no rusting, you are fooling yourself. While 5160 steel does contain chromium, unfortunately, there is not enough amount to fully stop rusting.

This steel can come in a tube or a bar, depending on a supplier. The good news about 5160 is the fact that you can find it on a scrapyard at very low prices, sometimes even for free. If you have any coil springs laying around, perfect. No need for searching anymore.

Every material for making a blacksmithing hammer requires toughness, ductility, and resilience which makes the 5160 an excellent choice.

5160 steel has been shown to achieve very high toughness with an austenitizing temperature of 1500-1525°F (815-830 °C). The tempering is ideally done somewhere around 375-400 °F (190-204 °C) which results in the hardness of 59 Rc. The quenching is ideally done using oil.

Forging should be done at temperatures of 2100 -2200°F (1149-1204°C). To properly anneal the 5160 steel, you need to perform it at 1450°F (788°C) and then air cool it.

How Do Alloying Elements Affect a Steel Characteristics?

Carbon

Carbon is the most important element in steel composition. It is necessary to the formation of cementite, pearlite, and martensite which are very important micro-structures. Carbon allows us to do a heat-treating process. Simply said, the larger the carbon content is, the harder the steel is. Factors like wear resistance are also increased with a big amount of carbon (around 1.5%).

In regards to carbon content, steels are usually divided on 3 categories:

Low Carbon Steels: Typically under 0.4%

Medium Carbon Steels: 0.4 – 0.6%

High Carbon Steels: 0.7 – 1.5%

For tool making steels, the lower end of desired carbon content is around 0.6% which falls in the category of medium carbon steels. The higher-end is around 1% carbon content, which is considered as high carbon steel.

Manganese

Manganese increases the strength of micro-structure called Ferrite which is important in the heat-treating process. It also decreases the critical quenching speed by increasing the hardness penetration. That way, steel is more stable in the quench. Steels consisting of manganese are usually called „Oil Quenching Oils“.

This is due to the fact that these types of metal are shown to be more effective in oil rather than water. You can find manganese in a lot of commercial steels.

Chromium

As manganese, chromium is also known for increasing the hardness of steel. There are some interesting effects that chromium has on steel. For example, when 5% of chromium is used with manganese, the quenching speed is reduced so much that the steel becomes air hardening. It increases the wear resistance as well as the toughness of steel but one of the greatest effects of chromium is that it reduces corrosion.

Any steel which contains 14% or more chromium is considered stainless steel. In regards to heat treatment, chromium also increases the critical temperature of the steel. You can find chromium in tools steels like 4140 and 5160.

Silicon

This element acts as a deoxidizer in the steel manufacture. Silicon also increases the strength of ferrite. When used with other elements, it is shown to increase the hardness and toughness of steel.

Copper

Copper’s primary effect on steel is reducing atmospheric corrosion, especially amounts of 0.2-0.5%. If steel contains a large amount of copper, it leads to detrimental effects on hot working steels and surface quality. It is also known to negatively affect forge welding.

Nickel

By increasing the strength of ferrite, nickel generally increases the strength of the steel. It is primarily used in low alloy steels to increase hardenability and toughness. It is a very important element for the quenching phase. Namely, it helps to reduce distortion and cracking of material during the quenching process.

Molybdenum

Molybdenum is known for slowing down the critical quenching speed and increasing the hardness of steel. It also increases tensile strength of a material.

Vanadium

During heat treatment, some element must control the grain growth. That’s where Vanadium comes in. It increases the strength and toughness of the steel by inhibiting grain growth.

Tungsten

Tungsten is also a very important alloying element. It produces high wear resistance with no loss of toughness by combining with the free carbides during the heat-treating process. This is very important because it allows the steel to still maintain its working hardness at forging temperatures.

Tantalum

While not of great importance to hammer making, still it is good to know what effect does tantalum has on steel. Tantalum is used to stabilize other elements in stainless steel. Because of the affinity for carbon of each element, it is important to prevent localized precipitation of carbides.

Titanium

When used with Boron, Titanium helps to increase the hardenability of steel.

Recommended reading:

Blacksmithing Tools For Beginners (2021)
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The Definite List of Knife Making Tools for Beginners

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