The Perfect Hammer is Made in America

By Jeffrey Bonior
Mar 06 2020 |
Photo courtesy Estwing

Estwing makes it in Illinois, one solid piece of steel at a time.

“I swing an Estwing.”

Catchy phrase, obvious rhyme.

But it’s more likely something you would hear in a conversation between two laborers or builders who work with their hands all day.

Among many building contractors, the Estwing line of hammers are regarded as the Cadillac of tools. When an Estwing is seen hanging from a workman’s belt you can most likely be sure you are dealing with an experienced professional.

Among the hundreds of hammers, you can purchase from all over the world, the Estwing line of tools stand out as a top-of-the-line, superior quality product

And they are all Made in America.

Estwing hammers and tools are manufactured in Rockford, Ill., about 90 miles northwest of Chicago. They may not be known as well among the general public as Craftsman or Stanley tools, but the pros know where to go.

“If you’re a professional contractor and you’re going to buy hammers for your crew you’re going to want a pretty good hammer that’s going to last, they typically pick ours because we are known for that,” said Stephanie Fisher, vice president of sales and marketing at Estwing. “I get people that tell me they’ve had their hammer for 25 years and they won’t switch or buy a new one.

“If you are going to just hang some pictures on the wall it probably isn’t worth spending the extra money.”

Estwing is a tradesman’s hammer, strong and durable to hold up to endless days of constant nail driving.

The story of Estwing Manufacturing began nearly 100 years ago when Swedish immigrant Ernest Estwing came to America for a better life. Immensely hard-working, Estwing went to school for engineering and began work as a contractor.

“Using his hammer every day, Estwing noticed people were getting tendinitis and that it was uncomfortable to swing a hammer made of wood all day  and he came up in his basement with a one-piece solid steel forging,” said Fisher. “And that’s the basis. Originally there were two slats of wood on either side of the forging.”

So, in 1923 Estwing opened the Estwing Manufacturing Company to produce the world’s most durable, comfortable and attractive striking and struck tools. In addition to the nearly 100 hammers Estwing manufactures, it also makes axes, specialty tools, pry bars and geological tools.

Today, Estwing sources its steel from Nucor in Nebraska and makes a modern-day, user-friendly hand tool, one solid piece of steel at a time. In 2001, Estwing introduced a new shock reduction grip that provides tradesmen the best available grip for reducing vibrations caused by impact. All its nylon vinyl grip tools are now being made with this new material.

If you are a building framer or roofer, this is essential protection if you are swinging a hammer all day long. It cuts the number of tendinitis cases and even helps the onset of carpel tunnel syndrome.

Estwing tools are manufactured with one of two different patented grips – leather and blue vinyl.

“It’s a shock-resistant grip and it’s a secret recipe that we use that is molded on,” said Fisher, who has worked at Estwing for 18 years. “It’s not like a lot of hammers that come from overseas. They just put a sleeve on a jacketed handle and the handle will slide off.

“Ours is baked on. We pour liquid in a cast and we put the forging in there and we close the cast. It’s metal. Then we let it cure and then when we open it up, we sand off the flashing and you have a grip that you can’t take off.”

Today, Estwing sources its steel from Nucor in Nebraska and makes a modern-day, user-friendly hand tool, one solid piece of steel at a time.

Estwing is a privately owned family business, but family members are no longer involved in the day-to-day factory operation. They sit on the board of directors and listen to what their manufacturers are saying about the company’s products. They don’t take this advice lightly as the company continues to grow, grossing anywhere from $50 to $100 million each year.

Estwing has also been able to survive, through the Great Depression and decades later the recession in 2008, when the housing market collapsed.

“That was devastating for us,” Fisher said. “That was painful. We had to do some layoffs and many contractors went into another line of business. It took a long time for us to get back to where we were in 2007, but now we’ve surpassed that, so that’s good.

“Actually, right now, it’s working out good for us because all of the other hammers that are manufactured in China or have components from China are having to raise prices. We haven’t had to do that because we just source everything from (the U.S.). The tariffs have been a good thing for our manufacturing.”

Although Estwing makes a variety of tools, it’s No. 1 hit is its hammer collection.

“Hammers are our bread and butter,” Fisher said. “We are known for our hammers and that’s what actually carried us over to other markets, like the outdoor work with the axes and things like that,” said Fisher. “It’s the people who use our hammers who say they didn’t know Estwing made axes. Then they start to buy our other products based on what they know about what our hammers are like.”

Estwing Manufacturing in Rockford employees anywhere from 250 to 300 people at a time, depending on product demand. Rockford was hit hard by the recession in the early 1980s, becoming one of the highest unemployed cities in the United States as manufacturing facilities offshored their operations to China and elsewhere.

Estwing has survived poor economic conditions and cheap, foreign competition.

But any experienced craftsmen will tell you, hammers made in China are weak, unreliable and uncomfortable. You get what you pay for.

While top-quality hammers are the glue that holds Estwing together, they’ve made a niche in some smaller markets.

Axe throwing, which has become a popular bar-room sport across the country, had gained the company an unwanted reputation.

“That’s real popular now,” said Fisher. “It just so happens that one of our axes, because our tools are balanced so well, they are the choice of these axe throwers. The Grand Champion apparently throws one of our axes.

“We certainly don’t want people to do that because it is dangerous mixed with alcohol. It’s dangerous and not what the axe is made for. We make axes, but we don’t condone people throwing our axes.”

Estwing has a much smaller market in tools for geological digging that include a variety of hammers, picks and axes.

“We make pry bars, mallets and rock picks for a few geological diggers around the world,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of a little niche for us, but they're the 'dream hammer' for the archaeological student."

Because of its success and reputation, Estwing is often seen on television home improvement shows and donates thousands of tools to charities like Habitat for Humanity.

“We just donated a ton of tools for Extreme Hone Makeover,” Fisher said.

Estwing hammers and other tools are available at most major retail outlets including Home Depot, Lowes, ACE Hardware, True Value, Amazon online and many of America’s smaller tool supply retailers.

“We exhibit a lot of our hammers and products at trade shows throughout the world and there are people that simply love Estwing,” Fisher said.

“I’ve had more than one guy come up and show me a tattoo on his arm of one of his hammers. If that’s not a commitment to a product, then I don’t know what is.”

Fisher pointed out the value the company places in manufacturing its products domestically.

“It is very important to the family on the board to keep it Made in America. They are very committed to quality. They put their money into this company and they just keep on saying ‘what do you need?’

“They want to keep it going and they understand our struggles and they support us, and it’s really nice to have that Made in America commitment. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”