To find and extract fossils, you’ll need a geologist’s hammer, occasionally called a fossil hammer, and most commonly known as a rock hammer or pick. They have several other names including picks, fossil hammers, geology hammers, fossil hunting hammers, etc. I have enjoyed obtaining and learning about the different geological hammers and tools used for finding and extracting fossils. I started with the Estwing bricklayer’s hammer. It features a flat chisel back, which is very useful for splitting shale. Below I’ll review and discuss several different hammers and tools I’ve used over the past couple of years.
One of the great debates faced by a fossil collector before going to a location is to pick which tools to bring. Ideally, you would bring every piece of equipment you have. Unfortunately, each piece will add weight and difficulty to your outing. There is a balance between weight and utility. The information below will describe how useful each tool is, and I consider weight and ease of carrying.
In fossil collecting, most often you first need to get the rocks out of the ground. Rock picks are great tools for this situation, slicing into the ground and forcing rocks to move. There are two primary rock types I deal with, limestone and shale.
Limestone vs Shale and the Tools to Work Them
Limestone is a natural cement, and locally this means a silty/sandy mix fused with calcite. I use direct hammer blows to force open natural planes throughout the rock. Or, you can use a chisel and a hammer together. Yet, these planes are not always flat and often curve and snake through the rock. Embedded fossils can also create cleavage planes. This makes separating limestone a chore, but the different types of hammers can help.
Shale rock consists of fine sediment loosely cemented together. It can be very fissile. This means easily split along natural planes in the rock. Using a hammer with a flat chisel back, you can separate it into several flat pieces for inspection. There are certainly particular planes within the rock that are easy to separate, and others can be more or less hard to split. For precision work, a cold-forged chisel is better. Over time, shale will break into very small pieces with exposure to sunlight, water, and the environment.
The Burgess Shale is a famous 508 million-year-old deposit from the Cambrian period that is found in Western Canada. Workers explore this stratum by carefully splitting the shale using special flat pieces of metal. This exposes beautiful preserved soft creatures from half a billion years ago.
In Parks township, we have plants and other creatures in the shale. Some layers contain mostly plant fossils, and the layers closer to the limestone can contain crinoids, brachiopods, clams, cephalopods, and all sorts of unique fossils. But, preservation in shale can often mean the resulting specimen is much more fragile. The specimens themselves are also often fissile.
So, these are the tools to use for extraction. After going through all the different hammers and extraction tools, I’ll discuss other tools used only for fossil hunting.
Anyone using these tools must wear the proper eyewear. Aside from the potential of flying steel fragments, rock always finds a way to your face. Even lighter strikes can bring rock particles to your eyes. Always shield your face properly and be aware of your surroundings. Especially if people are near. Spectators can and will get struck from 15 or more feet away with rock fragments when these tools meet the matrix. Clear the area of anyone and anything you care about. Also, never use a hammer to drive another hammer into a rock. That is what cold-forged chisels are for. Have fun, but be safe doing it!
Geological Hammers & Tools
Below you will find personal reviews of real-world amateur use of these tools for collecting fossils. I have been using these for a couple of years at this point. When I first started, I searched the internet for how to use these and came up empty. I have figured out what’s best through experience with each tool.
Estwing Rock Pick – 22 oz. – E3-22P
If I were to pick one hammer to use for finding fossils, this is it. I purchased this hammer second overall. I wanted the pick end, which is useful for digging between rocks and tearing up the terrain. The square hammer portion strikes well and is useful for cracking the hard limestone locally. There are three primary grips you can get. The leather grip is by far the best looking, but is natural and will wear out quickly. The blue rubber grip is modern and probably the best overall grip. There is also a bright orange variation. The blue rubber grip has aged as well though.
Use the pick end for prying between layers of rock. Striking rock faces directly is strictly forbidden by the manufacturer. This highly increases the likelihood of metal flying. I use the pick end to try and separate pieces along natural faults in the rock. It is very sharp but wears down quickly. You can resharpen the pick end if it becomes dull. I have never resharpened mine.
There are other variations of this rock hammer. One has a longer handle. This can be useful for more forceful blows, but at a loss of control. Also, there is a special edition paleontology version with a leather grip and black painted metal. There is a logo with a Tyrannosaurus skull imprinted into the leather. While it’s very cool looking, it’s also double or more the price of the standard rubber blue grip version. And the blank paint will wear off with use.
Estwing Rock Pick – 13 oz. – E13P
This is the smaller version of the 22 oz. pick. It’s very useful for light work, but you’ll quickly miss the striking power that the 22 oz. provides. However, you’ll curse the weight of the heavier one when carrying it, so the 13 oz. has its use. Unless you are working with softer rock, I would make sure the heavier version is nearby to break tougher rock if needed. I purchased the version with the leather grip, mostly for looks. The grip has worn down pretty fast with lots of use. There is a clear coating to protect it, and general use in the mud and rocks has worn it away.
I would recommend this hammer as one to have in the car with you. It is useful if you stop somewhere unplanned and need a rock pick. While I wish the black lines in the handle were a useful measurement, they are 4 5/8″ center to center, not so useful in the field. Geologists will often mark handles with tape at a standard distance, such as 6 inches to use in the scale of photos of geological terrain.
Estwing e3-22p 22 Oz. and e13p 13 Oz. Side by Side Fossil Hammer Comparison
The hammers have nearly the same length. The handle grip is shorter on the 13 oz. version. The pick also comes down to a point at a hard angle on the 13 oz. compared to the rounded appearance of the 22 oz. The 13oz has a long flat bar past the handle. I have seen reports of bent handles on some 13 oz., but I would imagine this is rare and can easily be returned and replaced.
The 22 oz. is much better at breaking apart a much greater range of rocks. The 13 oz. will have a bounce-back action when you hit a rock too big, where the blow won’t bury itself into the rock. You’ll come to appreciate the smaller hammer when you are cleaving off bits of the matrix from a field specimen.
Estwing Gad Pry Bar – 18″ Forged Geological Tool with Pointed Tip & Chisel End – GP-18
I’ve only used this geological tool a couple of times, but it gets great reviews online. The chisel end is no joke, coming to a wide sharp point. It’s highly useful for moving huge rocks with very little force using the lever end. The main handle part of the tool has an i-beam shape to provide a great deal of strength when prying. As you can see in the detailed photos of the ends, the point expands out past the width of the i-beam.
Estwing Geo/Paleo Rock Pick – 25″ GP-100
Part of Estwing’s Big Blue line, this pick is excellent for removing large amounts of ground quickly. When pulling limestone boulders from the hillsides, it is helpful to eliminate the loose rock around the boulder. It feels smaller in person than it looked online. The 25-inch length is true. A few strikes on solid rock with the wedge end dinged it up a bit.
The grip is made for comfort and constructed of spongy rubber. The handle is circular. The pick end is really good for burying into shale and prying it out of rock outcrops.
The blade and pick end on the Estwing GP-100.
Estwing Burpee Rock Pick – 17″ BP500
This is somewhat of a smaller version of the GP-100. Estwing took input from rock-hounds and geologists and thus this tool was born. One end is a chisel point, the other resembles a very large nail. The entire hammer looks like it is made from a single piece of steel. Upon closer inspection, it is made of solid welded steel components. This tool is great for picking through and loosening tightly packed shale. The head of this tool has three magnets embedded for use in the testing of found minerals.
Three embedded magnets for testing found materials/minerals.
Estwing Bricklayers/Mason’s Hammer – 22oz – E6-22BLC
The first hammer I purchased specifically for fossil hunting was the E6-22BLC. I was hunting for a fossil hammer and this was the only one the big box hardware store (Lowe’s) had at the time. You’ll find that rock hammers in general are rare at hardware stores. However, masonry hammers are more common, being a tool of the construction trade. The chisel tip is great for splitting softer rocks, but not something I would use for limestone. Not being a true pick, it makes it difficult to use for pulling rocks out of the hillside.
Estwing Drilling/Crack Hammer – 3-Pound Sledge – B3-3LB
The mini sledgehammer, it’s a solid piece of steel. Unlike typical sledgehammers, the head cannot separate from the handle unless the forged steel snaps. This was my go-to hammer for cracking apart limestone until I obtained the Fiskars Pro IsoCore 4lb Club Hammer (see below). The B3-3LB has two flat striking heads which are great for general blows and force. However, the Fiskars hammer offers a wedge-style head which is more useful for splitting rock.
Fiskars IsoCore 4 Pound Club Hammer – 750810-1001
This hammer is an upgrade from the B3-3LB for two reasons. One, it’s just a pound heavier, so you get more weight per strike. The head features a wedge side, which allows for splitting of large boulders which I typically do. The handle is a composite of steel and plastics, which allows for shock absorption, but I do hope it never breaks. Fiskars has an excellent lifetime guarantee. I have a solid steel shovel that I use often, and when the blade finally snapped, they mailed me a new one for free.
One thing to note, the extra pound adds up for swings. Using this one-handed will make you tired much quicker compared to the 3 lb Estwing sledgehammer. But, the extra 33.3% weight you get compared to the smaller hammer is worth it. I will often use both hands combined with gloves to steady the swing. When swinging a heavier hammer, the swing can continue through the rock, bringing your hands along for the ride. Wear protective gloves to help ensure you do not get gouged on the follow-through.
Husky 16 lb Sledgehammer
Cracking apart huge boulders is something I need to do with the local limestone here. The rocks are on average 9-15 inches thick and made of natural concrete-like limestone. I have a smaller older sledgehammer, with a wooden handle. It works, but I wanted something that I needed to hit the rocks with less. This thing is heavy and a chore to bring with me, but it’s often the best choice.
You must shield yourself when striking rocks with this 16-pound sledgehammer. Even with heavier pants on, I will find cuts and gashes in my legs through my clothes from rock blowback. You may want to wear something heavier than jeans. Alternatively, you can use it with shorter swings, but it will take multiple strikes to get the same effect.
Fiskars sells the PRO 750640-1001 16lb sledgehammer with flat and wedge face for nearly double the price of the Husky. If I had my first choice, I’d likely go with the Fiskars as the wedge on the 4LB version has been fantastic. Keep in mind, checking out Amazon Reviews, there was a buyer who broke the head into two pieces after two years of use (J.D. Plooy 6/19/2019).
Other Useful Fossil Hunting & Geological Tools
Aside from the tools to work rocks from the ground and to split and shape them with force, you often need special tools for further processing. When you find a good fossil, often the process is to use your hammer and separate it from a larger rock. However, this doesn’t always go as planned. To make more precision cuts in limestone or sandstone, I make use of two different angle grinders.
Angle Grinders and Diamond Wheels
Trying to pick the correct cutting wheels for limestone was confusing at first. I ended up with a 4-inch cutting wheel. It is not as large as a 4 1/2 inch wheel. It is the only Dewalt diamond cutting wheel recommended for cutting granite. Granite is much harder than limestone.
I use four different cut-off tools. A corded and battery 4 1/2 inch grinder, a corded 7-inch grinder, and a corded 12-inch cut-off cutter.
Safety First! Using a grinder on limestone or other rocks presents two primary risks. First, there is a high risk of serious injury by getting cut. If these can cut into the cement-like rock, these can certainly cut into you. Second, they generate concrete dust which is a health hazard if you breathe it in. You must wear the proper air filtering gear while grinding, as breathing in this dust can cause serious respiratory problems or even death. I won’t use anything less than a well-fitting N95 mask when cutting limestone with diamond wheels.
Dewalt 4 1/2 inch angle grinder – DWE4120
This grinder was the first step in cutting rock. Being only 4 1/2 inches in depth from the center, you only get a little more than an inch of cutting. However, this can easily separate a specimen from the matrix for removal later. Making a clean cut can allow access for chisels to cut without removing a specimen visible on the surface. However, there are times when a deeper cut is necessary.
Dewalt 20V MAX XR Angle Grinder, Slide Switch – DCG405B
This grinder has been one of the most versatile field tools I’ve had the pleasure to use. This grinder is not lightweight. However, this doesn’t keep it from being carried into the field to make cuts. The grinder is quite the power hog. I would recommend a fully charged 5 AH or 8 AH battery. The larger the battery capacity, the heavier it will be. But it will last through several cuts with a larger battery.
In the field, you should not need an extended amount of cutting. By using this grinder, you can save the specimens that are at risk of being destroyed when extracting with a hammer. It provides a near identical cutting performance as the corded version, without having to worry about having power. Also, the cord does not get in the way. The cord can be a pain when using the corded version.
I would not recommend carrying this deep into the field. But its usefulness can outweigh the desire to travel light.
It is also useful for providing relief cuts. You can create these and use a hammer to finish the break.
Dewalt 7″ angle grinder
To cut a bit deeper, I also bought a 7-inch grinder. Fortunately, corded versions of these are pretty inexpensive. I bought the 7-inch version of the same blades I used for the 4 1/2 inch. If I need to be sure I get a deeper straight cut, I’ll use this grinder. I did have to buy a specialty cutting wheel guard to be able to use this properly, so while the base unit was affordable, it will cost more to get up and running for cutting through rock.
Evolution DISCCUT1 12″ Disc Cutter
I originally bought this to make relief cuts to make a limestone sink. It did its job great. This is a powerful tool and draws a ton of power. It can make a 4 inch cut in limestone and other types of rock with the included 12-inch diamond blade. However, it just feels dangerous. There is a ton of power generated in the 12-inch blade. But it does its job and it cuts well. Users of this tool should beware of the large amount of concrete dust that is generated.
Fossil Preparation Tools
Safety First! Pneumatic scribes create miniature flying bits of rock and unseen dust. A user must wear a proper air filtering mask and protective eyewear while working specimens with this tool. A well-ventilated area is also recommended. I have used air-scribes indoors in the past, and anything and everything became covered with rock dust. I would recommend using these types of tools outside.
Once you get your fossil out of the rock in some shape, portions of it will still be buried in the matrix. There are a few schools of thought. Some like to keep the fossils natural, as found, and some like to remove all things from the matrix that traps them. Limestone is very tough as a matrix. When sea creature remains fossilize, the space is filled with sediment and preserves as limestone. The shell ends up acting as a barrier. The shell can be aragonite, calcite, or some other mineral that has replaced the original creature. The inside mold is called a steinkern.
Chicago Pneumatic CP 9361 Industrial Scribe and Engraving Pen, the Miniature Fossil Hammer
This is one of my favorite tools for prepping fossils. It is a miniature air-powered jackhammer. Its use is to remove or nip away at the rock surrounding the fossil. These are not cheap, typically costing between $250 and $300 depending on the market you are using to purchase.
The tool works by striking the surface up to 13,500 times per minute. The speed is adjustable, from a range of 1-5 by twisting the ring at the base of the tool. It comes with an extra carbide stylus and some additional ones. Included in the box were a chisel-shaped piece and some blanks that can be shaped how you would like. I do find the one that comes with it best to work with and have not yet replaced it in the past year.