The Romans were the first to hit upon this felicitous combination, and a couple of millennia later it remains an indispensible tool. As you might expect with something this old, there are many variations on the claw hammer, but they all fall into one of two groups: finish or framing. Most homeowners can get along quite well with a trusty finish hammer, distinguished by its smooth face, light head (less than 20 ounces), short handle (less than 16 inches), and curved claw for easy nail removal. For the more muscular work of nailing lumber, a framing (aka, rip) hammer is the way to go. It has a handle up to 18 inches long, a straight claw for prying apart pieces of wood, a head weighing 20 ounces or more, and a milled face to grip nailheads.
For most tasks around the house, a finish hammer is what you need. Unlike head-heavy framing hammers, finish hammers are balanced to tap a slender nail without overstriking or bending it. The 16-ounce Estwing, right, has a handle sheathed in lacquered leather strips (About $25, Sears). Its diminutive 6-ounce cousin has a hickory "beaver-tail" handle that fits snugly in your palm when tapping in brads or finish nails (About $14; Lee Valley).