Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mallets will set you free ...

...of all kinds of aches and injuries. But only when used correctly and when using the appropriate one for the task.

That's right! Using the palm of your hands to drive a chisel or gouge into wood by tapping on its handle, is a sure way to cause damages to your hands. You may not notice it since you are unlikely to break skin, but do it repetitively and nerves damages will occur.

Beating pieces of wood apart with your fist may not damage the wood, but it will make you sore.
Using the wrong weight of a mallet or hammer to do a task is fatiguing for your arm, and not holding the tool correctly on its handle will also tired you and your wrist.

I could go on with similar woes and injuries that you could developed, but all of these can easily be avoided by using the correct tool properly...

As with hammers, mallets come in a variety of sizes and head weight.
Lets look at a few and their usage, as they relate to woodworking operations.


These are the squarish beech mallet with a rectangular handle.

A Footprint  16 Oz and a Crown  10 Oz.

Easily made and an excellent shop project. The form, while being traditional, has all the required elements done with a specific purpose, you would be wise to respect them and not tamper with its form. Today's glue probably would let you get away with a laminate construction, but the solid head with a mortise is still the best IMHO.

The head, of a specific weight, has a rake on each ends (it is a double face striking tool). That is to allow the head to hit squarely since our arm swing in an arc. You may have notice on my two shown, that the angle is slightly different on both. That is because of the different length of the handle.

Some text books advocate tapering to meet the end of the handle, as in the smaller Crown, but what is more important is that the angle feel right for your arm swing. Some trial and error experimentation may be in order if you want to make your own. And don't go anal, it does not have to meet perfectly your swing.

The striking faces of the head are end grain for the most dent resistance, and the edges of the striking faces are beveled to avoid chipping. Do not skip these details.

The handle is tapered and fit into a similar tapered eye (mortise) in the head. While the head may get loose from time to time due to wood shrinkage, it cannot physically becomes separated (fly off the handle) while in use. Just hold the head and tap the end of the handle on your bench to tighten the head.

The rectangular form of the handle serves a distinct purpose.  Some don't like it and advocate rounding it off... Don't!
Its rectangular shape ensured that you hold the mallet in the correct orientation and hit squarely with the head. A slight bevel relief on the edges where your hand fit is all that is needed.
The bigger size, 16 Oz is one of my preferred tool to uses with my chisels.

My next favorite whacking tool on chisels is this one from Lee Valley

18 Oz cabinetmaker mallet 

You would not think that 2 Oz is going to make much of a difference, but it sure does. The combination of a brass head and its shape contribute to the heft and balance of this mallet, which if you know LV, the idea came from an antique in their collection.  Both faces are raked like the traditional carpenter mallet and have replaceable end grain wood plugs. This is the one I reach for the most for chiseling mortises.


Although uses primarily for carving with gouges,  you may find many uses for this one in your chisel work.

My shop made (by a friend) maple turned carver mallet.

Again, the shape has been refined thru the years, don't mess with it.
Its major characteristics are: The head cylinder is tapered (by now you should understand why)
Since the striking face are not end grain, they tend to get chew up in use.

The handle shape is peculiar, notice the bulge in the handle where your hand cradled it. Perhaps not so evident and sometimes missed is the all too important detail at the head and handle transition. More on this later.

So why the round head versus a square one for carpentry? Because in carving we are more concerned in watching the tool cutting edge progress than looking at the tool head when striking. The elongated rounded shape ensure we will hit the tool regardless of its orientation.  This reason alone is why some woodworker prefer this shape to the traditional carpenter style mallet. Myself I use both.
If you never uses one, give it a try and see how you like it. Again head weight varies, depending mostly on the wood species used, Lignum vitae was once the preferred material, but it is hard to find in suitable chunks now a day. Various exotic woods substitute are used. In a bid to prevent cracking and splitting some commercial ones comes with a thick waxy coating, and some advocate keeping it inside a plastic bag when not in use.

Mine was turned from a piece of maple firewood by a friend and I am only on my second one in more than 20 years. Now that I have a lathe, I will turn my next one.

Here is perhaps a little known better way (some circle would say the correct way) to hold this mallet, instead of using a full grip on the handle.

Not easy to hold while taking pics :-)

The grip I am talking about is wrapping your thumb and index finger loosely around the small depression where the handle meet the head. The remainders fingers can be wrapped around the handle shaft, but do not grip. In use simply let the mallet head swing within the confines of your circled fingers. These small resulting taps still pack a sufficient punch but best of all, will not tired your wrist as when using a regular grip around the handle. Easier to do than to write about, trust me! Give it a try.
You can see how that shape in the transition between handle and head meet is helping this grip. It must be smooth.

A recent take on this carver mallet is the uses of a polyurethane sleeve around the wooden head.

Same tapered shape as before, the small recess on the handle 
I was talking about is clearly visible in this one

Head shot showing the sizes differences.
The Shop Fox is 18 Oz, the maple one about 14 Oz.

The urethane sleeve idea is to give some cushioning effect on the tool head to better transmit the full force, since the contact is longer (no rebounce). Nice theory, but in uses some swear by them, while some swear at them.
Some claims that it is less fatiguing in uses. BUT any mallet will fatigued you quickly when improperly used...
Most often I will reach for my maple one, because that is what I learned carving with.

If you haven't figured it out yet, mallets are a very personal choice, uses the right one for your style and scale of work. Whichever one is not causing you undue fatigue, because it is more comfortable and fit your hands better, that is the one to use for you!

Another take on carver mallets are the brass journeyman styles.

Their small size and brass head pack quite a punch in a small package.
Not intended to be used by swinging by the handle but rather to be cradled in your hand.

Proper hold.
Pic from LV site.

In carving we are more intent on applying small localize force than whacking with greater force. Control is all this is about. You will also probably notice that stone carvers used similar shaped mallets, except of course that they are slightly larger, heavier.

DISASSEMBLY TOOLS and other means of persuasion

Other mallets comes in handy during glue ups and for taking things apart.
BUT these tools to be effective should not mar the surface.
Enter various forms of plastic and rubber mallets

A modern double faced one. Hard plastic removable insert on one face, 
softer rubber on the other. Some prefer this form for chisels works, I don't.

An antique hardwood one. A smaller version of 
the Whack-A-Mole circus version :-)

A modern No bounce hard rubber one.
The head has lead shot inside to make this no rebounce 
effect possible. It also leave ugly black marks on your wood :-(

Dead blow Unicast 2 lbs.
The whitish residues on it are from the plasticiser, 
which means the rubber is hardening. That one is 18 years old.
Chris Schwarz call them clown hammer for using on chisels :-)

And rounding up our mallets, a brass one is handy when you don't want to damaged the metal parts you are striking. Brass being rather soft, it will damages and mushroom over time. A quick work with a file will take care of that.
If yours is made of Beryllium CAREFUL don't do that, the filings and dust are very toxic !

Beryllium is non sparking and non magnetic, hence why we used them in the military.  You should keep them out of your shop, not worth the risks...

My day to day Whack-A-Mole collection 
of mallets in its rack.

Kid playing Whack-A-Mole.
Photo credit Emil Ovenar, Flickr creative

Bob, who suddenly has an urge to whack something :-)


  1. Thanks for the heads up on Beryllium hammers, I didn't know that was something to watch out for.

    I have the Veritas joiner's mallet you've shown and also what I believe is the antique version it was based on. I would guess it's about 24 oz and I love it for mortising. I'm not sure what it's made of - it looks like bronze but doesn't oxidize like it. I'd guess it's a mixture of copper pennies and lead sinkers:

  2. Speaking from experience - laminated mallets are not worth the calorie count to make. I have made 3 over the years and all broke apart. None of them lasted more than 6 months. I think a mallet head should be made from one piece of wood.

  3. Thanks Paul it is the first time I see an antique one. Sure look like LV inspiration!

    Berillium is highly toxic I will update my post to add a link about it. Speaking from personal experience I would not wish lung cancer to my worst enemy... :-(

  4. I have never tried a laminated mallet construction but I always suspected they would fails at the glue lines. I thought that perhaps modern epoxy and such should be able to hold up, but I agree with you, not worth the calorie count, make a mortise instead

  5. I made my mallet a couple years ago laminated from three 1" thick maple pieces. Done this way because of time constraints, lack of 3" thick stock, and lack of confidence that I could get a 4" long mortise straight and with flat interior surfaces. So far the mallet is holding up, and I've used it a fair amount, but I've not too extensively. But if and when it fails, I'll be thinking about this post.

    Thanks again Bob - good stuff.

  6. HI Matt interesting feedback about your laminated mallet, what kind of glue did you used?


  7. Hi Bob,
    again an interesting post about tools.
    All wooden hammers I had so far didn't feel comfortable to me for my chisel work.
    So I'm using two modern safety hammers from WIHA (300g and 500g). The nice thing with this hammer is the you can interchange the heads. There are different heads in different hardening available. So you can use the hammer for very different tasks.

  8. HI Stefan
    The kind of hammer you described sounds like the one that Paul Sellers is using. Myself I prefer the wooden ones and the LV brass one with wooden plugs. But like I said, what is more important is to uses whatever one feel right in your hands and for you kind of work. Hammers and mallets are a very personal thing :-)