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Mallet Soft - Handle Hard  


In Japan bench chisels and other chisels for striking are always hooped. This is a good idea since they traditionally use steel hammers to hit their tools. In the West mortise chisels which get the heaviest battering, and most bench chisels which can still take a fair whacking are usually not hooped. So a good rule of thumb is to always use a mallet that is softer than the chisel handle. The reason is very simple. It is cheaper to replace an English joiner's mallet every few years, than it is to rehandle a chisel. The mallet in the foreground is my old one and I used it for 5 years or so - more really. The mallet in the background has been in action for a few months and just has a few dents. Mallets seem to stabilize with a few dents and then a bunch of years later the big cracks start.

"AH-HA!!!" you say pointing a super-hard lignum-vitae carvers mallet. "What about those mallets? After all carvers do a fair amount of tool handle hitting too and you don't see them complain!!!" a fair question. Malleting in cabinetmaking is - especially in mortising a question of power. You want to hit the chisel really hard. The softer wood mallet does give less "feedback" because the face will distort but overall the goal is power. With the lighter mallet, you need a longer stroke for the same and more power but the longer stroke is less precise. With carving precision is everything and a shorter stoke with a heavier, smaller mallet gives you more control, even if you are taking away lots of material you want to do it in a series of controlled strokes, so you don't split away the wrong wood. So a denser, harder, mallet gives you more feedback, you can use a shorter, more controlled stroke, and overall you use less power per-stroke. The tool handle is in much less danger from a carver than a joiner.

While lignum-vitae is an endangered wood now, and lignum-vitae have never been the most stable of woods anyway there are lots of other options for carvers on the market now.
Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques
Comments: 2
05/23/2009Stephen Shepherd
While I routinely use a carvers mallet (of hard maple) for chisel work I do have an English Pattern Mallet that I made about 12 years ago. I made it from soft maple which was all I had in the required size. At first I was disappointed in the deformation of the faces, but it didn't split.

Then after lending it out to use with a hoop driver to tighten up a bunch of whiskey barrel bands, the face was really distorted. So I just cut off a little more than a half inch from each face, beveled the edges and it is probably good for the rest of my life. As I don't intend to loan it out again.

03/07/2011Ray Lindsey 
You may be interested in trying this. After splitting my Pattern Mallet (wish I had my Dad's set of lignum mallets), I came across a bunch of samples of various wood composites. Feeling the weight and malleable nature of the samples got me to making a few different mallets.

I cut the angle used for my handles to half the depth of the handle thickness in each blank (two blanks to sandwiched together make a head). I drilled and counter-sunk clearance holes in one half of the head for appropriate deck screws and greased a broken handle head section and laid it in its mating shape in the other half of the head. Then covered the mating surface of one side with a long-cure epoxy, clamped the sides together to maintain alignment, then fastened with the deck screws. I knocked out the greased handle section and went on to the next.

I let the heads cure under a warm light overnight, let sit for a couple of days, created the final shape, inserted new handles and now have some pretty functional mallets. Not real beauties to look at, but very functional.

Best regards,
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