My current joiner’s mallet is over six years old and is starting to show a little wear. I’ve had some pecan wood drying in my attic for a year now, and I decided it was time to bring it down and make some mallets with it. I have a 3″X4″ thick piece just for the heads, plus a nice 1″-thick piece for the handles. Both have a little spalting in them, but the wood is still perfectly sound. I’ll be able to get three mallets out of this stock.
Mallets come in many sizes, and two of the three I’m making will be fairly big. All the striking faces will be 3″ square. The heads themselves will be somewhere between 3 1/4″ and 3 1/2″ tall. The heads of the two big ones are about 5″ long at the bottom, and the smaller one is about 4″. The striking faces are angled at about 5 degrees.
The handles were cut out at 15″ long, but once they are nicely fitted, I can trim them back if necessary. I want a handle that is about 10″ long underneath the head, and I want to leave about 1″ sticking out of the top. The handle blanks are 1″ wide at the bottom and 1 1/4″ wide at the top.
For joiner’s mallets, just about any tough hardwood is suitable: hickory, pecan, ash, white oak, beech, elm, hard maple, osage orange… the list goes on and on. You just don’t want anything that’s easy to split. (I would not use black walnut or mesquite, for example.) And when the mallet does finally give up the ghost, it takes only an hour or two to make another one.
I do like Roy Underhill’s approach to making a joiner’s mallet, and my method is almost identical. I’ll point out a couple differences in a moment.
After squaring up my stock, I rough-cut the parts out on the bandsaw. (That’s the first departure from St. Roy!)
The handle on a joiner’s mallet can be attached in a variety of ways. Some are turned and wedged into a round mortise in the head. Others are attached with a square or angled mortise. In this design, which I owe to Paul Sellers, the entire handle is tapered and is inserted through the head. The more you use it, the tighter the head gets wedged in place.
Like Paul Sellers (and unlike Roy Underhill), I like a rounded top to my mallet heads. If the top of the head is flat, the top edge is an acute angle, which is naturally weak. Rounding the top off is an extra step in the process, but it seems to keep the top edge of the mallet face from splitting out. Ideally, that top edge should be a slightly obtuse angle.
I sketched the curve freehand, cut it out on the bandsaw, and then smoothed the surface with a smoothing plane. I start planing at about the last half inch of the surface, then work my way back slowly taking short strokes. With care, the result is a nicely rounded surface.
Laying out the mortise on the head is a little tricky. It’s best to use the handle itself as a template for the angle.
I mark the width of the mortise on the bottom, then lay the handle across the head. I measure from both ends to make sure the handle is centered, then trace my layout lines. It’s a little precarious, but it does work.
The result is a slightly angled mortise.
Then it’s time to actually cut the mortise. If you’re using good, tough wood (as you should be), it’s not going to be terribly easy any way you cut it.
Roy’s advice is spot-on. Use a brace and bit (I used a 15/16″) to bore out the center of the mortise. Bore in from both sides. It’s a lot easier than trying to turn a big bit in a 3″ deep hole.
Then it’s just a matter of squaring up the mortises.
I took small bites with my 1″ chisel, but I did also resort to a couple narrower chisels for the final clean-up. A 1/2″ chisel is much easier to drive into tough wood than is the 1″. You want the ends of the mortise straight and clean–no under-cutting! (A rasp or file can help clean up from the chisel work.) The sides, however, can be undercut a little to allow the handle to pass in cleanly. You want it wedged up against the end grain on both ends of the mortise. Once the mortise is squared up, the handle can be planed to an exact fit.
Before you insert the handle into the mortise, relieve the corners. If you’ve cut everything accurately, the handle should stop a little short of where you want it. Then you can just plane the handle down to fit where you want it.
In dry weather, a head can creep up the handle, but when it gets humid again, it will jam onto the handle and will become impossible to remove. That’s a good thing, ultimately. But that means you want to leave a little extra handle sticking out of the top.
But before you get the handle irrevocably wedged into the head, you need to shape the handle. This is my favorite part–all spokeshave work.
Now, if you just rounded over the corners, the handle would want to slip right out of your hand when you used it. So some shaping is in order. It’s difficult for me to take a good photo of the process, but the above layout lines will give you a good idea of how to proceed. You want to begin right up where the handle meets the head, in case you need to choke up on the handle. You also want to leave a bit down on the bottom to prevent it from leaving your hand mid-swing. The most important thing is that the handle fit your hand comfortably.
Once the handle is shaped to my hand’s liking, I round over both the top and bottom of the handle, just for looks.
Now, while you’re at it, relieve all the other corners on the mallet.
On the striking faces, make an especially big roundover, at least 1/4.” If you don’t relive these edges, they will relieve themselves in short order.
The result looks something like this:
Now for the big finish.
I thinned some safflower oil about half-and-half with mineral spirits and gave the heads a good soaking. (Safflower oil won’t go rancid like most other vegetable oils. Mineral oil would also be a good choice.) Once you stop seeing the bubbles rising from the wood, the head has absorbed about as much as it’s going to. This will add some significant weight to the mallet, so do this only if you want the extra heft. Otherwise, just use a top-coat of oil or wax over everything. Or leave it completely unfinished.
After the long soak, both head and handle got a top-coat of Danish oil, mostly for consistency of color. Pound the handles in, and we’re ready to do some heavy chopping.
I’m keeping the one in the middle for myself. The other two are going to live in other woodworkers’ shops.