How (Not) to Make a Mallet

A friend of mine is just getting into woodworking, and since he was visiting for the day, I thought I’d help him build up his tool arsenal by making him a mallet.  Since I have lots of thick stock on hand, I decided on a simple, two-piece construction in which a tapered mortise is cut into the head, and the top of the handle is shaped to fit that taper.  The rest of the handle can be shaped in any way, so long as it fits through the bottom of the tapered mortise.  The handle is inserted from the top, and the more you swing the mallet, the tighter the handle wedges in. I have plenty of pecan on hand, and since pecan is heavy and split-resistant, I decided to use it for the head.  I dug a scrap of oak out of the bin to use for the handle.  The grain doesn’t actually run out as badly as it looks.

The first order of business is to put a bevel on the ends of the head.  Why do this first?  I don’t know.  I could just as easily have done it last.

For the bevel angle, I just set the sliding T-bevel to the face of a mallet I currently have.  It’s maybe 6* or 8*.  Easy enough.  Yes, there’s some spalting.  I think it looks cool, and I doubt it will significantly weaken the head.

When making a solid-wood head (as opposed to a laminated head), layout is crucial.   Read on to see why.

I planed down the handle stock and set my mortise gauge to that thickness.  It’s about 7/8” thick, though you could use thicker or thinner stock.  I used the T-bevel again to mark out a very slight angled mortise, and carried the lines around to the bottom of the head.

I used a drill press to waste out much of the mortise.  This is pecan, after all.  I didn’t feel like chopping all day.  If I were doing more than one, I would set the drill press table at the same angle as the mortise so as to waste away more wood.  A wedge under the stock would also work.

There was plenty of chopping to go around anyway.  Working from both sides, and using the T-bevel as a visual guide, I eventually got it roughed out.

If I had a float, I would use it on the end-grain in the mortise walls.

What I have is an aluminum file, which looks an awfully lot like a float but is actually made for working aluminum.  It works pretty nicely on the pecan end-grain, too.

Now to shape that handle.  I roughed out a lot of it with a spokeshave, and then worked on the tapered top.

Marking out the angles on the head with the T-bevel worked okay.  I sawed/chiseled to the lines.

Or so I thought.

The handle goes in too far, and there are gaps on the bottom.

I guess I went a little bit over the lines.  Either that, or the lines on the handle didn’t match the lines on the head.  I did two things wrong here:

(1) I should have shaped the handle first, and then used the handle to lay out the head.  That would have ensured that the layout lines matched exactly.

(2) I should have been more consistent about testing the fit as I took off material.  I probably would have caught my mistake earlier, or not made it at all.

Now, how to fix it?  I could have started over with a new handle, but I had already gone to the trouble of shaving it down.  It was quicker to do this:

I glued hardwood shims to each side of the taper.  Then I carefully shaved them down, testing the fit every few strokes, until it fit tightly.

I sanded everything down, removing the layout marks but leaving it unfinished.

I forgot to take any measurements of the mallet, but I think the head is about 3 1/2″ tall, 2 1/2″ thick, and 5″ long.  The mallet is about 14″ long overall.

My friend happily took the mallet home with him.  And I took home some good lessons in mallet-making.

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One Response to How (Not) to Make a Mallet

  1. Pingback: In Praise of Joiner’s Mallets | The Literary Workshop Blog

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