In Praise of Joiner’s Mallets

I love joiner’s mallets. They are a study in sheer simplicity, yet small variations in design make every shop-made mallet unique.

I have made several joiner’s mallets, and I use three joiner’s mallets on a regular basis.

These three mallets seldom leave my bench.

The top mallet in the above photo is my most-used mallet.  I bought it at Homestead Heritage when I took a class there about seven ago.  It is made from cedar elm and the head has proved well nigh indestructible.  The one in the middle is a very rough mallet I made for my wife from hard maple a few years back, when my basic skills were still developing.  The handle fits her hand well, yet the head packs a punch.  The head soon checked badly, and I did not expect it to last long.  I glued some leather onto each face with spray adhesive, and the head has not fallen apart yet.  The leather-faced mallet is invaluable for joint assembly, and I often use it as a carver’s mallet by choking up on the handle.  The thinner mallet on the bottom is made from pecan and is designed for adjusting irons in wooden planes.  I also use it for small jobs.  None of these mallets is pretty, but each one is a workhorse.

Some woodworkers dislike joiner’s mallets.  In The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, Chris Schwarz complains that the heads of joiner’s mallets often come loose.  That doesn’t often happen with mallets like these, except with mallets that are used infrequently.  If the handle wedges into the head, it tightens every time the mallet is swung.  On my older mallets, such as the top mallet in the picture above, the handle is now wedged so tightly that I cannot remove the head. I also use slightly-green wood for my mallets, and I suspect that as the wood dries, the heads tighten a little bit on the handles.

I have to admit, though, that most commercially-produced mallets are grotesquely ugly.  Usually their heads are far too tall and thin, while the handles have sharp edges.  A well-made joiner’s mallet should have a face that is square or almost square.  I prefer a 3″X3″ striking face.  Your preferences may differ, but I find mallets with 2″ wide faces too narrow.  A good mallet is comfortable to hold.  Look at the handle of the top mallet in the above picture.  The handle’s cross-section in the center is a squashed octagon with the edges relieved.  I find this handle most comfortable and easy to shape with a spokeshave.  A mallet should also have head that is easy to aim.  The faces of the head should be angled properly (the process is explained here; scroll down the page a ways), and the head should be heavy enough to drive a tool with significant force.

Making a joiner's mallet in an exercise in careful mortise-and-tenon joinery. These are made from spalted pecan, which is nearly equivalent to hickory. I made the three big mallets to sell. The two small ones I made for my two oldest children.

I have seen mallets made from many different woods.  Beech is traditional in Europe, probably because it is fairly common there and easily worked.  Beech is a little too soft for my taste, but the theory was that the wood of a mallet head should be softer than the wood of a chisel handle.  It was easier for a joiner to make a new mallet than it was to make a new set of chisel handles.  These days, with handles made from hard plastic, resin-impregnated hardwood, hornbeam, and hard exotics, a harder wood is appropriate for mallet heads.  I highly recommend a wood that is difficult to split:

  • Elm is traditional in the USA, and is nearly impossible to split, though I find it a little too light for really heavy pounding.
  • Hickory is difficult to split, especially once it is seasoned.  The trade-off is that it is quite difficult to work, but you only have to do it once.  It is heavy enough for very hard pounding.
  • Hard maple holds up very well in use, and while it can be difficult to work, it’s fine grain is well suited to this application.
  • Locust would be excellent, since it is both heavy and hard to split.  I have not used it myself in a mallet, but I’m on the lookout for a good locust log.
  • White oak is often used in Japan, since white oak doesn’t split easily once it is dry.  It would not be my first choice, but it would still work fairly well.

Handles can be made out of nearly any stiff wood.  Ash, hard maple, and hickory are ideal, since they are relatively springy.  Osage orange would be excellent, if you can find some.  Other hardwoods, such as walnut or white oak, would also be good choices.  Tropical hardwoods may also be appropriate.  It’s fun to use figured wood, or to use a wood whose color complements or contrasts with the head.

Joiner’s mallets are utilitarian tools, but that doesn’t mean they should be ugly.  The best ones are a beautiful marriage of simple form and utility.

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