There are many, many variations on the basic joiner’s mallet design, but there’s one design element I will always insist on in my own mallets: a curved top to the head. I used to think this was merely a decorative element, but I recently found out it’s not.
But does it really matter whether the top of the head is curved or straight?
Yes, it does. Here’s why.
Below is a small mallet I built a couple years ago, mostly to be used for adjusting wooden planes. It doesn’t get much use, and I made it before I had thought much about mallet design. The striking faces are angled as usual, but the top of the head is flat–co-planar with the bottom. That makes an acute angle on the top edge of the mallet, a potentially weak point.
Imagine that the ruler on this square is the trajectory (more or less) of an errant mallet blow that lands right on the top of the striking face. If I strike the mallet there enough times, the top is eventually going to mushroom over. Given enough abuse, the top edge will eventually begin to split off.
That’s exactly what’s happening to my oldest mallet:
This mallet has a few years on it, and when the original face began to show some wear, I sawed about 1/4″ off of it in order to expose a fresh striking face. However, I eased the angle of the face just a bit, leaving the top edge at about a 90-degree angle. It’s now beginning to show some mushrooming, which you can just see in the above picture.
So when I made my most recent mallet, I decided to put a healthy curve on the top of the head:
This makes the top edge of the striking face an obtuse angle, which should be less prone to mushrooming and eventual splitting.
The curved top on the head thus protects the top edge of the striking face from excessive damage.
Okay, but does it really matter all that much? I can imagine a few objections already:
Objection 1: If you use a split-resistant wood, it shouldn’t matter. The top edge will be robust enough to take a pounding for years.
Reply to Objection 1: I partially concede the point. Although my old mallet, made of elm, shows some mushrooming on the top edge, there’s no sign of splitting. That wood is nearly unsplittable. If, however, you are making your mallet from wood that can actually be split, such as beech or hard maple, I maintain that your mallet will probably last longer with a rounded top–all other things being equal.
Objection 2: Mallets aren’t meant to be indestructible. When (not if) your mallet wears out, you make a new one. Don’t waste time on little details.
Reply to Objection 2: I want my mallet to last as long as possible. I will gladly spend an extra fifteen minutes on a single design detail if that means the tool lasts a year longer.
Objection 3: You must not be very accurate with your mallet, or you wouldn’t have the problem of errant blows mushrooming over the top edge in the first place.
Reply to Objection 3: All right, if you want to get personal, I’ll admit to a good deal of inaccuracy when pounding with my mallets. But within a few thousand blows, I’d wager that a few are bound to land somewhere near one edge of the striking face or another, no matter how accurate you are.
Objection 4: There’s little historical evidence for mallet heads as you describe them. Neither Moxon nor Roubo show mallets heads with curved tops. The old guys built some pretty fine furniture with what you seem to think are sub-standard mallets.
Reply to Objection 4: That’s true. Moxon and Roubo also don’t show planes with proper totes. While there are many, many things we can learn from them, that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on them. If the mallets in 18th-century joiners’ shops were as clumsy as Moxon and Roubo make them look, I wouldn’t want to use them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a modern mallet made quite like the ones Roubo shows (click on the link above and scroll down.)
Objection 5: This seems kind of trivial. I’ll bet you were just especially hard up for a blog topic this week.
Reply to Objection 5: That’s true. (It’s also an example of the genetic fallacy.) But I’m still going to be curving the tops of all my mallet heads from now on.