Who said, “Speak softly and carry a big mallet.”?
I forgot to give details of this some time back when I promised to give details of the best wooden mallet I ever came across. An elderly woodsman from Cheshire showed me a beautiful mallet that’s now buried somewhere in my monstrous collection of user woodworking tools on two continents. I say buried because I put special and unique aspects of my tools in wraps for when I complete the book I’ve prepared regarding the importance of tools to the generations of woodworking craftsmen. That’s beside the point.
My copy of the original
About 40 years ago I saw tools in a chest beneath a bench of a man I knew for a few years. He was a country man who built fencing and new the nature of anything you needed to know about hedging of any kind. Nestled amidst Ultimatum braces and brass and ebony shoulder planes, chariot planes and Norris infils was a wooden mallet made from beech but rich in those hues no modern stain maker seems at all able to match. I pulled the mallet from the nest and placed it on the bench at his request. It stood like mine does above and looked so lovely that we both stood and stared at it for a minute or two before anyone spoke. The light glanced the facets that held our gaze so and filtering as it did through the window-light as it did I couldn’t help but ask if it might be for sale. “Aye!” He said, but you’ll ‘ave ter buy the lot.” I looked under the bench at a full set of pig-stickers, jointers, jacks and tri-planes and said, “OK.” The deal was done and I owned a mallet I liked.
One thing that struck me (no Pun here) about the mallet was the care the owner had taken in its design, but way beyond even that, I liked the care he had taken of the mallet that was a good 100 years old.
These drawings detail my mallet. It has the best balance of any mallet I’ve made or owned and it’s heavier than the old one by 25%, which I like. This one is made from an unusual wood – cedar elm. Instead of me telling you about the tree itself, please go to this site and I’ll tell you little of what’s inside it.
Few non-tropical woods are as dense and close-grained as cedar elm. I doubt you could drive any size of nail home in it without it buckling at the first or second blow. I have two mallets I have made to the design of the old find. My other equally favoured mallet is made from Osage Orange, also known as Bois d`arc, a unique wood with half a dozen other names too. Anyway, my mallet has dished only 1/16” in 20 years. There are no cracks or fissures anywhere and it’s heavy and hard. I heard someone somewhat influential say you didn’t need a heavy, hard mallet for joinery and I listened, considered his words, and decided a heavy mallet can tap as lightly as a lightweight one or deliver more than a lightweight one in one tool. Hence the saying, “Tap softly with a heavy mallet.” Heavy mallets are practical, adaptable and they are nice to have when you need them. I also like my Osage mallet because, like the Cedar elm, it is defiantly durable under any and all pressure, it dishes only marginally, and it does not surface fracture on end grain, as will many woods typically used for mallets such as beech and oak. Hard maple works well for mallets too. Not as well as Osage Orange and Cedar Elm, but it will work.
On my mallet, that follows the old original one, the sides are not flat like the ones you buy, but shaped as shown in the drawing above and in the photo left. The end too is round as you can also see (that’s the top edge in pic). This improves the dynamic of the mallet substantially. A scallop to the inside corners also improves the shape to remove the clunkiness so that it moves through the air like a jet to strike dead on that sweet spot scientists call COP (centre of percussion). I like the angular handle shaped again by simple scallops to give a hexagonal shape. This improved grip over oval handles and directs the blow more accurately.
My wood came from Texas. Cut and air-dried for over seven years, it has never moved or distorted one iota. So too my Osage Orange, which came from an old fencepost in the ground for 50 years and as gnarly as a Texas Dry Frio riverbed. I know, I know! Where are you going to get Cedar Elm 3” thick from. OK, I’m sorry for building you up and then letting the wind out. The three inch thick head is about 45 years of Texas HillCountry growth. Not the most conducive to fast growth, but one of the few regions this tree grows in the US.
Oh, by the way, protruding handles sticking out too much are a problem in tight spaces. Allow them to protrude until you thing they have shrunk as much as they can and they have also tightened into the mortise hole. That way they will not go too deep inside the hole later. See picture above.
Step by step to follow and also a video for the woodworking masterclasses library