With my recent deeper dive into woodworking, and more specifically hand tool work, there has arisen a need, and desire, for some more tools. Fortunately, something I have appreciated from many of the craftsmen and women I have begun following is the focus and appreciation for the work and the wood, instead of the tools used to complete the work. I got my early experience with tools via automotive restoration, where most of the tools used were pneumatic or electric. Then when I began doing some woodworking, I pretty much exclusively worked with power tools still. In my opinion and personal experience, while there is always attention paid to ability and craftsmanship in any work, there is a lot of emphasis placed on a tool's capabilities and advantages in power tool work.
Something I appreciate from watching the artisans I draw inspiration from is that they are often using old tools, or better yet, self made tools. This has been a refreshing experience as the internet is flooded with so many ad-riddled, click bait-y DIY or How-To videos and articles that are complete with a laundry list of affiliate links for the latest and greatest tools to complete the job. Instead of being intimidated and deterred from getting into the craft because of a perceived large barrier to entry, I have been encouraged to find tools secondhand at flea markets and sales, and, better yet, to practice the craft by making my own tools.
This post is to share my recent Joiner’s Mallet build that I was inspired to tackle because of this. This was the perfect example of “Why buy it when I can make it?” I thought this would be a great opportunity to save some money and learn some things along the way. Now, I didn’t save a ton of money (and probably lost some depending on how I value my time) because quality mallets are not very expensive, but I certainly learned some things and got some good practice in that I would wager is worth much more than the mallet.
So my preparation for this mallet consisted of “kind of” watching a couple videos of people making them. I say “kind of” because both of the videos I watched were something I just put on the TV while playing with my seven month old daughter. So the information I received from the videos is kind of spotty, but I got the jist of what the purpose of the mallet is, what properties are important, and the general shape. I also got a little bit of information on what types of wood are “preferable”.
This allowed me to make a little sketch (which I threw away, but wish I would’ve kept to add it to this post) in my pocket notebook and make some notes. Then I started thinking of what material I wanted to use. I had originally thought that I may have had some locust in the wood pile by the barn, but I was mistaken. That would’ve met and exceeded the hardness needed for the head. Then I thought I had a strip of Ash to use for the handle, but that was a bust as well. So I took to the internet to see if I could find any bowl blanks of something like Osage Orange for the head and turning blanks of Hickory or Ash for the handle. I managed to find some stuff but I could not justify the costs for small quantities.
I then got to thinking of firewood. Maybe I could find some Hickory firewood and do the whole mallet out of Hickory. Then it dawned on me that my in-laws had all sorts of firewood so I checked in with them to see what usable stuff they had. A couple days later I wound up with a few big chunks of Red Oak. Though not my first choice, I figured it would be plenty hard enough for what I’ll be doing and, the best part, it is free. It also presented another challenge that intrigued me - it was from a recently felled tree. I have never worked with green wood, so I thought it could be interesting. I wasn’t too concerned with shrinkage, more so any end grain checking as it dries.
Silly me didn’t have the foresight to take pictures (something I am working on getting better about this year) of the full chunk of Oak I opted to use for the head, but it was probably 12” x 16” x 6” or maybe larger. There was a fairly large split that ran about half the length of the chunk and was about 5” from the edge. I took advantage of this split and wedged it with an old hatchet head, then whacked at it with the flat side of an old splitting maul. This gave me a nice starting chunk for the head.
I now had a chunk of wood that was about 12” x 6” x 5”. I was aiming for head dimensions of somewhere around 6” x 4” x 3”. So I went to the hunk with the saw to trim the 12” to closer to 6 ½” to 7”. Boy oh boy wet Red Oak is a pain to saw. I actually learned this on the handle first when I ripped a 19” long, 2” thick chunk down the length to get my handle... well, first handle attempt, but more on that later. Anyways, after sometime I got through the chunk and had a workable sized head blank.
From here it was just a matter of picking a face to start with and flattening it out. I elected to start with the top and I went at it with a chisel first, paring it across the grain to knock off the real high spots, before flattening it out with a #4 plane. This face became my reference for squaring up all other faces, less the end grain as that would come after cutting the taper from the top to bottom. I worked my way around the head and eventually got four flat surfaces. I had made some mistakes in planing one of the sides and ended up having to take off more material than I had wanted to. This combined with mixing up the sides at one point when I was checking squareness, which also resulted in unnecessary waste, left me with a bit narrower a mallet head than I wanted.
Next I found the center of the top and made a line, across the grain, down both sides, and onto the bottom. I then measured off the centerline to mark my final desired top and bottom widths. Connecting the marks gave me my saw taper line. I sawed in my tapers and began going at the end grain with a block plane. Planing this green end grain was a learning experience in itself, and after some work, I managed to get both impact faces squared up. Now it was onto the handle joint.
I made some marks for where I wanted the handle to land on the top and took measurements of the handle. I did the same for where the handle would land on the bottom and measured. I then marked off the top and bottom of the head for the mortise and took a 1” paddle bit from the bottom and drilled out to the top. I started doing this with a brace, but I quickly switched to a cordless drill to finish. I need to get some nice auger bits instead of using an old paddle bit for things like this.
I had made lines on the sides of the mallet head that connected the top and bottom mortise openings. This would allow me to sight my chisel and I began working the 1” hole into a tapered mortise connecting the wider top to the narrower bottom. After working at this for a bit I was finally ready to do my first handle fit test. I go to slide the handle in from the top and immediately notice something is off. I then flip the handle to compare the top side of the handle to the topside of the mortise and I realize that I apparently had made a fairly significant error in laying out the mortise… The mortise was too wide for the top… So I scrapped that handle and had to start making a new one.
As mentioned above, I had originally started with the handle for this mallet and then marked the mortise on the head based on the handle. Something went awry when I measured and marked the mortise, however, and the handle was not going to fit snugly into the head. So I scrapped the first handle and went back to the chunk of oak to cut out another handle blank. I marked off the hunk and sawed off a piece, planed one wide face straight and square to use as reference and then planed one edge square based on the reference face. When I got to the other wide face, I marked off my desired thickness with a marking gauge based off the reference face and then planed this final face down to mark, maintaining a straight and square surface.
I found the center of the blank based on the wider end and marked off a centerline in pencil by riding a combination square on the narrow edge. I then used the square and a pencil to extend the mortise end and centerline to the edge of the head and laid the head on the handle blank. I lined up the mortise centerline with the handle centerline and marked the head top and bottom on the blank, as well as the mortise widths. Using a 2’ level as my straight edge I was able to connect the mortise width marks and make a line with the pencil to get the appropriate handle shape. I ripped the handle profile just outside the pencil lines to leave some room to plane the handle sides.
Once cut, I planed the sawn edges of the handle flush and began fitting the handle. I had intentionally left the handle a little thicker than the mortise so I had some material to work with. I worked the handle down with a block plane set to remove very little material at a time. Once I got the thickness to where I could the handle started, it was just a matter of fitting the handle and paying attention to where it was getting tight, then paring the appropriate faces of the mortise until I was happy with the handle fit.
Shaping & Finishing
With the handle in the mallet I can get a feel for how I wanted to shape the handle. I pulled the handle and started shaping it. I like a handle with a contour on one side that fits comfortably in my palm and rounded on the other for my finger to wrap around. Using a draw knife and spokeshave I wasted some material, rechecked the feel, and repeated until I was happy. I then cut off the excess handle length, smoothed the end grain, and rounded off the bottom of the handle. For the top of the handle that sticks out of the head of the mallet I planed the end grain to the protrusion level I wanted and rounded the corners. I then pulled out the handle and sanded the surface smooth to remove any marks and edges. As for the head, I rounded the top slightly, chamfered all the edges, and then sanded the surface smooth. For a finish I used some Tru Oil I had handy.
Though I had a fair amount of time in this mallet, I think it was well worth the time and effort. This type of project is a great way to get some experience with various areas of hand tool work, and woodworking in general. Making this from hunks of scrap wood or firewood was good practice for reading the wood to see if you can get a more manageable chunk through means other than sawing, like splitting. You also will find that the pieces have no “true” surface, so you have to work on your planning, marking, measuring, and planing skills to get an appropriately sized, square piece of stock. In this instance, the wood was green, which was a neat experience as I had to manage some issues like clocked saw teeth and planes, and pulling tannins out of the oak.
Once you have your square stock, this project offers lessons in dealing with ripping and crosscutting, plenty of measuring and marking, creating mortises (a tapered mortise more specifically), and varying grain types and directions. Learning and practicing these various skills are worth the time and effort even with a relatively low cost product. For me, my biggest lessons were in squaring stock without messing up dimensions, mortising, and working with large areas of end grain. My planning skills also benefited from this project. In hindsight, if I would have taken the time to think through the whole process a bit more, I would have realized how much simpler it was for me to create a handle based on an existing head, than make a head based on a handle.
If you made it through this whole read, I appreciate you sticking it out and would love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, questions, or recommendations in the comments below! Thank you!