The Wooden Mallet
The term mallet originates from France in the late 14th, early 15th century however the basics of this as a tool date back well before this. Rudimentary versions of what we now associate with a Mallet have been around since the Roman and Egyptian days (approx. 1070 BC), the majority of these were fashioned from tree branches and roots, with the Mallet pictured here dating from the New Kingdom period of Egypt. Mallets in this fashion remained fairly unchanged up until the development of the typical square sectioned English Mallet in the late medieval period.
Mallets have been used by most types of craftsmen throughout history, from furniture makers and boatbuilders to stonemasons and carvers. They still prove to be a vital tool for work in timber and stone. Technological advances since these early days have seen mallets produced in a whole range of materials and techniques, just a select few of these are: Bronze or brass headed mallets, urethane or rubber mallets, iron or wooden mallets.
When asked to create an educational taster course for our fine woodwork classes I felt that such a vital tool as the mallet would be an appropriate outcome for this. The question that followed would be what style of mallet to create and the best style to be achieved in the allotted 3 hour class, pros/cons and examples are as follows:
Bronze and brass headed mallets –
These typically have a turned solid timber handle and a circular bronze or brass head, like that picture above. The weight of the head in relation to the handle has a nice quality and feel, and the turned solid timber handle has an appealing quality which falls inline with the type of fine furniture classes we offer, however we currently have fewer lathes than students and would need to outsource the bronze or brass head which is a slight downfall and harder to facilitate. This style of mallet traditionally had a head of raw hide which was wrapped and dried around the end of the handle (pictured above), in either case not achievable in the timeframe.
Urethane or Rubber mallets-
Similar to the Bronze or Brass headed mallets above, the Urethane or Rubber headed mallets often have a turned solid timber handle. However the Urethane or Rubber head lacks the weight of the Bronze or Brass head, in order to achieve this additional weight many manufactures of this type of mallet offer a lead filled plug within the head itself. One very appealing factor to the Urethane or Rubber headed mallet is the shock absorbent quality of the head material meaning over constant use the user has a reduction in the shock transferred through the mallet and into the wrist. Unfortunately for me this style of mallet has the same cons as the mallet above and therefore isn’t quite suitable for the desired result.
That really only left the various styles of solely wooden mallets, which seems like the most appropriate option for a woodwork based class to make. There are several types of wooden mallets to choose from here:
The Wooden Conical or Cone shaped Mallet –
This style of Mallet has a beautiful quality to it. It can be turned from one solid piece of timber or constructed from two pieces of turned timber with the head and handle being attached separately upon completion. This style of mallet holds closest to the style of those very early Roman and Egyptian mallets, and has a great weight and balance, as the head is rounded and generally quite a bit larger than its handle it retains a decent amount of weight which assists in ease of use and shock absorption. As all components to this mallet are turned we remain in the same predicament as the previous styles of mallets, where we have more students than lathes.
The following two styles of mallets are quite similar in construction and design however one originated in England, the other in Japan.
The traditional English Carpenters Mallet –
When the word wooden mallet is mentioned this is the iconic style that would pop into most minds. It is traditionally crafted from English Oak and in more recent times European Beech. The construction of this is achieved by creating an angled mortice through the head of the mallet, this is then paired with a handle that has the same taper being wider at the top and narrower at the base. These two components are not glue together and are simply tapped upside down on a workbench or similar to allow the taper to wedge the head to the handle.
The Japanese (Kiduchi) Mallet –
This style of Mallet is crafted in a very similar fashion to the English Carpenters Mallet however the head of the japanese variant is often much smaller and rounded. the same principle is applied where a tapered handle is slotted into a tapered mortice. A very beautiful version of this style of mallet is offered at Roy Shack’s School of fine woodwork in Brisbane.
The main problem I see with these two styles of mallets are the fact that the head is not fixed to the handle and will therefore work itself loose over time and continually need to be tapped back to a solid fit. This is merely personal opinion, however as i am deciding to design a mallet for the class to make, I figure I might as well look at a variant or improvement to a design that has a great aesthetic and function.
The principle of having a tapered mortice through the head stock is a great foundation to start with and I have seen a few examples where other makers have utilised a wedged version of the mortice and tenon joint to achieve the desired result of having the head of the mallet fixed to the handle. The wedged mortice and tenon comes in two variations one where the tenon is blind or hidden (therefore stops within the joint and is hidden from view) and the second where the tenon goes all the way through the morticed material, it is the second which I want to look at in more detail as this is more suited to the purpose here. As seen in the corresponding image, wedges are driven into pre cut saw kerf’s in the tenon. This allows the tenon to widen at the top, closing against the tapered mortice and locking the whole joint together, pulling it hard to the shoulder on the reverse side of the head stock. As the wedges put straight on the handle material it is vital that whenever utilising this type of join you make allowances to reduce this stress. The most appropriate way to achieve this is to drill relief holes at the base of the saw kerf, this will significantly reduce the risk of the handle splitting along the path of the grain of the timber. The images below shows this principle in application with the final mallet design.
I decided to opt for Jarrah for the handle due to its hardwearing, durable structure and American Rock Maple for the mallet head and wedges, The Rock maple head will mean the mallet will last for years to come, however care needs to be taken when using such a hard timber for the head of a mallet as this can do more damage to the end of a chisel or side of a project if treated incorrectly. Overall I am very happy with the result here and feel that the students should learn a few new skills and take a lot from this little project.
Peter Bollington is a designer/maker at his own company Curious Tales.
He also instructs students the art of woodworking with us at Handsome & Co.