Mallet

Wood mallet for timber framingThe mallet is a very basic but important and frequently used tool for timber framing.  It’s used to pound chisels and other edge tools, drive pegs, and coerce huge timbers together. Mallets come in a wide variety of designs. Square faced wood mallets, round turned wood mallets, leather hide mallets, and new man-made plastic mallets. Wood mallets don’t last forever.  After a few hundred mortises the mallet head will likely be mushroomed and cracked, but that’s expected.  Mallets are sacrificial, they’ll eventually wear out and fail.  Learn to make them. You’ll want to make several mallets of different sizes. When the head of the mallet splits, you can quickly fashion a new one.  This article will teach you how to make a timber framing mallet.

For hitting framing chisels, you’ll want a mallet made of hard, dense wood, like hickory, dogwood, elm, ironwood/hornbeam, ash, maple, or beech. Really any dense hardwood will work, especially if you find a chunk with whorls, knots, or root bulbs that naturally make the wood impossible to split.  For timber framing, we need a heavier mallet than might be used in building furniture because the chisels are bigger we need more mass to drive them through the wood.  You can buy Lignum vitae wood carving mallets online, just make sure you get a big heavy one (30 oz. or greater).  Lignum vitae is an extremely dense hard wood often used for mallet heads.

Natural wood is the preferred material for a mallet because wood striking a chisel gives the user feedback about how the tool is cutting. This “feel” is lost on hammers and plastic mallets. The weight of non-wood mallets tends to be misbalanced and fatiguing to use for long periods of time. Use one all day and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

There are 3 basic mallet designs to choose from:

  1. Cylindrical mallets.  You can turn a single piece of wood on the lathe to make a cylindrical mallet.  Steve Chappell of Fox Maple school sells them on his website: http://www.foxmaple.com/order.html
  2. Round log and handle. You can cut a small chunk of wood off the limb of a suitable tree, drill a hole through the short log, and fit a round handle into the hole.  This is probably the easiest and fastest method for making mallets.

    Cylindrical log mallet

    Cylindrical log mallet

  3. Rectangular chunk with handle. This is just a rectangular chunk of wood with a slight arc to it so the sides faces of the mallet point inward toward the end of the handle. The inward angle follows the angle of your arm as you swing the mallet, allowing the mallet to strike the object you’re hitting squarely.

    Chunk of Ash for a mallet.

    Chunk of Ash for a mallet.

How to Make a Mallet

  1. Cut a two pieces of hardwood. One for the mallet head and one for the mallet handle.  Use one of the wood species mentioned above in the article.  The mallet head can be a gnarly mass of knots, but the handle should be as straight grained as possible with few knots. Shape the mallet head and handle down with the axe.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaDAzKVBnlk
  2. Bore a hole in the mallet head with an auger bit.  Use at least a 1″ hole for a timber framing mallet.  If you’re making a commander (a huge mallet for driving big timbers together) your whole will be much larger.  If you’re making a small mallet for finish work, your hole will be smaller.  The size of the handle should match the size of the mallet head.

    Drill and square a hole in the mallet head.

    Drill and square a hole in the mallet head.

  3. Cut a flared mortise.  I’ve found square handles are less likely to come loose than round handles. I cut a square mortise about 1″ x 1″ at the bottom, flared to about 1″ x 1-1/4″ at the top. The flared shape gives me enough room to insert a wedge into the top of the handle. The square mortise isn’t going to spin like a round handle in a round hole, and the flared shape means the handle won’t pull out. This step is optional. If you’re in a hurry you can skip this step and fit a round handle into the round hole left by the auger bit in step two. Just be prepared to pound your handle back into the mallet when it comes loose from time to time.
  4. Shape the handle. Use a drawknife to shave the handle down so that one end will fit through the mallet head and the other end will fit comfortably in your hand. It helps to use outside calipers to determine how much wood to remove.  Instead of test fitting the handle and drawshaving in a guess and check manner, use the calipers to check your progress as you work the drawshave.  It’ll save you a lot of time test fitting.

    Using calipers to fit the handle.

    Using calipers to fit the handle.

  5. Saw a kerf. Once you’re confident the handle is ready (snug but still able to be driven all the way through the mallet head), saw a kerf in the top of the handle, parallel to the flared sides of the mortise.  When the hardwood wedge is driven into the kerf, it’ll expand in the direction of the flare.  Gently pound the handle in.  Fit a hardwood wedge to the size of the mortise.  Pound it into the kerf.  Saw the wedge and top of the handle flush.

    Fitting a wedge in, just like an axe.

    Fitting a wedge in, just like an axe.

  6. Coat the handle and mallet head in several coats of linseed oil. This keeps the wood supple so it’s less likely to dry out and fracture. Linseed oil also helps preserve the moisture content of the wood, keeping the mallet head heavy.  As the wood dries out the mallet will become lighter and as the wood shrinks the junction between the handle and mallet head will become tighter.

    Mallet, finished and ready to put to work.

    Mallet, ready to be put to work.

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