Admittedly, this isn’t the project I had scheduled for this week. I had every intention to start my hickory dining table build but for some reason I was struck with a wave of indecisiveness on the final design. That rarely happens but when it does it’s incredibly frustrating. Similarly to writer’s block. So instead of rushing the project I decided to take a mental break from that build and knock a “quick win” project off the to-do list.
Mallets are like underwear (I bet you’ve never heard that before). There’s about a dozen or so styles and while most of them will do the job just fine we do have our preferences. My favorite mallet design to make is a rectangular two piece design where the handle is not glued to the head. The handle is tapered top to bottom and naturally wedges itself into a tapered through mortise in the mallet head.
I like this design for a couple of reasons. First, the taper gives my hand a bit of familiarity. The taper is in only one direction so after getting familiar with the handle I can instantly tell if I’m holding it in the proper orientation as soon as I grab it. Second, if the mallet head ever breaks you only need to make a new mallet head instead of the entire mallet. While making a new handle isn’t difficult at, reusing the old one is a little more convenient and also allows you to keep the same familiar grip that you’re used to.
I wanted to show two ways to make the same mallet so naturally I decided to make two mallets. For the first mallet I used oak. I got a few pieces of oak from my friend Shawn Stone that were perfect for a mallet.
The mallet head blank was already square along the four long grain faces but the ends were not. That’s OK because I needed to cut a taper on them anyway. I cut a one degree taper on the end grain faces so that they would be slightly angled in to whatever they were going to be striking. This angle is cut top to bottom at my miter saw station.
Here’s where I cheated a little bit. Just like when working in SketchUp, never draw what you can copy. For me it was a lot easier and quicker to trace the mallet handle I already had and know that I like rather than measuring out a new shape. Obviously you don’t have my mallet handle to trace like I did so I put together a dimensioned drawing of the exact size this mallet turned out to be.
And this new handle was cut out at the bandsaw. I made sure to stay away from the light just slightly.
That way I could clean up the bandsaw marks with a hand plane and work my way down to the line. It’s crazy how incorporating hand tools more and more seems to really speed up the process in a few areas. If I were to use my jointer to clean up the bandsaw marks I would still have to use a plane to clean up the jointer marks. For this one individual piece it was quicker to skip the jointer.
To determine the top and bottom mortise sizes I used a pair of dividers to transfer the exact width of the handle where I wanted it to pass through the head. Again, never draw what you can copy. Using these dividers (or a cheap compass) is much faster and more precise than transferring the dimensions with a ruler.
The dividers leave a small indentation in the wood about the size of a pencil tip. Place the pencil in the indentation, slide a square up against the pencil, and strike a very accurate line. Dividers have recently become a very handy tool in my shop.
While I do enjoy working with hand tools these days, it will be MUCH faster to remove the bulk of the material with a drill press. I used the largest diameter forstner bit that would fit the mortise and drilled half way through from both the top and bottom.
I’m soooooo glad I built my workbench. Having a dedicated solid surface that doesn’t move at all when you’re beating on something is very convenient. To chop the mortise I first clamped a piece of plywood in my leg vise that stood proud of the workbench surface by an inch or two. Then I could use a regular clamp to secure the mallet head to the plywood and hold it in place directly over the workbench leg. Right on top of the leg is the ideal spot on any workbench to chop away at a mortise as it is essentially the thickest mass of material between the workpiece and the ground and won’t deflect at all. This setup also allowed me to see my pencil lines showing the taper of the mortise. Just line the chisel up to these lines by eye and chop away!
Just like at the drill press I removed half of the material from each side.
The first fit of the mortise was good but not perfect. The handle fit too snug on the non tapered sides. It’s much easier to shave the handle slightly than pare away at the inside faces of the mortise. For this I used my WoodRiver #62 low angle jack plane. I’ve got some serious tool love going on with this plane. I’ll probably do a giveaway soon with this plane. Let me know if that’s something you would be interested in :)
With the handle fitting appropriately I trimmed off the extra length of the handle at the bandsaw. I purposely sized the tapered mortise so that the handle wouldn’t be that long. I don’t need a long handle for this mallet.
So that was the first mallet completed. Just a solid block of wood with a tapered handle and mortise. But what if you don’t have a solid block of wood that thick? For the second mallet I’ll show you the easier route to get the same end result. For this one I’m using a piece of 4/4 walnut that I picked up from Matt Cremona. The piece I cut off ended up being 15” long.
The first step in the milling process is to square two sides at the jointer.
Followed by planing the opposite wide face. It’s always nice removing that rough sawn surface and revealing the beautiful wood below.
Instead of using the bandsaw to taper the handle I setup my multi-function hold down sled to taper the handle at the table saw.
With the taper cut on the handle I could determine what angle was necessary for the interior pieces of the mallet head to match the handle. The handle ended up being tapered at about two degrees so a cut of one degree on either side should keep the handle perpendicular to the head.
To test the angle I made the one degree cut on a small piece of the milled walnut. Then flipped one side of the cut so that the angles were in the appropriate direction. With the top short faces pressed against the miter saw fence and the handle in between the angled cuts I confirmed that the angles were correct.
Finally the mallet head can be assembled with glue. I added a couple brad nails to attach the interior angled pieces to the back of the mallet head during assembly. This allows me to lock the pieces in place and prevent any slipping that may occur during glue-up. These are on the inside and positioned close to the handle so you’ll never see them and they won’t ever get in the way of anything. Before gluing the final piece in place the handle is removed. Just like with the oak mallet, I positioned the handle so that once the mallet was complete there would be extra on the top that can be cut off and the handle will be somewhere around 10” in overall length.
After the head was glued-up I jointed the top and bottom faces to clean them up a little bit and cut the matching one degree taper on both business ends of the mallet head.
One final step was to put a 1/8” chamfer on all of the edges. This breaks the sharp corners while still keeping the straight line look of this style mallet. To make these chamfers I clamped my trim router upside down in my workbench vise to make a quick mini router table. This worked really well.
So that “second’” mallet ended up being five mallets. The 15” section of 4/4 walnut I used yielded more material than I thought it would so I stretched the cuts the best I could to get the most number of mallets. Each one is unique of the next as all of the sizes are slightly different. Walnut is a lighter wood than oak so these aren’t quite as heavy as I prefer. But that’s ok as not everyone prefers a really heavy mallet. I’ll be giving the five walnut mallets new homes shortly.