Month: April 2016

Making a joiners mallet by hand

Making a joiners mallet by hand

A wooden mallet is one of those ubiquitous woodworking tools, right up there with handplanes. Every shop should have at least a couple – a heavy mallet for chopping mortises, and a lighter one for finer work such as cleaning up dovetails. A mallet doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing to do its job. It doesn’t even have to be wooden, you could just as easily go with one of the chisel mallets with polymer heads, or one of those rubber ones you find at any home hardware store (but avoid the black ones, they tend to stain your work). Personally I like my tools to be aesthetically pleasing; I find it makes my woodworking experience a lot more enjoyable. With that in mind I wanted to make a set of durable mallets from some pieces of interesting wood I had in my shop, and share the process of making it with you.

I made two mallets in the last couple of days, one with an Ipe head and Ziricote handle, and one with a Mahogany head and Pine handle.The Ipe head and Ziricote stock was from a friend, a local craftsman, who had already cut out the mortise in the head. Good thing too, I wasn’t looking forward to chopping out a mortise in Ipe. The latter was all reclaimed, the lumber was re-used from old dunnage. Ipe is an incredibly hard and dense wood – I will be using this mallet to chop mortises and not much else, as it will dent almost any other wood. The Mahogany mallet will be used for finer work, but for the head I chose a piece with a tight knot – this will impart additional strength and rigidity to the mallet, especially important for an open grained wood like Mahogany. Worth considering if you plan to make yours out of Oak too. Now a lot of online tutorials on mallets will suggest making your head out of several pieces that are glued together. This is the easier way to make a mallet, as you don’t need the skills required to chop out the mortise. I prefer using a solid block of wood for the head, I find it works a lot better, looks better and is a great way to practice some mortising.

I like to start by cutting the head to rough dimension first. I typically cut the striking faces at an angle of around 5 degrees. Don’t worry too much about getting it right on, a little bit off won’t affect the performance at all. The next step was to use my scrub plane to remove the rough faces, followed by squaring up the head using my jack plane. Once the head is squared up I like to move on to the handle.

Ripping the pine stock for the handle with a bow saw

Ripping the Pine for the handle

I rip down the board using my frame saw, finishing off with a regular rip saw when the frame saw bottoms out. This leaves a fairly rough edge that needs to be planed square and smooth. I then mark out the taper for the handle, typically at a 2 or 3 degree angle. You don’t need an angle too steep as that will make the handle quite thin at the bottom. To taper the handle you can use a rip saw or plane down to the lines. I prefer using my scrub plane for the task, as it is quick, removes a lot of material, but is also easier to control. Plane down to your line but don’t cross it, leave it for fine tuning later.

I then used the handle to mark out the angle for the mortise in the mallet head. For the pine handle I opted to leave an inch proud at the top, as the pine is likely to compress easier than a typical hardwood handle, and I may need to hammer the handle in further a year later. For the mahogany handle I left a bit less material at the top.

It’s a good idea to bore out most of the waste for the mortise, especially since the mortise is a good 4″ or so thick. You can use a bit and brace or a drill press – I used a brace for the Mahogany. Start your hole, go down halfway and then flip the head and go from the other side. You can try to follow the angle of the mortise with your boring or drill straight down and establish the angle using your chisels.


Head and handle ready to be shaped. Look at that beautiful Ziricote grain!

At this point your handle should fit in your mallet head with a couple inches proud at the top. This is when you plane down to your lines on the handle, until the fit is satisfactory. It is also a good idea to add a slight bevel to the edges of the mortise in the head to prevent break out when the handle is hammered in/out.

Now we move on to shaping. Shaping the handle is almost mandatory – no one wants to use a sharp and square handle. As for the head, all it really needs to be functional is a slight bevel on all edges to prevent tearout, but I like to shape the heads to an attractive and (in my opinion) better balanced shape.

For this I use a scrub plane again. I mark out a radius by hand – accuracy isn’t too important here, so long as it looks symmetrical. I usually plane off a quarter of an inch at the ends, and at the corners.

Shaping the mallet head

Shaping the head. I used a scrub plane to establish the curve in the top. 

For the handles I use a spokeshave to get the curves in the handle. I start an inch below the head and go in a quarter of an inch in each corner, stopping about 2 inches from the bottom.


Head almost done, handle to be shaped.

Another option would be to chisel the bulk of the waste off the head and the handles and then go in with a block plane or spokeshave. Pick your poison.

Take your time with the shaping process, especially with the handle, as it is easy to get too aggressive and end up removing too much material. Once the shaping is done, I use a cabinet scraper to smooth out the curves before applying a finish. I don’t worry too much about removing all the plane/chisel marks, as it is a mallet after all, and it will get dinged up in no time anyways.

For a finish I use a few coats of boiled linseed oil (BLO). Add a generous amount, wipe it off after a little while and repeat. After a few coats I let it dry before rubbing it with some paste wax for some extra shine and surface protection. Note – if you are using a highly figured wood like Ziricote go easy on the BLO – one coat should be enough as more will darken the wood. Also, make sure to follow proper safety and disposal procedures for your BLO soaked rags, they will self combust if you’re not careful!

Beautiful Handmade Mahogany and Pine mallet

Mahogany/Pine Mallet, complete!

Once the finishing process is complete, stick your handle in the mortise, give it a couple sharp taps (with another mallet ideally), and voila! You have a beautiful joiners’ mallet that should last you a decade (at least).


Ipe/Ziricote mallet, complete! (Unfortunately you can’t see much of the grain in this photo)


Posted by Prairie Artisan Woodshop in Toolmaking, Tools, 1 comment
Restoring a 1890’s Disston D-8 Panel Rip Saw

Restoring a 1890’s Disston D-8 Panel Rip Saw

The other day I met an elderly gentleman looking to sell the contents of his garage and move south of the border. Amidst the automotive tools, china figurines and old license plates, this panel saw caught my eye. I knew immediately that evening would be spent on this handsaw restoration.


Would look like any old saw of it weren’t for than the thumb hole

The extra hole you see on the handle is for the thumb of your left hand for two handed ripping. I picked it up, and could just barely make out ‘Disston & Sons, Philada’ on the medallion. Disston saws are quite common here in Alberta, but 90% of the time they tend to be newer Disston Canada/Disston US/Disston HK Porter. Problem is, the saws look just as old, and it can get hard to assess the value and restoration-worthiness of the saw. I had never come across such an old Disston here, so of course I had to buy it. The blade was straight, although heavily rusted, and the handle was in good shape, no cracks and no nuts missing.

The first thing to do in a handsaw restoration is, of course, to take it apart (or try to). I restore old tools to put them back to use – not to put them on display. A tool collector will tell you to research what saw you have  in your possession for rarity before taking it apart, so if that is your thing, it’s worth keeping in mind. The old saw nuts have very thin slots, so you need a thin screwdriver to fit. Be gentle, the brass strips easily.

Once you get the nuts off, keep them in a safe place and gently shimmy the blade out of the handle. I clean the blade with some alcohol to get the surface grime off, before getting to work with a cabinet scraper to get the majority of the rust off. Take it easy, don’t gouge the surface of the blade. Once most of the rust is off, I use 150 grit sandpaper to take care of the rest, followed by 1000 grit. Make sure you only sand in the direction of the blade, unless you want unsightly bright spots (and they will be highly visible, trust me). Go easy on the middle of the blade on the side of the medallion – old saws might have beautiful etches that are well worth keeping. Once I am done sanding I will usually give the blade a light polish using some metal polish, followed by a buffing with some paste wax, to protect the blade and lubricate the cut when I use it.

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The blade, all cleaned up

Don’t expect to get the blade to look like new – that will require a lot of sanding and will likely result in an uneven blade, not to mention losing the etch. The idea is to get the rust off to get the blade into working condition.

The etch on this saw says ‘The beauty, finish and utility of this saw cannot be excelled. Henry Disston’. The etch and the medallion would place the saw somewhere between 1890 – 1910. The thumb grip type is a rarer version of the D8 too, so quite a find for $10.

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The apple wood handle sanded down – notice the patina is not entirely gone

There are two ways to go about restoring handles (there are more, but two main ideas anyways) – simply clean up the handle and give it a coat of BLO, or sand it down and refinish it. The first method leaves the patina, while the second takes away a little from the patina. I prefer the second – I find it a better way to protect the handle, and I think the saw looks better this way. Also, 100 years of use results in patina that really doesn’t come off after sanding unless you go crazy with the sandpaper. Another purpose of sanding is to get the paint flecks off the handle, which old saws seem to inevitably have.

I sand the handles down with 150 grit, followed by a couple coats of BLO. Old saw handles tend to be quite thirsty, so give it several coats. The BLO really brings out the beauty of the wood. I then like to finish off with a coat of shellac, just my own preference – the BLO would be sufficient really. For the brass nuts and medallion, I just used some 1000 grit sandpaper to get the tarnish off. And here it is – a beautiful Disston D8, over a 100 years old, ready to be sharpened and put back to work in a woodshop. This really is a beautiful and well made saw.


Restored to glory and ready to work

I hope this handsaw restoration helps you out the next time you come across a beautiful saw suffering from neglect. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I will get back to you!


Posted by Prairie Artisan Woodshop in Disston D-8, Restorations, Tools, 2 comments
Glue Up and Building the Base – Low Cost Roubo 2

Glue Up and Building the Base – Low Cost Roubo 2

Now that we have the wood acclimatised to our workspace, it’s time to get building! One of the hardest things about building a first workbench is actually the lack of a workbench to build it on. That’s in keeping with woodworking in general – one tool begets ten others. Anyways, if you don’t have sawhorses to work on, you can use any stable table (that you don’t care much for). I built this one on an old IKEA coffee table. Again, make sure you use something you don’t care much for, because you will be getting glue, dings and holes on it. The first step of course, is the glue up.

Once the crosscuts are done to rough size (based on our earlier dimensions), it is a good idea to plane off a thin shaving or two from each board, even if they are perfectly square, just to give the glue a nice fresh surface to stick to. You could square each board at this point, or wait till after glue up. For dimensional lumber, I prefer waiting till after. This is because glue ups are rarely perfect, and the wood will move on you later, so planing before means losing a good .5″ at least.

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A surprisingly sturdy coffee table

Use a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of glue and clamps, and make sure to layout your clamps beforehand so that once you’ve glued up each board you are ready to go before the glue starts to dry. Once the lamination was complete, I got to work with my no.5 plane to bring the top down to flatness.


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A well tuned plane with a sharp blade will make your life a lot easier

At this point I don’t worry too much about getting the top perfectly flat, as I will likely have to flatten again later on in the build. With the top done, I move on to the base. The same principles apply, plane the boards lightly, use a lot of glue and a lot of clamps, and once the glue up is complete, plane the surfaces down.


The stretchers ready to be marked

I made a couple extra short stretchers, just in case something went wrong when cutting the tenons.

Now on to marking. Get your marking gauge, square, and pencil out, and take your time – this is a crucial part of building anything. A good principle for tenons is to make them about 1/2 – 2/3 of the stretchers. I made the shoulders 1″ wide on the wider dimension (3.5″) and 3/4″ wide on the shorter dimension (3″). This would give me a nice square tenon that was large enough to be strong, but should also give the leg mortises enough wall strength at an inch thick on either side of the tenon.

Another important tip is to mark your waste – when you’re working on a repetitive task, it gets easy to cut on the wrong side of the line. Next time we will be cutting the tenons and chopping out the mortises!

Marking the tenons and mortises

Take your time when marking and measuring

Posted by Prairie Artisan Woodshop in Builds, Split-top Roubo Workbench, 0 comments
Planning and Materials – Low Cost Roubo 1

Planning and Materials – Low Cost Roubo 1

Once I decided on the type of bench I wanted to build, it was time to make some rough sketches to figure out how much material I would need. In order to keep it low-cost, I decided to build the bench out of dimensional lumber that you can find at any home hardware store. This helped guide my planning process.

Roubo workbench plan

Initial rough concept sketch

A 2×4 typically has dimensions of 1.5″x 3.5″. It made sense to laminate the legs out of three pieces, for a final size of 3.5″x4.5″ (of course the actual legs will be a bit smaller in all aspects after being planed down). The top and bottom stretchers would be two pieces laminated together, so around 3″x3.5″. The important thing about a Roubo bench is to make sure the front legs are flush with the front edge of the table top. This lets you clamp larger workpieces to the legs and the top as you work them, and also allows the use of a leg vise. One unusual aspect you might have noticed from the sketch is the addition of top stretchers; typically Roubos do not possess top stretchers, as the heft of the base and the through mortised joints are enough to keep the bench from racking. In this case the top stretchers weren’t really necessary but I wanted to add them in for good measure. I figured it would also allow the split top to rest more stable-y on the base.

The length of the top is rather short, but for the space that I had for it, it made sense. If you are using this build as a resource for ideas, you can extend the top by a couple feet without changing any other dimensions – the base is sized adequately. I wanted a split top, as the gap holds a planing stop that comes in very handy (and also doubles as a tool holder). The width of the top would be around 20″, which is pretty standard. As for the dog holes, I would figure the layout out once the bench was built.

At this point I needed to decide on my vise and the hardware. I strongly suggest that you acquire your hardware before you have made any progress on your build; it is far easier to account for it early on than to add it once you’ve put the bench together. I knew I wanted a leg vise – the clamping pressure they produce is fantastic, as is their depth and capacity. I also love the antiquated nature of leg vises, and the customization options that the chop presents. I decided to go with a DIY option that works very well – a tail vise screw sold by Lee Valley, and a self-made chop/parallel guide assembly. Of course, there are other options out there such as wooden vise screws or Benchcrafted assemblies, but they are a lot costlier. The end vise was more of a dilemma – I was torn between a proper tail vise, a quick release metal vise or a longer face vise. The proper tail vise was ruled out mostly due to the short length of the bench top (they are a lot more complex to install too), and the long face vise was ruled out due to the split top design. That left me with the QR metal bench vise.

Letting the lumber acclimatize

2×4’s cut to rough length

Next up was choosing and buying the wood. The basic idea is to choose boards that are mostly straight, with few knots. Tight knots are absolutely fine – they are a bit harder to work, but tend to be stronger and harder. It’s best to go for kiln-dried stock, as pine tends to move quite a bit with changes in surroundings. The kiln dried boards will still move on you, but it’s best to minimise what we can. Once back indoors, I crosscut the boards to rough length and stack them up as shown above for a couple of days or a week, just to get any crazy warpage out of the way.

My next post will be on preparing the wood for glue up and actually getting to work!


Posted by Prairie Artisan Woodshop in Builds, Split-top Roubo Workbench, 0 comments
Low Cost Split-Top Roubo Build

Low Cost Split-Top Roubo Build

A woodworkers bench is more than just a bench. It is the most important tool that a woodworker owns, even more so if the wood is being worked with hand tools. Since the projects I will be showcasing in the website will primarily be those of most interest to amateur woodworkers, the workbench seemed a fitting place to start.

A common dilemma faced by woodworkers is whether to build or buy a workbench. The most extreme proponents of the build camp find the idea of purchasing a workbench akin to heresy – something to be ashamed of, forever marking one as a fraud. On the other hand the most extreme proponents of the buy camp feel that building a bench is a waste of time; after all, as with all tools, a bench is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. To build a bench would be a waste of time that one could use to build other projects.

Should I build or buy a workbench?

Build or Buy?

Most woodworkers, myself included, tend to fall near the middle, but closer to the build camp, and for good reason. Building your own workbench gives you the option to personalise the bench to your own practical needs and aesthetic tastes, lets you practice and employ some very useful skills, and for some, is almost like a rite of passage – a personalised calling card, unique to the woodworker. Of course, if the right deal comes along/you are too busy to set aside the days, weeks or months it takes to build a bench, it makes perfect sense to buy a bench. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong choice. There is only a right choice, and that is the choice that you make.

For someone new to woodworking, I would recommend building a bench early on, out of cheap, easily available lumber. A bench is a large project, and when built using traditional joinery, is a great opportunity to learn and hone new skills while being large enough that small errors can go unnoticed. As for the lumber, a softwood workbench is as good as any hardwood, so long as the stock is sufficiently dry. It can be tempting to want to build an epic, beautiful bench out of exotic hardwoods straight away. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, although it is out of the budget of most beginner woodworkers. I would suggest that you build your first bench out of something easier on the wallet; you will probably find things about your bench that work well, and things that don’t – and you can use this knowledge for your ultimate workbench down the line.

So that brings us to the type of bench you decide to build. Maybe you want to build a massive behemoth of a bench and outfit it with top of the line hardware from Benchcrafted, so you decide to go the Roubo route, a style popularised recently by Chris Schwarz. Or maybe you want to keep it simple and build the bench quickly and cheaply, and go more of a Sellers workbench, popularised by Paul Sellers. Or maybe a Holtzapffel or an English style or a…you get the idea. All of these benches are great. If you want to find out what the strongest features of each are, there’s plenty of information online. The truth is that most beginner woodworkers have no way of knowing which style of bench offers the best functionality for their style of work. So much changes in the first few years (and even later). So I say don’t agonise over the type of bench. Pick one that appeals the most to you, whether for functionality or for aesthetics. In the end it is your bench – if you look at it and it makes you happy, that’s half the battle. If you find something doesn’t work for you down the line, you can modify it, or even just build another. No big deal.

Split-Top Roubo End Cap

If aesthetics matter to you, your bench should be beautiful to look at

The build I decided to document here is a Roubo-style bench, with a split top. This design has been popularised greatly in recent years. This bench isn’t an exact Roubo as seen in Plate 11 – it has been modified to suit my work better. I wanted a smaller bench to fit into a small space, and so I also made it shorter than your average workbench.

That said, I believe it is a pretty good design to work with for amateur woodworkers with limited space and budget. The bench will be made mostly of pine, (cheap, easily available), will have quality yet affordable hardware, and should meet 90%, if not more, of most hand tool work situations. If you have more space and would like a bigger top, you can extend the length of the top further without any changes to the base. Of course, if you want to use a hardwood for the top, that would work just as well too. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of purely decorative features as well, as you will soon see.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I commence the Split-Top Roubo Build! I hope you find this informative, and if you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email.

Posted by Prairie Artisan Woodshop in Builds, Split-top Roubo Workbench, 0 comments