Handmade Mallet, Ziricote, hand tools

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.

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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.

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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).

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

 

1 comment

Donnell Mcalister

Thanks for the read

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