Mallets and Hammers

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Mallets and Hammers

Mallets and hammers are two very valuable and very different tools.  While both are used to hit another object such as a nail or chisel, they have completely different characteristics.


Hammers are tools made from metal, iron, steel or bronze and are used for driving nails and hitting other metal objects.  The hardness and density of the material in the head contribute to the characteristics of a hammer.  Hammers deliver very sharp blows and result in a bounce of the hammer.  This bounce is wasted energy that could not be transferred into the object being hit.


Most hammers have a head weight of 16 ounces and this is a good weight for cabinetwork.  Larger weight heads are used for heavier, rougher work.  The claw hammer is the hammer that most people are familiar and there is a type called a cabinet hammer.  This cabinet hammer has a very curved claw used for removing nails.  I at one time owned a fine cabinet hammer; the head weighed exactly 16 ounces and was hand forged in the early nineteenth century.  The body of the hammer was made of wrought iron with a thin piece of steel forge welded to the face of the hammer and thin veneers of steel were also forge welded on the back of the claws.  The shape was square at the oval eye and octagonal at the face end with stop chamfers with a finely curved and slightly flaring claws.  The iron deadened the blow, provides strength without being brittle and the steel was only where it was needed on the face and claws.  This was a superb tool and I have seen the telltale octagonal hammer wood blossoms on old woodwork.  The straight claw hammer is called a framing or wreaking hammer and is not generally used in cabinetwork.  I use other tools for removing nails so the claw of a claw hammer is largely useless for my purposes.  I prefer the English style Warrington Pattern in a 12-ounce weight.  It has a regular round hammer face on one side and the other has a straight cross peen that is useful for driving small nails.  The nail can be held between the fingers and the cross peen will strike the nail without hitting your fingers.  A tin knocker’s hammer has the same configuration but has a square blockhead.  I also have a small ball peen hammer that I use for riveting and other metal work.


                The most important thing you can do with you hammer is to keep the face clean.  A little dried glue on a hammer face is more responsible for bent nails than any other cause.  Keep it clean and smooth.  If the hammer face gets dents or dings, it is a good idea to file or sand the face smooth, I keep mine bright, it helps prevent rust and the glue does not stick as well to a shiny surface.


And now on to my favorite cudgel, the Mallet.  The physical striking characteristics of a mallet are completely different from the hard sharp blow from a metal hammer.  The nature of the material that the mallet is made contributes to its performance.  The dense wood of the head of a mallet will absorb and transfer the energy of a blow to the object being hit.  The head of the mallet does not bounce like a metal hammer and there is no energy waste in the bounce.  The hammer produces a sharp, short blow, while the mallet produces a dull, long blow.  If you hit a chisel with a metal hammer (and shame on you if you do) and you hit the same chisel with a wooden mallet of the same weight, the cut of the chisel will be deeper with the mallet than the hammer.  While a hammer blow is quick and tentative, a mallet blow is slow, decisive and definite.


                Mallets come in a variety of shapes and sizes and I have several and each have their own individual uses and I have certain preferences and use different mallets for different reasons.  I make all my own mallets with the exception of an inexpensive rawhide mallet that I purchased.  There are three types of mallets; square or rectangular head, round or cylinder head and round carvers mallet. 


The round or cylinder head mallet, like a rawhide mallet has a turned head with the end grain on each of the two striking surfaces.  These types of mallets have flat faces and are at 90 ° to the axis of the head.  Some faces have slight convex bellies in the center and these are soon flattened out with use.  The edge of the face on each end is chamfered or beveled slightly to prevent the wood from splitting out on the mallet face. 


The square or rectangular head is made from a large block of wood with the end grain striking surfaces cut at an angle, so it is wider at the top of the head than at the bottom toward the handle.  This angle varies (about 5º) and some experimentation is needed because of the relationship of the length of the handle and where you normally grip the handle.  The angle is said to reduce stress in the arm and hand of the user, apparently ergonomics is not a new idea.  I feel the angle produces a more positive contact with the chisel handle or what ever you are hitting.  The angle corresponds to the arc of travel of the head as it is being swung and the produces a more direct and square blow.  The edges of square or rectangular mallet are also beveled or chamfered to prevent chipping on the mallet faces.


The round carvers mallet is perhaps my favorite mallet and the one I use the most.  The round head also has the same angle cut or turned into its face.  The carver’s mallet only has one face but it has an infinite number of facets.  Therefore you do not need to look at the mallet, especially if it has a round handle when you use it because you can strike it anywhere around its circumference.  Carver’s mallets always have round handles.  Cutting and shaping can make the angled face or they can be turned on the lathe.  The top and bottom edge is slightly beveled or chamfered to prevent any chipping.  The direction of the wood grain can be from side to side or top to bottom.  If the grain is from side to side there will be two areas that have harder denser end grain and two areas that will have softer side grain.  On very dense woods this makes little difference.  If the grain runs from top to bottom, the grain is of more uniform density, but it is all side grain and the end grain is on the top and bottom where they never strike the wood.  The choice is yours; I make them both ways depending upon the particular piece of wood that I choose for the head.  A large dense burl makes an excellent carver’s mallet even if it is a softer wood like walnut.  Some carver’s mallets have bellies turned on their face and bulge out in their centers.  Theoretically this shape will concentrate all of the force of the mass of the mallet in one very small area at the point of contact between the wooden chisel handle and the mallet head.  There is just something about this shape mallet that is very pleasing to the eye and exquisite in the hand.  They sit on their tops with the handle upright ready for use.  One disadvantage is that they will roll off your workbench.  The round handle should be large enough to comfortably grip and long enough to provide the necessary length for a proper swing.  If the handle is too long you will always be choking up and the excess will get in the way and you will grab a saw and cut off the extra, unless it is an antique tool.


Modern mallet handles and hammer handles are shaped with undulations, swells and flares that are seldom seen on old tools prior to the American Civil War.  Occasionally you will encounter fine old examples that have some curves and variations that were made with pride by the originating craftsmen and were tools that fit their hands.  Most old tool handles however are very simple.  Round handles can be straight cylinders of wood or have a slight bulge in the center or a wider end tapering gently to the head.  Some old mallets have reverse tapered round handles that are fit through a tapered hole in the mallet head.  The hole is wider on the top and smaller on the bottom.  The round tapered handles are inserted into the top and slides down until most of the handle is exposed and the tapers fit snug.  A tap on the top end of the handle forces the head onto the handle by wedging in place.  Some square cabinet mallets have square tapered handles that are fixed to the head in the same manner by a friction wedge fit.  Some round handles are turned with a shoulder and tenon that goes into a hole drilled through the middle of the head.  A saw kerf is cut in the end of the handle and after it is driven into the head, a wooden wedge is driven into the kerf to secure the head to the handle.  Make sure the wedge pushes against end grain of the head when it is driven in.  If the wedge is driven with the grain of the head there is a possibility of splitting.  The square or adze eyehole in hammers is a rather modern invention.  Most holes in traditional nineteenth century and earlier are round or more commonly oval.  The handles are fixed in a similar manner with a wooden wedge set into a kerf in the top end of the handle.  When making a new handle for a hammer or mallet, grain is an important consideration and it the wood for the handle can be split instead of sawn, this will insure that the grain is straight.  If you are cutting out a handle, select the straightest grained wood.  Certain woods make excellent handles, the best is hickory followed by ash and osage orange.  These woods have the necessary strength and flexibility to make good tool handles.  When placing them in the head of the hammer or mallet, align the grain of the wood so that the annual rings are parallel to the striking surfaces.  It is along this plane that wood is the springiest.  A slight swell at the end of the handle or a slight flaring out can provide for ease of grip and a tactile location so you can feel where to grip the tool.  This prevents you from having to visually look at the tool or readjust it in you hand when you pick it up.  Square or rectangular handled mallets or hammers also have this tactile clue when you pick them up.  Oval handles also can provide this feel and are a good shape to be able to control the tool.  The oval handle is a fine project to turn on the lathe, it is done with slightly off set centers on one end and it tapers from round to oval.  Oval or square handles have and advantage over round handles, as they are easier to control because of their shape.  Some say they are easier to grip than round handles; it is a matter of personal preference.  I have every shaped handle on many of my new and old tools and I do not have any favorites.  However I do have one mallet that always attracts attention, the puzzle mallet.