In a previous post, I mentioned my reawakened interest in woodworking. The cleanup of the shop and benches, refurbishing of several old tools and the purchase of others are getting me ever closer to a proper woodworking shop. I’ve even done a few simple projects. Next on the list: a joiner’s mallet. After watching a couple of videos from my favorite guru, Paul Sellers, I thought I might be able to pull this off.
I wanted to use some of the native wood here at Roy Creek Ranch. Although Paul uses oak for his mallet, I thought live oak might work for at least part of the mallet. I had a piece of red oak I could use for the handle as well. A trip to Paul’s site for a dimensioned plan, and I was off and running. There was a piece of live oak laying outside the shop door, so I took a handsaw and cut off a hunk. Slow going! This well-seasoned wood was hard, and it took awhile to cut through the 6-inch piece.
Once cut, the wood revealed several “checks” or cracks. Since I needed only a small piece, I decided to split along the cracks to produce a head blank. The resulting shape was quite irregular, so a hand plane was used to make a couple of flat surfaces. The work went surprisingly fast given the hardness of the wood, so my Stanley Smoothing Plane was working well.
Finally, a trip to the table saw to angle what would become the 7º mallet faces. Due to the irregular shape of the wood, I decided not to completely square the sides. This would have made the blank too small, and the “live” edge on one side was interesting. There was plenty of mass to the head, and it would still make a nice tool. The tapered handle was then cut with a handsaw from a length of 2″ by 5/8″ oak.
Now for the interesting part: the mortise. Using the newly-cut handle, I marked the top and bottom of the mallet blank with a marking knife. Since the handle changes in width from 1 3/4″ to 1 1/4″ from top to bottom, these cuts are different sizes to match the taper. A brace with a 1/2″ bit cut two holes that would start the mortise. This caused some anxiety since the holes needed to be within the square outlines of the taper. It took some effort due of the wood’s hardness, but they came out fine.
Working with the 12 mm (1/2″) and 16 mm (5/8″) chisels, I began to cut the mortise. It wasn’t easy, and live oak was probably not the best choice of woods for a novice woodworker! Nevertheless, I made steady progress. The Narex chisels worked well, and my edge touch-up when they arrived from Amazon made them very sharp. It’s pleasant work really, and with some music in the shop, time evaporates. I was using a beechwood mallet though, and looking forward to having a more massive mallet for chisel work. Once the sides and corners of the mortise were cut through the mallet head, it became a cycle of chisel, trial-fit, rinse, repeat. All together, the mortise took a couple of hours of careful work.
With the mortise done, the overall shape of the mallet head needed attention. Paul’s model suggested a curving top with some relief cut into the bottom that suggested a pleasant curve connecting the two faces. With the natural shape of the live oak on my blank, part of that work was already done. I got the hand plane and and spokeshave and set to work. Not more than 10 minutes later, I had created the top curve, bottom relief and softened the sharp edges between the mallet faces and sides. It was starting to look like the real thing! A few minutes more with a wood rasp, and the handle top and bottom had a pleasant curve as well.
I can see why woodworkers get excited about finishes. Wanting to accentuate the utilitarian nature of the mallet, I decided to use a simple finish of linseed oil. But that’s when the magic happens: the contrasting grain in the wood “pops” and a simple, cut piece of wood becomes something of beauty. We have a lot of dead-stand live oak around here, and I can see I’ll be busy scouting the woods for interesting wood shapes and then removing the excess wood to reveal what’s inside. Not bad.