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The ugly thing that has replaced all my purdy things.

In Stanley Kubriks “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the opening scene of our primate ancestors contends that the earliest tool was the mallet. It was made from a femur, but a mallet all the same.

Woodworkers have since refined that original design. Mallets are our most-used tool because woodworkers hit more things in an afternoon than a mobster does in a lifetime. As such, most woodworkers have a small collection of favorites.

I have three: A wood beast used strictly on holdfasts; a turned bodark gem that is perfectly weighted, perfectly designed and perfectly fitted to my hand – you can only get perfection like that by making it yourself. Then there’s the other one.

It’s a tiny, cheap, so-off-brand-as-to-not-have-a-brand, lacquer-encrusted beater of a 6 oz. plastic/rubber mallet. I bought it at a Sears that was closing. It was ugly. Hanging there, it looked like when it grew up it wanted to be a mallet. Regular price: $12.99. Sale price: $4. So I took it home, gave it a good #60-grit lacquer-removing scrub and threw it into the “I might use this someday” tool drawer.

One day while I was driving some small pegs into a tiny drawbore joint, this thing appeared at my bench. I don’t remember fetching it, but it seemed to want to do the task. It was hard enough to transfer power but soft enough and light enough to not mushroom the end-grain fibers. I guess I never put it up after that. Six ounces proved to be the perfect weight and the ability to switch from a hard surface to soft, and allowed me to transfer swing power any way I wanted. Seating joints without marring the work is its forte.

I also now recognize this cheap piece of junk as the greatest wooden handplane micro-adjuster ever made.

I’ve bought a lot of mallets through the years. Drinking the Kool-Aid sometimes brings on that Pavlovian response in me. The turned brass on Applewood adjustment mallet, the leather faced assembly mallet, the convex hammer, the concave one, that copper square thing with the inlaid maple…. Because this cheap thing came into my life those now live in the drawer of forgotten tools.

Sometimes you’ll find ugly, unlovable stray tools will turn into the most reliable friends you have. So try out a tiny 6 oz. plastic/rubber mongrel. It’ll bring out a grunt of approval from you that even our ancestors would understand. Do you have a favorite ugly tool? Tell me below in the comments!

— Shawn Graham

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Showing 5 comments
  • shadetre

    Not exactly a tool, but these have become a favorite in my shop. I took a couple of scraps of 2×4 about a foot long each and cut a notch to fit the front rail of the table saw. The top of the 2×4’s are level with the top of the table saw. I slip the notch over the rail and position the 2×4’s to support the miter gauge or sled when cross cutting. This support is so nice that I can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t build something similar. Once you try them I am sure they will be indispensable. Total cost $0.00, that is hard to argue with.

  • T-73

    Thank you for the tip. I enjoy your writing style. Typical for a reader of Popular Woodworking I absolutely love tools and am thrilled to find that now I not only need another one but I can actually afford to add it to my collection to use the next time I need something “hard enough to transfer power but soft enough and light enough to not mushroom the end-grain fibers” when putting in a wooden pin to lock a joint. But I will also be looking for a great price too because while tools are great, making stuff is very satisfying and the real goal and that involves buying the materials.

  • john2t

    I ‘had’ , it vanished, an old putty knife. I had this one for a number of years. It was just the right size, very flexible, and sharp. I had sanded it lot when cleaning it over the years. I used it for everything, scraping, cutting, disassembly, and of course spreading things. I haven’t found a replacement yet.

  • jshroyer

    My favorite tool is an Estwing Nail Puller. I bought it because I needed to open a huge crate at work and didnt have tools to do it but my office was next to a Home Depot though. I needed it open that day so I bought the Estwing Nail Puller and a Stanley pry bar. I have been using that Estwing for tons of work now since its very good at pulling nails without a lot of room. If I am breaking down a crate or pallets I will end up starting with the stanley prybar and then going to the Estwing when the nail head breaks. Its a nice middle step before vicegrips. Plus you can use it as a hammer and so I just use it instead of going to get another hammer. The weight is perfect and so I end up using it for everything.

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