When it comes to holding a woodworking tool in our hands for hours at a time, we have two choices: change the tool or change our attitude.
Most woodworkers – surprisingly – refuse to change the tools. Perhaps we’re afraid we’ll make it worse. Or we don’t know what to alter on the tool. Or we don’t want to reduce the value of a tool that is valuable to collectors.
So we adapt our muscles and our minds.
This little theory of mine is at the front of my thoughts this week as I’m testing out two new woodworking mallets and comparing them to my Blue Spruce 16 oz. mallet, which I have been using since 2009. It weighs 1 lb. 1 oz. Also on my bench is the new Lee Valley Large Journeyman’s Mallet (1 lb. 2 oz.) and a new carving mallet sold by Mary May and made by David Reilly (1 lb. 4 oz.).
Mallets are funny things. I used a traditional square-head mallet for more than 15 years. Every other mallet I picked up in stores during that time felt weird in my hands. Even other square-head mallets that had different chamfers, different handle lengths or different weights all felt wrong.
I was convinced I had the perfect mallet for me.
But then I started teaching and I left my little cocoon. I started working with other people’s tools and slowly found out I could use almost any mallet except the soft rubber ones from the home centers – those just bounced back at me.
So what makes a good mallet? In my book, I think a mallet that is compact, comfortable and about 1 lb. or so is good for driving most tools. I like mallets that deliver a good knock and don’t rebound like you are working in a bounce house. And I like mallets that are comfortable in two positions: with my hand at the end of the handle for delivering sharp blows, and with my hand around the head for love taps.
With those specs in mind, here are my thoughts on these three mallets.
Lee Valley Journeyman’s Mallet: I promise you that this will be a popular little tool. It is compact, well made, made in Canada and costs less than $30. The cherry handle is crisply turned and nicely finished.
And if you don’t like the handle, unscrew it from the head and turn a new one (I know you won’t do this, however, but I had to mention it).
The 1-1/8” girth of the handle and 1-5/8”-diameter head are just right for my average-sized hands. The biggest plus of this mallet – besides its price – is its compact size. At only 6” long it can fit in almost any cranny of a tool chest.
Mary May & Dave Reilly mallet: This mallet is intended for carvers, but it is an excellent chisel mallet as well. I purchased the steel-headed one, though they also make it in brass. The handle is beautifully turned and flows right into the steel head.
What is interesting about the handle is how different the two hand positions are on the tool. The thin midsection of the handle really encourages this. When you grab the end – for power – the end of the handle is in your palm. This gives the mallet surprising punch.
Likewise, when you wrap your hand around the head it automatically slips right into the perfect position. There is no middle ground. Grasping the handle right in the middle doesn’t feel right at all. This isn’t a criticism. It’s a good thing.
My only criticism of the tool is the tool is signed with a hand engraver and it isn’t up to the excellent level of fit and finish on the rest of the tool.
Blue Spruce 16 oz. Mallet: I love everything about this mallet except the space it takes up in my chest – it’s more than 9-3/4” long. I’ve written about this mallet quite a lot (check it out here on the blog). The maple head is impregnated with a resin, which makes it last and last and last. I have chopped hundreds and hundreds of dovetails with this mallet and it still looks like new – barely a ding.
The handle has its swelling near the bottom, though not as low as on the Mary May Dave Reilly mallet. The Blue Spruce is remarkably comfortable no matter where you grab it.
The only weakness of this mallet is in the joint between the head and handle. If you use this mallet to bludgeon holdfasts or other metal objects, you can crack the handle.
All three of these tools are ideal choices for your everyday mallet. Pick one that suits your pocketbook or catches your fancy. Your hand will shake on it and – in a short time – make friends.
— Christopher Schwarz
Learn more about handwork with my 2-DVD set: “Mastering Hand Tools.” We cover all the basic hand tools (including mallets) and show how to choose and use them. And it’s only $15.
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