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