I have been asked more than a few times “why are carving mallets shaped cylindrical rather than like a more traditional hammer?” One may well ask why hammers are flat faced. I suspect that the spherical shape goes back much further than the flat hammer and with good reason. When using a spherical shape only a small portion of the mallet need connect with the chisel to drive it into wood. It is also nearly impossible to miss with your strike as striking anywhere on the mallet is a bull’s eye. Yet, with a flat faced hammer, one must connect squarely or the hammer will glanced off and cause a miss-directed or weak strike.
Mallets are for use with chisels and gouges and are generally used for larger carvings – not something used in whittling or other hand held small carvings.
When I began carving, virtually all mallets were made of a hard, oily wood called lignum vitae. It was popular for its heavy weight and durability. In fact, in the old days bearings on ships were often made of lignum vitae. At some point lignum vitae became scarce and other woods were introduced for mallet making such as beech and other hard woods. These woods were much lighter than lignum vitae and as a result, a much larger mallet was required to have the same impact as the lignum vitae. And, hardwood mallets had separate handles that were prone to loosen.
But man, clever as he is, began making mallets out of bronze, veneer-layered hard wood impregnated with resins, and more recently polyethylene and urethane materials were introduced. Here is my assessment of the different types of mallets:
Lignum Vitae. Pros: Super good looking for wood lovers. Heavy, so it packs a hard punch and it is fairly dent resistant. Can be one piece construction. Cons: it is prone to check and crack.
Beech and other hardwoods. Pros: Fairly rugged. Cons: Light weight so a larger mallet is necessary to match the power of other mallets. Handle is usually separate and often comes loose.
Bronze and other metals. Pros: small size and heavy weight. Attractive. More rugged than wood. No re-bound. Feels good in your hand. Cons: Expensive. Bronze mallets come in (at least) three weights.
Polyethylene. Pros: Virtually indestructible. Do not damage tool handle under heavy work. Cons: Limited sizes. Pricey.
Urethane. Pros: Virtually indestructible. Quiet. Reduces hand and arm trauma. Do not damage tool handles under heavy work. Cons: Really can’t think of any. Urethane mallets come in 4 weights.
I use 3 sizes of bronze mallets and 3 sizes of urethane mallets. If I could pick only one, it would be the urethane. I still have some old lignum vitae mallets that I no longer use and now consider them to be a piece of art.
Veritas, of Canada, makes a beautiful, sweet little bronze mallet that is great for light mallet use. It is a wonderful little thing that is perfect for work that typical mallets are too large for. When it is standing on my workbench and I have a guest looking over things, that is always the tool that they pick it up and play with. Since Veritas introduced the mallet some 12 years ago, there have been a number of copy cats.
From time to time I have need to use a froe (as in what is used to split shake and shingles with) and finding an ample mallet has always been a challenge. I have used old bowling pins but they are a little large for my hand and they have a short life when repeatedly pounding a froe. One day, it occurred to me to make a super mallet out of madrone. I made a powerful mallet with a monster head on it and a comfortable handle that has lasted me for several years. At the time, I was living in Suquamish, Washington and madrona trees were everywhere. It is an exceedingly hard wood when dry and it makes perfect mallet material. If you decide to make your own, shape it green and make the handle and head one piece. Be sure to sure to cure it properly. It is also a very attractive wood.
If you are interested in purchasing a mallet, I suggest that you actually pick it up and play with it for a bit to see if it is right for you. You can either do your testing at a store, a wood carving show or by using the mallet(s) of a woodcarver friend.
Obviously, repeated swinging and pounding may cause trauma to your hands, arms, and or shoulder. If you are prone to such things or find that you experience tingling, pain, numbness or anything unnatural while using a mallet, you should stop immediately and consider seeing your physician. Power carving is always a good alternative to mallet and chisel work. Having said that, I have been swinging and pounding for a lot of years and am still at it with no physical issues relating to using a mallet. I also will often use a padded bicyclist’s glove while pounding with a mallet… it helps a lot.
All of the above mallets are readily available through woodcarver suppliers and at shows.
Stay sharp and happy carving!
Please visit my web site at www.WhiteEagleStudios.com