Woodwork for Humans

Inspired by YouTuber Rex Krueger’s terrific Woodwork for Humans series, I set myself a challenge: using just three simple hand tools, make a fourth. I need a good heavy mallet for some upcoming projects. Can I make one with just an axe, a saw and a hand drill?

tl;dr: Yes, kind of, but I didn’t like the way it turned out. My second attempt was much better, when I also used a chisel and a block plane.

This summer a storm brought down most of the oak tree behind our house, so before the council could organise a team to clear away the branches I nipped out with my saw and helped myself to a few logs. My only axe is rather small, but by pounding on it with an arm-thick branch I was able to split a nice big log, and once the first cut is made a lot of the tension in the wood is released and subsequent cuts are much easier.

The very core of a log, the pith, is too prone to splitting to be used for anything but firewood, so I chose a log that had the core off-centre, with a broad hunk of heartwood on one side. From this I split of a couple of roughly rectangular blocks, and spent an hour chipping one into shape with the axe. Then I drilled a mortise part-way through with an 25mm auger bit.

For the shaft I wanted some old well-seasoned hardwood, so I had to wait a few weeks for the Chiltern Wood Recycling Project to re-open after the lockdown, and I picked up a bit of oak beam, probably cut from door lintel.

In Rex’s video he shows how to shape a cylindrical tenon on the end of the shaft by splitting along the grain and then paring with the axe. Unfortunately the grain in my piece ran a little diagonally, making it really hard to keep the tenon straight. When I tested the fit the handle was quite wonky, and at this point still far too thick to hold comfortably.

Here I decided I had proved the concept but completing the job with just an axe was going to take too long. I sanded the mallet head smooth, just to check the look of it, decided I didn’t like it, and I started afresh.

I cut a new head, bigger, rougher and more rectangular than the first, which I think looks better. I cut a fresh tenon on the shaft using a chisel, then with a block plane I reduced the thickness and gave the handle a roughly hexagonal shape.

The fitting of the head was the most fun bit, and its a very simple but ingenious technique. I ripped down the middle of the tenon with a saw, and inserted a thin wedge cut from the same oak beam, as in the photo. Then I slathered it in wood glue and pounded it into the hole in the mallet head. The bottom of the hole forces the wedge into the slot, pushing the two halves of the tenon apart and locking it in place.

It is several months now since the tree was felled but the wood of the mallet head is still a quite green, so it is still slowly losing moisture and shrinking as it does so. But the wood of the handle is old and bone dry, so that joint should only get stronger.

Here’s the finished tool. At 1.4kg it is probably too heavy for use with chisels, unless maybe if I’m chopping out big mortices, but I think it will be perfect for hammering in wedges to hold my work pieces on the low Roman workbench that I plan to build this year.