Wooden mallets can be one of the most useful tools you can own. Their large size can ensure you make contact with your blow, they won’t damage and mar furniture or other items like a metal hammer, and they can add a balance to your swing that metal framing hammers just cannot replicate.
Well, in this tutorial I will show you how to take a simple piece of firewood and make it into a wooden mallet with simple hand tools. I do not own a lathe, but I have made many round wooden mallets with just a few regular hand tools. These mallets are shapely, can strike a solid blow, and have lots of character.
In this article
- How to select a good log for a mallet
- Tools required
- Steps to make mallet
- Finishes to apply
- Tips / Lessons learned
How to select a good log to make a mallet
In general, the key factors in selecting a good log to make a mallet are as follows;
- Size – choose a log that is at least 4″-6″ diameter.
- Straight – You want a log that is mostly straight. It will make shaping it easier.
- Hard – Mallets need to be hard to be effective. Choose an appropriate hardwood.
- Dry – Since just about all logs will crack as they dry, if you can choose some “already dry” piece of firewood, then you can be fairly confident that new cracks will not develop.
- Minimal cracking / checking – Most dry pieces of firewood will have some end cracking/checking. Try to pick a piece that is long enough where you can remove any cracked sections, but still have a long enough mallet.
- Knots – if you can get a piece without any knots, do so. But if your log does have knots, make sure they haven’t rotted.
- Insect holes – examine the bark to look for any entry/exit holes from insects. Know that the presence of these could mean that the log will be compromised. For example, the Locust Borer insect can bore right through the center of the tree, ruining any lumber.
Hard Mallets are better.
Mallets are generally used for striking chisels or tapping wooden joints together such as mortise and tenon or dovetail joints. While many woods share similar crush and yield strength, hardness is a key feature for selecting a species of wood for a mallet. High hardness means less deformation when striking, thereby transferring more energy into the piece you are striking.
So, the harder the piece of wood, the more efficient the mallet. A mallet made from a softwood such as White Pine would not last very long, as the White Pine ‘mallet’ would take just as much damage (or more) as what you were striking.
Below is a quick reference table I put together documenting different hardness values of species of wood. The Janka Hardness is the amount of force that is required to push a 0.44″ diameter steel ball, halfway into a 2″ thick piece of wood. The higher the hardness number, the harder the wood.
Best species of wood for mallets
|Species of Wood||Janka |
Picking a dry firewood log
So, if you can locate a hard piece of firewood, the next thing we need to look at is how dry or stable the wood is. As wood dries it will experience shrinkage cracks from the outside to the center. Cracking along the length of the log can cause the piece to separate completely, resulting in a failed mallet.
If we pick freshly cut wood, it is known as ‘green’, and has yet to dry. So, cracks will likely form after we carve and form our mallet. These cracks could become fatal to the mallet through use. To avoid cracks showing up later, pick pieces that have been cut for at least one year. Or, if green, immediately after cutting the piece, paint the end with a couple coats of latex paint. That will help seal it. Then, wait for the piece to dry for a year or more.
Also note that while when wood dries, it becomes harder! So, keep your tools sharp!
Pick a log with minimal cracks
Then we need to examine the endgrain of the log. We want to make sure there is minimal cracking or checking. If we can find a piece of firewood that is a year or two old, and any crack we see in the end grain doesn’t extend deep, then we can likely make a good mallet from it.
If you find a crack running several inches down the length of the firewood piece, it might be better to discard the log altogether. Unless you feel that the piece is dry, and you can remove the cracked portion and still have a long enough piece.
Carefully examine any knots
Many pieces of firewood that are suitable for making a mallet come from limbs. These will often have some knots on them. Frequently in the limbs life knots will be knocked off, and sometimes they die and rot away. You need to be cautious of these kind of knots.
If a knot looks like it may have died sometime earlier before the limb was cut, it could result in a void or cavity
Avoid logs with insect holes
Many species of hardwood can be plagued with wood boring insects. The larvae of these insects can eat their way through a fine piece of wood, ruining it for anything but firewood. To avoid this, give a close examination to the bark and end grain, and be wary of any holes you see!
Should you see multiple small holes along the bark, you may wish to toss that log back to the firewood pile. It may not be worth your time.
Once you have found a suitable dry piece of hardwood that has minimal checking and no insect holes, we can then assemble our tools needed to make a mallet from a log.
- Vise or clamps. This is an absolutely necessity. You need the log to not move while you work it. Movement will result in errors and result in a misshapen mallet. You must have a way to hold the piece securely.
- A hand saw. You need a handsaw to cut down to the handle profile, which you will then chisel to.
- Chisels. You need to have a decent set of chisels that have been properly prepared.
- Hammer or mallet. You need to be able to hit a chisel with some kind of hammer or mallet to remove the material.
- Hand Plane. A hand plane can make quick work of removing bark but keeping a round shape. I use a scrub plane.
- Draw knife. A draw knife will greatly help you round the handle and face. A spoke shave can even be used if you don’t have a draw knife.
- Rasp and files. An aggressive rasp can be an easy way to deal with any knots you may encounter, as you can quickly round them down. Files can help for smoothing out and rounding out corners near the end.
- Sandpaper. Sandpaper will help you round and smooth out the final mallet. I generally use the following grits, 60/100/150/220
Process to make a mallet from log
Note – if your piece has some insect holes or possible rotted knots as described in the previous section, you may wish to take a chisel and explore how deep these voids go. It is better to identify any problems right away before you have spent significant amounts of time working on a project.
- Cut the log to length. Figure out what kind of mallet you wish to have, and trim off the ends to get the length you desire. If making a simple carving mallet, 6″ may be all the length you need. If making a larger mallet that can double as a joiners mallet, 12″-16″ could be appropriate.
- Remove bark from with a hand plane. Use a hand plane to make fast work removing bark and getting down to wood. Remember to keep rotating the mallet to ensure you keep a rounded shape (if desired).
- Mark out the handle and pommel (optional). Determine where you would like your hand to be, and mark or scribe a line around the piece.
- Cut around the mallet to get a handle of appropriate size. You need to determine how large a diameter handle to have on your mallet. My personal preference is around 1-1/4″ (32 mm) to 1-3/4″ (44mm). So, you need to determine how thick your log is, then figure out how deep your saw kerf needs to be.
- Measure the diameter of your log. Use calipers if you have them, or use a tape to determine the circumference and divide by 3.14 to determine how thick it is.
- Then, subtract your ‘ideal’ handle diameter from the log thickness, and divide by 2. This will tell you how deep to cut around the perimeter.
- Example – a 4″ diameter log and we want a 1.5″ handle. 4″ – 1.5″ = 2.5″. Then, 2.5″ / 2 = 1.25″
- Then place a piece of tape on your handsaw at the kerf depth. Use this as a guide to know how deep you are cutting.
- Cut to the kerf depth, all around the mallet. Cut with the hand saw, and when you reach the kerf depth (measured by your piece of tape on the saw), rotate the log in the vise. Repeat this process until you have gone around the entire log handle, and pommel (if you are making one).
- RELATED ==> Learn how to restore old Handsaws Here
- Chisel out the handle area. Use a chisel to remove material for the handle. Cut bevel down to chop down to the handle base. Then remove the rest of the material as needed.
- *Note – if you are not having a ‘pommel’ (the end stopper piece), then this step can be really easy. If your grain is straight, then you can chop huge pieces by cutting on the end grain. Just make sure you do not chop deeper than your handle kerf from step 4.
- Shape the handle with a draw knife or chisel. Once you have removed the bulk of the wood, use a draw knife or your chisel to round the handle. Take your time, do not rush. Just grab/feel the handle and remove wood as necessary.
- Round any sharp corners. You need to create chamfers or rounds on any sharp edges around the handle. This will make the mallet much more comfortable to use. Using chisels and rasps to do this gives you much greater control. Round files can really help smoothing out the corners of the handle.
- Sand the mallet. Step through the different grits of sand paper from 60-220 and smooth the face, handle, and pommel. The most time on this should be on the lower grits to get a nice shape for your hand.
Finishes to apply to mallet
The best finish to apply to a wooden mallet is 3-5 coats of boiled linseed oil followed by a paste wax. This will sufficiently fill the grain with oil, preventing moisture ingress. And both boiled linseed oil and paste wax can be reapplied easily.
Since our mallet will have the entire structure of the limb (all tree rings and the pith), we need to make sure that moisture can’t get reabsorbed by the wood. Just because we chose a dry piece of firewood doesn’t mean that it is permanently stable!
If we use our mallet outdoors in a humid environment, then take it to a dry environment that pores of the wood can absorb moisture, then cause shrinkage cracks. Applying a finish will help prevent this from happening by preventing moisture to get absorbed into the wood.
When it comes to finishes applied to wood, most people think of polyurethane, varnish, or shellac. But those finishes will likely crack when hammered.
How to apply a finish to a mallet
To apply the finish, gently rub boiled linseed oil all along the mallet using a lint-free cloth or shop towel. Wait about 5 minutes, then wipe away excess oil. Let the mallet dry for 24 hours before applying the next coat. Remember to apply this in a well ventilated location.
Remember, linseed oil is a ‘drying’ oil. Your rag/towel used for applying linseed oil can spontaneously combust if not dried properly. So, spread it out flat on concrete and weigh it down with a rock until it is completely dried. It is best to do this outside or a well ventilated location.
After you have applied several coats, wait 24 hours and apply paste wax. To apply paste wax, just take a rag and get a generous lump of wax on it, and rub it all over the mallet. Wait a few minutes, then wipe away excess wax. Like linseed oil, paste wax can give off harmful fumes. So, do this in a well ventilated area.
Tips / Lessons Learned in mallet making
I’ve made many mallets over the years. I find that they make great Christmas gifts as they are just really useful to have around. At some point in people’s lives they will be in need of a wooden hammer! And they are fun to make, and each one is completely unique. There is just something special about a hand carved mallet that is lost in a mass-produced or turned piece.
Here are some tips that don’t always have a ‘direct’ place in the process I listed above:
- Be patient! Do not rush these projects. Taking too large a chop with the chisel can often result in removal of too much wood. And, as you know, you can’t put it back on as easily as you take it off! So, slow down, take your time, and focus cutting the right amount.
- Focus on the details! Don’t leave any sharp edges where your hand would be uncomfortable. That way you will enjoy using it that much more.
- Embrace the defects! Strange grain patterns, knots, and not-perfectly-round mallets have character. They can become art pieces just as much as a useful tool. Making a tool that is clearly a one-of-a-kind piece is just part of the fun.
- Always be on the lookout for firewood. I am always looking at firewood to see if I could make something interesting from it, and you should too. If your neighbor, friend, or family member has a fire pit or fireplace, then they will have a supply of firewood. Always glance at it to see if there is an interesting piece. Single pieces of firewood are generally of no value to people, but a cool mallet is!
 – Kretschmann, David. “Mechanical properties of wood.” Wood handbook: wood as an engineering material: chapter 5. Centennial ed. General technical report FPL; GTR-190. Madison, WI: US Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, 2010: p. 5.1-5.46. 190 (2010): 5-1. https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/62244 ; Accessed 27DEC2021
 – Green, David William. Janka hardness using nonstandard specimens. Vol. 303. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forest Product Laboratory, 2006. https://srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/23824 ; accessed 27DEC2021
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