Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Tool Time


Tools are the essential of our tradecraft.

Sharp chisels, perfectly squared planes and the odd collection of power toys will get you through almost everything.  I thought.

The woodworking masters—wiser than they let on—decided I needed a mallet to continue an education in making planks into splinters.  Perhaps the more correct response would be making planks into something of use.  As I have previously admitted, crafting firewood contributions is no problem in my shop.  Drafting up plans and crafting a complete project to customer specifications is a whole different matter.  

People, particularly those for whom you are constructing toys, kitchens, homes or backyard decks, are picky.  Seems they want the product one promised as opposed to that which you were able to deliver.  Hence the endless demand for education and training.

You would expect no less of your dentist, doctor or lawyer.  “Keep learning,” is a life-long mantra many twenty-somethings would be well-served to adopt.  I try, somedays are better than others.  Occasionally the brain goes on strike and you decide it would be better to sand or saw than sketch the next idea.

So it was this week.  Having finally completed my contribution to the world of mini boats (more to follow in coming weeks), I was pushed down the path of making tools.  Bevels and gauges are a relatively simple accomplishment, but a new mallet is an entirely different frustration.  Trust me.

Start with the actual “head” of your new tool.  

Cut from maple to accentuate the possibility of not destroying a “hammer” on its first blow, you have a bit of Mother Nature that will humble even the sharpest chisel.  Why the chisel?  Well, there is the pesky problem of swinging the mallet in manner that actually carves wood upon contacting a sharp edge, This means a handle must be inserted through the 6x6x8 block you carved off on the table saw.  

Sounds so simple, until engaged on the adventure of putting a rectangular hole through six inches of maple.  What appeared simple in the hands of a master—the instructor—is a lot harder for the rank amateur (me).  Measure twice cut once.  How about measure trice and cut once?  I went for the latter approach.

Funny thing about learning and patience.  They come together in a welcoming fashion.  Rather than make a mess of perfectly good timber, you come up with a mallet head that will accept the indignities of rending blows to other objects.

Same may be said of a handle.  Carved from ash—with more than a little help of my favorite assistant, the band saw—a handle should fit one’s hand.  Temptation and imagination cause more than a few people to render a handle that looks artsy, but leaves your paw wanting.  In other words, I want a handle that feels like my trusty claw hammer. 

Figuring the claw hammer earned my living for no small period of time, the handle on my mallet should be the same.  So I went after the dimensions based on an object that normally draws no interest from the artisan community.  The end result feels wonderful.  Not so pretty, but final judgement is all in the hand of the wielding employer—me!

Apply some plane time, add the scraper and an hour with sandpaper.  Whola!  A mallet.  Ready to drive the dullest chisel into a less-than-cooperative collection of oak.  A piece of craftsmanship to drop into a tool box with a full intention of leaving the mallet as dinged up as my claw hammer and aging electric drill.

Now for a confession.  After two days work and very explicit instructions to employ the new tool, I found myself adrift.  The mallet does make striking the end of a chisel all that much more simple. (Think size of the blunt surface and handle end of a chisel.)  But I miss the claw hammer.  My old friend cannot lay dormant in the tool box.  So despite the work invested in developing a more convenient counterpart, I am back to cutting lines with the same tool that drove roofing nails and helped frame countless walls.  

There is a grace to making your own tools, but sometimes the worn standard you have come to trust simply cannot be replaced.

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.

Amy SleeperComment