Casualties of Peace

Let hammer on anvil ring,
And the forge fire brightly shine;
Let wars rage still,
While I work with a will
At this peaceful trade of mine.

— Harry Bache Smith

Rule of thumb: If you take a mallet and beat on a heavy object long enough, eventually either the object or the mallet will break.

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The Roubo du Garage had one casualty – my mallet. I’m sentimental about it. It was the first hand tool I ever made. It was a streak of luck for me: I didn’t really know what I wanted when I made it. But it’s the perfect shape, balance, weight, face angle, length, and fit for my hand. It’s my go-to for bench chisels, mortise chisels, light to medium joinery, and every other similar task. It doesn’t drive nails, but it works for anything else that requires beating on something with a hammer-like object. It’s made out of some scrap rock maple, with a couple of small walnut inlays.

When it failed, it really, really failed. I was almost through chopping out the mortises in the Roubo when it practically exploded. I had to hunt for pieces. One of the sides split in two, and the center lamination broke through on both ends. In retrospect, I’m amazed it didn’t happen sooner. It was made from three laminations of maple, with the handle fitted through the center section. I added a couple of thin strips of walnut inlay, just for fun. It took me about an hour to make. And it was only held together with glue. As much as I’ve used it, and as hard as I’ve whacked on stuff with it, that’s a testament to the strength of Titebond.

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But it was fixable, because all the pieces fit together without any gaps or missing chunks. And if it fails again, it’ll be because it completely disintegrated. I set the pieces together and drilled two 11/32″ holes all the way through the handle. Then I glued everything together, drove two 3/8″ rived oak pegs through the holes, and clamped it up for the afternoon.

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When dry, I cleaned out the old laminations with a router plane, slightly deeper than the originals. I cut two blanks of scrap mesquite to fit the inlay slots, glued them in place, and clamped it up again. I trimmed the excess off on the band saw, and planed them flat with a block plane. The two mesquite inlays hide the pegged joinery that hold it all together. Before the handle comes lose, the pegs would have to be broken, and that ain’t gonna happen. The glue joints holding the laminations together at the ends might split, but that’s very unlikely. More likely, the wood itself would fail. And when it came apart this time, the glue joints stayed together. It failed along the wood, not the glue (which is normal). One coat of oil, a pass through the Beall wood buffer, and viola, back in business.
It’s not going to fail easily; I expect to beat on things with it for a lot more years. The end grain of the maple will take a tremendous beating without getting significantly dinged up, but sooner or later it will have to be refaced – or replaced.

It’s funny how much satisfaction I get out of picking up this simple tool. I smile every time I use it, and probably always will. That’s true of most of the tools I’ve made or restored. They have history and character like no other tools do. Making simple tools isn’t difficult, and the planes, shaves, mallets, and handles I’ve made all contain part of my own history as a woodworker.

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There are a number of excellent resources on the web for toolmaking. My favorites include In the Woodshop, Toolmaking Art, and Hock Tools (where I get my blades). As a woodworker, a lot of your work often goes to other people. Toolmaking is something you do for yourself, and your own pleasure and education. Go ahead. Indulge yourself.

Ross Henton

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One comment on “Casualties of Peace

  1. Brian says:

    That’s hilarious, having had the same thing happen to my own mallet twice. (Though mine didn’t explode–beech is a little less brittle than maple.) A little glue and it was back to work both times.

    I sort of feel the same way about my mallet. It was one of the first tools I made, too, and I’m very fond of the way it feels in my hand. Completing and using it really was early encouragement that I might just have done something right.

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