Blunt Instruments: Get Woodworking Week

Tom Iovino, author of the excellent blog Tom’s Workbench, pronounced this “Get Woodworking Week”. Bloggers taking part in it are writing posts intended to inspire potential beginning woodworkers to get started, and to answer basic foundational questions about the craft.  It’s been a great idea, and the posts have covered an amazing breadth of knowledge and experience.

If you look around the internet, you’ll see an enormous amount written about the craft of woodworking, and the one topic discussed more than any other seems to be the Arts and Mysteries of sharpening.  Oilstones, waterstones, strops, grinders, sandpaper, bevel angles, back bevels, no back bevels, square edges, cambered edges, rounded backs… the sheer number of options is overwhelming.  I’m going to stay off that particular subject (too late, I know). I’m going to talk about tools to beat on other tools.

So let’s talk about the lowly hammer. Not always something you think of as a primary woodworking tool, but they’ve come a ways since a piece of rock tied to a stick. But that’s where they started:

hammer (n.): O.E. hamor “hammer,” from P.Gmc. *hamaraz (cf. O.S. hamur, M.Du., Du. hamer, O.H.G. hamar, Ger. Hammer. The O.N. cognate hamarr meant “stone, crag” (common in English place names), and suggests an original sense of “tool with a stone head,” from PIE *akmen “stone, sharp stone used as a tool”.

It occurred to me recently that I actually have a lot of different hammers and mallets involved in my woodworking. I’m not going to discuss framing hammers, masonry hammers, sledges, or other carpentry- and construction-related tools.  But I have several smaller tools I’ve picked up over the years that have become important to the process.

Plane Setting Hammer: This little guy is a bubinga-handled hammer with a brass head. Very simple, really… a piece of brass rod drilled out for the handle, which is held in place by a wedge. The handle was cut on on a band saw, and shaped on a belt sander. It has only one function: setting the blades on my Krenov-style planes.  Brass hammers are far less likely to mar other surfaces that they accidentally come in contact with than steel hammers, and the weight is right for the purpose.

Dead-Blow Mallet: This lovely, delicate tool is generally a two- or three-pound hammer, filled with shifting weights (usually birdshot or other small lead balls).  The weights move with the blow, and put all the impact into the stroke instead of losing half of it into rebound.  I’ve seen them made of wood with leather pads, but the cheap plastic and rubberized ones work fine, and won’t deform work if they slip. They’re used for assembling joinery and other fairly heavy tasks.  Great for seating large tenons into joints (like workbench construction).

Brass Bridge City JH-1 Hammer: Another small brass hammer, useful for a dozen things like setting planes and small joint work.  This is my token Bridge City tool, and about the only one I can justify buying.  Beautiful engraved head, handle is hickory. eBay is a wonderful thing sometimes.

Small claw hammer: Made by Craftsman. Honestly, I don’t use it very often – I don’t do much nailed work, but occasionally I do need to remove small brads or something. A Warrington hammer would be a better choice, but this one belonged to my grandfather, so I keep it around.  If you’ve ever dropped a large claw hammer on something made of wood, you’ll understand why I don’t keep one in the tool cabinet.

Veritas Cabinetmaker’s Mallet: I love this one.  Brass head with replaceable hardwood inserts, so if they deform over time, you can drill the old ones out and insert new ones. The faces are angles so they stay flat to the surface on impact, avoiding any half-moon shaped marks from striking at the wrong angle.  I glued a thick leather pad to one face specifically to use it for setting holdfasts on my bench. The mallet is the perfect weight and size for that. It hangs from a loop on one leg of my bench, and is never far away from my work.

Veritas Journeyman’s Brass Mallet: Designed for carving work and detail work with chisels and gouges. Gripping it just below the heavy brass head lends a lot of control to its use, and makes you very aware of the amount of force you’re using.  The round head actually helps avoid off-center blows on the tool.  For delicate work, this is my choice for butt chisels and details.

The Big Daddy: I can’t say too much about this one. It was the first hand tool I ever made, and has been completely rebuilt after an unfortunate explosion.  This is really my go-to mallet for about everything – assembly, joinery, chisels, everything. It’s made of rock maple with mesquite inserts (originally walnut, but nothing lasts quite forever).  It was made for my hand, my angle of work, and I wouldn’t part with it.  If I had time to rescue one thing from my tool cabinet in a fire, this would be it.

It’s also one of the best reasons to get started woodworking that I know. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I made it, and it’s one of my favorite tools.  This simple mallet gave me confidence to do a lot more woodworking in general, and toolmaking in particular. There’s something about making a simple tool that you use every day that will make you reach for it above all others.

Ross Henton

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