With the weather getting somewhat cooling in Minnesota, I've had a renewed interest in working on projects outside the confines of a screen and keyboard. Woodworking was one of my first hobbies. I was fortunate to grow up with a functional wood shop in the garage. It wasn't anything out of The New Yankee Workshop, but there was a bench, a few saws, sander, and some hand tools. It was enough to make a few small projects when the urge struck me. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I decided I wanted to build my own shop in my own garage. Again, it wasn't anything impressive, but it's been enough to build some items around the house.
Like any technical hobbie, there's a plethora of specialty tooling I could purchase. Visit any hardware store today, and there seems to be a specialized tool for every conceivable thing. The natural thought is you have to spend an awful lot of money on special tools before you can even create a basic project seems natural. But hang on a minute, it wasn't always like this.
Tech trees and bootstrapping
If Norm Abram was the modern woodworking in the PBS universe, his mirror opposite was a show I barely had the opportunity to watch: The Woodwright's Shop with Roy Underhill. For the few episodes I caught, I was amazed. Here was a shop with no power tools, no electricity, no modern trappings at all. It was what I would call a "woodworking reconstructionist" show, ostensibly done in a period style for aesthetics. What surprised me was how he was able to create beautiful and functional things without a huge amount of specialty tools. When you compare the two ends of that spectrum, I start thinking about how the tooling has evolved from utilitarian hand tools, to highly specialized tools powered by electricity. That led me to another question.
"How did a woodworker start, without all those modern trappings?" Tooling can form a kind of "tech tree" when a rudimentary innovation opens the possibility for further, more complex, and more specialized tooling. When you go to the hardware store today, you're at the leaves of that tree. Sure, there are still tools available closer to the trunk, but it's easy to dismiss those without a second thought. If I had just rode into town in the 1800s -- period social restrictions aside -- wanting to start my career as a woodworker, what would I first make?
Obvious; you'd make tools. Even simple tools have a bit of a tech chain to them. To make even a simple wood plane requires metalworking for the blade, saws to form the plane body, and so on. What I wanted to do was build something that could be used to build more tools later. That way, I could bootstrap my own toolbox with tools I built myself. Even if the tools themselves are less durable or reliable than anything I could buy in a hardware store, the experience alone promised to be fascinating.
A thing to hit things
A common first woodworking project is to build yourself a wooden mallet. Sure, they aren't as durable as a good metal hammer, but they can be really useful in woodworking. When fitting pieces together, a wooden mallet is less likely to mar or damage the surface of a project than metal. There are no moving parts, and the results can vary from utilitarian to heirloom. I did a bit of research on how to build one, and eventually turned to my shop for available materials.
I was fortunate enough to have some leftover material from some earlier picture frame projects. I chose 3.5" wide maple for the mallet head. It was both wide and dense enough to have the mallet some heft without having the full it with lead shot. I wanted a contrasting wood for the handle, and fortunately I had some walnut available. That's when I ran into my first problem.
Building the mallet head
If I had just rode into town, I wouldn't have any way to cut the wood. Sure, I could bash it with a sharpened rock, but this struck me as taking things too literal, and too individual about the tech tree. In the 1800s, it'd be more likely that my first choice would be to stop by the local blacksmith for tools I couldn't make within my chosen career. That would include a wood saw, but also other metal tools such as chisels and drills. No person is an island, we call exist within community.
Admittedly, I cheated a bit with this part. While I did have a saw, I chose instead of pull out my power tools when cutting the pieces. It was faster and safer with my shop's current setup. Once I had those pieces, I started the assembly.
The mallet head is made of a sandwich of four pieces of maple. The two longest pieces are on either side, with the middle of the sandwich made of two smaller pieces. When glued together, they formed a gap in the middle in which to seat the handle. A more rudimentary approach would have been to use a drill and/or chisels with a single block of wood forming the head. I could have done that, but I would have needed additional materials and I wanted to use what I had on hand.
While the mallet head was all business, the handle was much more creative. I wanted to create something with a gentle curve that would flare out toward the base. I did a number of searches online for ideas, and eventually free-handed the shape once I had a good sense of it.
Again, I cheated a bit here. The proper way this would have been created back-in-the-day was a coping saw. While I didn't have one, my scroll saw was the powered equivalent. A bandsaw would have been the proper tool to use here in the modern sense, but patience was cheaper.
Once I had the shape cut out, a period woodworker would use a tool rarely seen today called a spoke shaver. I didn't have one, nor did my local hardware store, and Amazon wanted more than I was willing to spend for this project. So instead, I pulled out what I had: A random orbit sander. I spent over an hour carefully shaping the handle until I arrived at what felt both comfortable to hold, as well as pleasing to the eye.
Before assembling the two pieces, I decided to do some decorative work. I had bought a block plane to work on this project. While I could have just sanded down the edges of the mallet head, I wanted an excuse to use my new tool. Originally, I wanted the mallet head to be more hexagonal, but found it too difficult without a table saw. Adding chamfered edges to the mallet head was a callback to the intent.
Next came seating the handle. I used a caliper to get the measurement on both the bottom, and top of the mallet head. I cut the handle accordingly, and then sawed two slots down the handle lengthwise. The two slots were there to provide a place to insert wedges. This would add counter-pressure and keep the mallet head and handle joined together. A generous portion of glue didn't hurt either! I only needed one wedge, in the end, as I cut the wedges too thickly to seat two at the same time.
Sanding and finishing
Completing the mallet was now just a matter of sanding and finishing. I have to admit, I spent more than a little time thinking about how I was going to finish this project. For my picture frames, I used a water based polyurethane. The results weren't great, unfortunately. The frames turned out looking a little plastic-y. Instead, I wanted to try a natural oil finish. But first, sanding.
Oil finishes are more "traditional', but they are also something I've never tried before. Poly finishes were frustrating, but at least I was familiar with how they worked. I wanted something that would be hard wearing -- it is a mallet, after all -- but didn't have the plastic look associated with a synthetic finish. After more research, deciding, reconsidering, deciding again, I settled on boiled linseed oil.
Which my local hardware store didn't carry. That would have stopped the project there for the weekend, but they did have my alternative. I hadn't given Danish Oil much thought before as an option, but the fact it's both a penetrative oil finish and varnish mix seemed like something worth trying. I picked up a can and set to work.
Danish Oil turned out to be a great experience. You simply flood the material with a brush or rag, then wipe off any excess. The mallet was an incredibly thirsty piece, so there was very little excess. The striking surfaces in particular soaked up the oil, giving them a darker color than the rest of the tool. I'm glad I went with this type of finish, and hope to use it in future projects.
While this wasn't a period-accurate recreation, it did give me an opportunity to both flex my engineering skills as well as explore the mindset of carpentry before the age of power tools. While I didn't build the mallet to be decorative, I'm having a hard time putting it to use just yet. I'm sure I will eventually get over my reluctance and enjoy using a tool I built myself.