Mallets are like hammers, but a different tool in a significant way.
Mallets are hammers that are used to drive chisels, gouges, or to shape soft metals. Firmer chisels are often driven by mallets, as are other wooden objects that might split or break if struck with a hammer, like dowels, pegs, and spindles. Mallets are not to be used to drive nails, screws, or other metal objects with sharp heads that could mar the face of the tool.
Typically made of beech, wooden mallets are found in a number of different shapes. The carpenter’s mallet is flat-sided, though the two faces are usually not parallel, as if the head were cut from a segment of a wheel. The carver’s mallet is rounded, more or less cylindrical in shape, enabling the carver to strike his chisels at various angles without shifting the mallet or arm position each time. Some mallets have iron bands around their heads for reinforcement.
Though a range of sizes is to be found, most mallets are intended to be used one-handed. Their heavy heads are swung in short, controlled strokes, rather than in full swings.
The beetle, a large, two-handed mallet, is used when working with timber. These giant mallets have cylindrical heads, typically a foot long and six inches in diameter, and handles that are three feet or so in length. Ask any timber framer: These tools are very good indeed at convincing recalcitrant joints to cooperate.
Soft-faced mallets have a long history. Boxwood and leather varieties were used by silversmiths in the distant past. Today’s soft mallets, which may have heads of rubber, coiled rawhide, or plastic usually mounted on handles of hickory, have much wider applications.
A soft mallet is useful in a great many situations, but for the woodworker its principal application is as a persuader for workpieces that seem reluctant to go where you want them to go. The rubber or rawhide head is soft enough that it will do no damage to hardwoods and will dent softwoods only after repeated, heavy hammerings. Soft-faced mallets are also used in automobile repair to reshape sheet metal.
Deadblow Hammer. A related tool, the deadblow hammer, has metal pellets in its head. The presence of such metal ballast means that when the deadblow hammer strikes something, much of the shock is absorbed by the pellets, minimizing the rebound. Many deadblows these days have plastic 01 urethane faces, but are not truly woodworkers’ tools.