The Mighty Mallet
This approach usually takes the form of a chain saw or some kind of toothed device mounted on an angle grinder. Fortunately, for those who choose to pursue the purists’ path and avoid the use of power, there is a tool that one can argue is safer, more effective and, with practice, just as efficient. That tool is the mighty mallet.
A carver’s mallet is more than a funny shaped hammer used to drive a big gouge. Consider these key features: mallets come in various sizes and weights thus enabling a custom fit for every individual; mallets don’t have sharp edges that could cause inadvertent damage through an errant blow to your masterpiece; good handle design enables lengthy periods of effortless progress (more on this characteristic later); plus, no smelly fuel or noise.
Of course, a mallet is of little use by itself. For a mallet to be used effectively, one must have gouges that are appropriate for mallet work. The primary requirement for a mallet-driven gouge is to have a robust shoulder. Without a shoulder, the gouge would be driven back and would inevitably split the handle. Some gouges lack a shoulder but have a ferrule – a band of metal around the base of the handle. Although this design effectively prevents splitting the handle, the metal band can damage either the carving or the carver’s hand.
To use a mallet safely, it is essential that the carver grip the gouge properly while striking it with the mallet. It might seem logical to grasp the handle of the gouge; however, when the cutting edge of the gouge passes through the wood, the force of the mallet blow can drive the gouge through your fingers and onto the floor. To prevent such loss of control, the gouge shank should be grasped (i.e. between the handle and the cutting edge). This technique provides maximum control of the cutting edge and prevents the gouge being driven from one’s grasp.
Many carvers are discouraged from using a mallet because it is thought to be hard work. With a mallet weighted to your individual preference, this expectation could not be further from the truth. In addition, most people grip a mallet too firmly. (In fact, the prolonged squeezing of the handle, not the striking, is the cause of tennis elbow.) A good mallet has a slightly narrower neck where the handle joins the head. To avoid squeezing, the carver should grasp the handle lightly with the thumb and forefinger encircling that neck. When striking with the mallet, the head can be accelerated with a flick of the wrist thus achieving much greater striking force with less effort. With a little practice, a carver using this technique can work effortlessly for extended periods.
Not all mallets are intended for bulk wood removal. A detail mallet is generally much smaller than a standard woodworker’s mallet, and is usually made of a heavy material to provide adequate striking power. The one I use has a brass head. It would be more reasonable to describe the use of a detail mallet as ‘tapping’ rather than ‘hitting’ or ‘striking’. To provide the necessary accurate control, one should hold the gouge near the cutting edge as if working by hand alone. The detail mallet is held with the handle in the palm and the head of the mallet between thumb and fingers and tapped against the butt of the gouge handle.
As you can imagine, the size of the gouge directly affects the amount of wood being removed and the level of effort required. If one were to use a #2/35 gouge (fairly flat curve and over an inch wide), there would be a considerable amount of cutting edge in contact with the wood and more force required. To expedite the removal of wood, I first use a fairly curved gouge (e.g. #9/15) to create furrows, then use, a large gouge (e.g. #7/35) to remove the wood between the furrows.
A further deterrent for many carvers is the generally accepted view that gouges should be sharpened at a more robust angle if they are to be used with a mallet. Over time, I have come to the conclusion that this is a myth. I use the same gouges for all purposes and for all types of wood with and without a mallet.
So far, I haven’t experienced any broken gouges or abnormally rapid dulling.
To get the best results from your mallet, the key is good technique.
With practice, any carver with a good mallet can learn to remove large masses of wood with precision and far more efficiently than one might expect.
A robust shoulder is preferred
WRONG way to hold gouge ✕
RIGHT way to hold gouge ✓
A good mallet has a narrow neck
Hold neck with thumb and forefinger
Cradle detail gouge in your palm
A wide flat gouge requires effort
Step 1 – make furrows with #9/15 gouge
Step 2 – remove bulk with #7/35 gouge