Jennie Alexander’s ‘Impossible’ Mallet

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We took a break from our chairmaking class this morning to visit Jennie Alexander in Baltimore, Md., and hear a bit about her progress on the third edition of “Make a Chair From a Tree.”

During Jennie’s presentation she showed us a curious mallet made from a local oak branch. It was turned like a froe club with the pith running through the dead center. This kind of mallet is, according to the normal rules of wood movement, not a good idea. Because wood moves more along the annular rings than across them, the mallet should split.

But this mallet was dry and perfect. No splits.

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Jennie explained that she did this by turning the mallet while it was green, then she coated both ends of the mallet with a heavy layer of tallow. This, she said, forced the moisture to leave the mallet through the face grain of the mallet. (Usually the moisture prefers to leave through the end grain.) This, she said, is what prevented it from cracking.

This sort of conundrum has always fascinated me. And it’s a topic that I and a few other woodworkers will be covering in an upcoming podcast. (Yes, we’re starting a podcast, but it won’t be about the things we’re building in our shops, or tool reviews, or listener mail. Details to come.)

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to Jennie Alexander’s ‘Impossible’ Mallet

  1. Jarrod Dahl says:

    similar to the end grain cups of old (York circa 10th century) they had the pith in too and no cracking. I’ve made lots of the cups today and they don’t crack. I’m still not sure why. cool stuff none the less.

  2. erikhinkston says:

    I’ve been hoping there was a podcast coming, there are so many knowledgeable voices there at LAP. Heck, maybe remastered interviews from the archives??

  3. pfollansbee says:

    I made a dozen of them from hickory; coated the end grain & the transition between the mallet’s head & handle, which is also more end grain. Buried mine in the shavings & left them there for a couple months. not a crack in ’em. Is JA’s really oak? I know the photos are snapshots, but it doesn’t look like oak. Just today I was explaining to a student that joined stool seats & table tops I make don’t split, even though I peg through them to the stiles/legs. According to the books, they should crack. But they don’t. Green woodworking teaches you a lot about wood.

  4. jayedcoins says:

    Very cool. Excited to hear more (and to hear) the podcast as it gets going. But I wonder, Chris — you’ve got kids and several businesses. Do you sleep???! :p

  5. Gary bergeron says:

    2 favorite things lap and podcast

  6. My old Lignum Vitae carving mallet I got from my first mentor’s estate after he passed still has the original wax covering on the end and still has the “HAITI” stamp in red under the wax. It has the pith dead center and, as Jennie’s, hasn’t cracked at all. I have a few other LV mallets with the wax removed (not my doing) and they have some minor splits in the head. Occasionally. If the humidity changes, the splits will disappear. But they come back when it dries out. With the interlocking LV grain, though, it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t affect their use.

    I would have liked to find them with the wax covering still on them; I suspect they would not have cracks in them.

    Worth mentioning that most of the LV mallets I’ve had go through my hands in the last 10 years have been rescues from antique malls and usually for under $10. I find them marked as “potato mashers”. Just something to keep an eye out for.

  7. jeffk says:

    My fondest wish in life has been for a Lost Art Press podcast. (Also, you know, happiness and health for my wife and kids. That’s a close second.)

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