Hammer, mallet or hand? What’s your tool of choice for chiseling?

October 23, 20153 Comments

Earlier this week I shared with you the three sizes of chisels I use the most frequently. If you didn’t see that video please feel free to go back and watch (click here to visit,) I’d love to hear what you’d suggest.

Most of these chisels never get used!

While we’re on the subject, when you’re using those chisels is there a preferred tool you use to strike them with?

Frequently there are some applications where a more delicate hand is required for the task, but what about when the job requires driving the chisel deep into the wood, for example when chopping mortises?

It’s tempting in certain situations, or especially early in your woodworking to just reach for a claw hammer and whack away, but is that what’s best for the tool steel or even the chisel’s handle (depending on what it’s made from?)

In my own shop, the tools of choice for my chisel work happen to both be wooden mallets. The first is a heavy-duty rectangular-headed mallet commonly referred to as a “joiner’s mallet.”

Not the exact one, but very similar

Not the exact one, but very similar

This is the tool I turn to when I need to drive the chisel deep for a mortise or when I’m working with a particularly dense hardwood.

It’s heavy enough to drive the chisel deeper with every blow, but light enough I can still control most of the driving power so I don’t end up over doing it. Typically the concern is less about driving the blade too deep into the material versus rolling the steel at the edge and dulling the tool quickly.

Another advantage of this mallet is the shape of the head. It’s flat face helps to ensure that even when my aim isn’t as true from blow to blow, the angle of the force stays pretty consistent.

My next preferred tool for driving chisels is the turned mallet I made a while ago as one of my first turning projects on the lathe.

small turned mallet

In comparison to the “joiner’s mallet” this one is incredibly light, and if I had to use it to chop out mortises, I’d be there a while as it wouldn’t drive the chisel very deep with each whack.

The sole purpose of this mallet is for more delicate and controlled work. For example, I’m more apt to use this version when I only want to score the surface or keep the action close to the face of the stock, such as when I’m chopping out material for a butt hinge or other shallow mortised hardware.

If I were to eventually try my hand at chip carving, this might be the kind of mallet I’d grab when it comes to defining those delicate details.

As I mentioned, this is a round head mallet, and while it seems counterintuitive (to me at least) this mallet is actually pretty accurate when it comes to driving the chisel forward and keeping it on track with whatever layout line I have knifed on the surface.

Of course, there is the occasional errant whack that drives it slightly deeper on one edge or the other, but all-in-all it’s a very accurate hit each time.

The third and final tool I’ll turn to for chisel work is my own hand.

my hand

I’m not above attempting to drive a chisel into the material with a whack down on the end of the handle from an open palm, but this is usually reserved for extremely delicate work or where I’m doing something more akin to scoring/knifing a line for other work.

I might also typically do this kind of chiseling when I’m attempting to pare surfaces or clean up mortises.

I imagine it’s not unusual for a craftsperson to deliver a powerful enough blow with their hand that it could rival my small turned mallet, but apparently I’m a little too delicate for this kind of work as I avoid it at all costs.

Very early on I assumed a mallet was exactly the same as a hammer, and therefore it didn’t really matter when I whacked away at it. But it was after I finally started connecting the dots between having to repair the chisel’s edge more frequently and the heavy handed results of the hammer that I started to realize there really is a right tool (or tools in this situation) for the job at hand.

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  1. TaDaMan says:

    For me, I use a Thor 712 mallet with hard (white) and soft (gray) heads and a wood handle. I tried it after seeing both Paul Sellers and Richard Maquire recomend it. I use the hard side 75% of the time and my hand 20%, the soft side is bouncy and good for a light nudge 5% of the time. A little reshaping of the lower part of the handle and a couple coats of Oil/Varnish blend (Danish Oil) and it became my go to mallet, my jointers mallet is dusty.

  2. Rob Porcaro says:

    Hi Matt,

    For almost everything, I like the Glen-Drake #4 14-ounce Tite-Hammer compact brass mallet. It delivers surprising power using a very compact motion of the wrist/arm. This allows me to use it seated or standing.

    For heavy duty work, such as the rare hand-chopped mortise, I use a classic joiner’s mallet by Di Legno.

    I usually regret using my hand as a mallet, so I avoid that.


  3. Tom says:

    I have used a regular hammer but used the side of the head, the theory for this it’s it’s a little bigger than the face so helps with success in hitting the chisel

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