In last months woodturning magazine there was a project-in-a-day feature for making a mallet. I caught my eye because the head of the mallet was made from lignum vitae, a very dense hard wood which is normally found in the balls used for lawn bowls. As it happens I was recently given a couple of these by my Grandfather for the specific purpose of using the wood in a turning project.The handle in the project was made from ash, and I had a similar dimensioned block of sycamore which I figured would do just as well. And so it seemed destined to be my next project.
And here is the finished piece
The eagle eyed woodturner might now be saying…”that doesn’t look like sycamore”. They would be right, and this is because it is in fact applewood. The reason why lies amongst the many things that went wrong trying to do this project.
So I had the materials I needed, and I had step by step instructions in the magazine. So what could possibly go wrong?
The first job was to drill through the centre of the lignum ball with a forstner bit. See the magazine image here
Easy right, just use a clamp to hold the thing still, and away you go.
Not so much. I probably could have spent much more time making a proper base to sit the sphere in which would have kept it stable. But I was trying to follow the magazine, and wanting to make progress. So I got the smallest clamp that I had, that would clamp around the size of the sphere. This is not a small clamp. It was rather difficult to hold it in place, much of the weight of the clamp is not over the drill press, and so I needed to hold it as best I could in place to try and get a good line through the centre of the sphere. Within moments of starting to drill another thing became clear. Removing dense wood with a 35mm forstner bit creates a lot of sawdust. Which makes things difficult to see,k and also jams up the drilling process unless you can remove it. So Wheeled across my dust extractor. But I currently have no way to mount it for the drill press, so I had to try and hold it nearby. This means I am now holding a clamp and a extractor hose, and trying to operate the drill press. Not easy, but not impossible. Then I hit a point that should have been apparent from the outset. My forstner bit is not long enough to go through the whole ball. The chuck of the drill is wider that the bit, so I could drill a little over half way and that was it.
Hmm, the article did not mention this challenge. ‘Obviously’ all I needed to do was turn the ball up the other way, and drill in from the other side. So now I’m trying to hold a vice and a extractor hose, whilst working the drill press, AND I need to be accurate enough to get the lines to meet perfectly.
What actually happened was that I made it connect almost perfectly, but not quite. I wasn’t sure how much of a problem the slight misalignment would cause me. I used a few tools to try and minimise the step between the two drill shafts. At this point I figured it was as good as it was going to get. So it would have to do.
Ok, then onto the handle. The steps said to turn between centres, shape the handle, and the tenon.
And so that is what I did, carefully setting the tenon the correct diameter for the hole I had drilled. I decided not to go too crazy with the finishing at this stage, so I sanded it down but didn’t apply any finish.
The next step was to take the handle off the lath, and use a bandsaw to cut a cross down the tenon. This is so that it fits easier through the hole in the mallet head. Then at the end you insert wedges to hold everything in place and make for a nice feature at the head end.
Keen eyed observes will not there are no wedges in the end of my mallet.
Having cut the cross through the tenon section it did indeed fit through the hole of the head section. And then I just needed to remount between centres. The magazine said that the prongs of the drive centre would fit into the cuts from the bandsaw.
Something I should have noticed is that they talked about a four prong drive centre. I only have a 2 prong drive centre. Though I suspect I would have had similar issues even with the 4 prong, I found it was basically impossible to get the thing remounted centrally. The handle was now turning a little off it’s previous axis.
I started to shape the head of the mallet anyway, I figured that it might not be too bad, slightly off centre only really shows when it’s rapidly spinning.
However the magazine steps said to blend the handle with the head a little. I was starting to shape the head, and noticing that things were not looking as they should. In a moment of madness I thought I might be able to blend the handle down to it’s new axis, and it wouldn’t matter. But of course there was not enough width in the shoulder of the tenon to cope with being turned off centre. A hasty cut and the whole thing was ruined. I also realised that there was no way I would get the mallet head shape in the article without cutting a chunk from the bottom of the ball, to being a wider part close to the handle. The article didn’t mention that either. Of course it would have made things much easier on the drill press if I had STARTED by cutting a chunk from the bottom, and making a parallel flat at the top.
At this point I left it with disgust for a few days. The handle was ruined, and I didn’t think I had anything else of the right dimensions available.
At this point I contemplated how I *should* have approached this.
Step 1 cut a section from one side of the ball, to bring a reasonable width to what will be the bottom of the mallet.
Step 2, cut a parallel shallow flat at the top. Step two, with the ball resting flat on the drill press, with a vice just to stop it spinning, drill as deep as I could go from one end.
Step 3 mount the ball on my expanding jaw chuck, the narrow jaws should fit inside the 35mm hole, I could then put the forstner bit in my tailstock chuck. And drill from the other side with a much better chance of true alignment.
For the handle I figured I should have turned such that the tenon was at the headstock end, and left a piece on the end for the drive centre. Turning the drive centre waste narrower than the tenon I could pass the whole lot through the mallet head without cutting any wedges and remount exactly on the same drive points as turned the handle.
I discovered that I had a piece of applewood that I turned down to a cylinder about a year ago, and left drying inside some paper bags. It was just about the perfect size for the project and I figured I was back in business. But I kept the mallet head from before rather than attempt to start again.
I also didn’t bother to do any handle shaping before I put the mallet head in place. I just turned the tenon. I wanted to be sure that if I had any trouble getting things back on a central axis that I had more material to play with.
I put some work into sheering the base of the mallet head flat and in line with the shoulder of the tenon. To get a nice tight fit. The tenon was just the right width that I needed to hammer it through the lignum.
And so I could proceed to shape the lignum to the mallet shape I wanted. This went mostly ok, though I had far too many catches trying to shape the ends. I still struggle to avoid causing spiral catches, even when I think I’m being careful.
Once shaped, sanded and finished. IT just remained to shape the bottom of the handle which I did eventually parting it off. This then left me with a stub of wood above the top of the mallet that needed to be removed.
So I took it to the bandsaw to remove most of the waste. And decided to sand the remainder on my belt and disc sander.
This was another mistake. The disc sander is very aggressive and difficult to present things at it square on. And so I wound up with an off-centre flat spot on top. I evened it up as much as I could, but in doing so I found I had revealed a gap where the rough hole through the lignum was not perfectly round and the tenon passing through did not fill it.
At this point I figured the easiest thing to do would be to just fill the hole with sawdust and glue. Which is less obvious than a hole, but still not as nice as doing the job right.
The finished article is actually very nice. In some ways I’m loathe to actually use it as a mallet because I don’t want to damage the beautiful lignum mallet head. However this project was a stark reminder that I am still such a novice. So many things went wrong. Blindly following the steps in teh article without thinking it through myself was a mistake. I’m almost tempted to try again from scratch, just to see if I can make it right, or whether I’d just hit another slew of problems. Maybe one day.