In Japan, bench chisels and other chisels for striking are always "hooped," meaning there's a metal ring encircling the butt-end of the chisel handle. See below:
Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional)
This is a good idea since they traditionally use steel hammers to hit their tools, and absent the hoop, the butt end of the chisel would quickly deform and split.
In the West, most chisels are usually not hooped. So a good rule of thumb is to always use a mallet that is softer than the chisel handle.
Enter a caption (optional)
The reason is very simple. It is cheaper to replace an English joiner's mallet every few years, than it is to rehandle a chisel. Look at the photo below:
The mallet in the foreground is my old one, which I used heavily for at least five years. The mallet in the background has been in action for a few months and only has a few dents. Mallets seem to stabilize with a few dents, and it's typically years before the big cracks start.
Some of you may have observed that Western carvers will occasionally use mallets made out of lignum vitae, the densest wood on Earth, to hit un-hooped chisels. So what gives, doesn't that contradict what I just wrote? Well, it's to do with the nature of the striking:
If you're using bench chisels, and especially mortise chisels, you're looking to whack with power. In order to get that power using a soft mallet, you take a longer stroke with the mallet. What you give up there is precision and feedback, since the face of the softer wood mallet distorts slightly on impact.
But if you're carving, precision is everything. A shorter stoke with a heavier, smaller mallet gives you more control. Even if you are removing lots of material you want to do it in a series of controlled strokes, so you don't split away the wrong wood. So a denser, harder, mallet gives you more feedback, you can use a shorter, more controlled stroke, and overall you use less power per-stroke. The tool handle is in much less danger from a carver than a joiner.
So, some of you may be wondering: Which is "better," using a metal hammer and a hooped chisel, like the Japanese, or using an un-hooped chisel and a softer mallet, in the Western tradition? I'll tackle this topic in a future entry, so if you've got specific questions about this, please let me know in the comments below.
This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.