In Japan, chisels for striking are always hooped. That is to say, the butt end of their handles is encircled in a ring of metal. This is a good idea since they traditionally use steel hammers to hit their tools. In the West mortise chisels, which get the heaviest battering, and most bench chisels, which can still take a fair whacking are usually not hooped. So a good rule of thumb is to always use a mallet that is softer than the chisel handle. 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.
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The mallet in the foreground is my old one, which is well-used. The mallet in the background has been in action for a few months and just has a few dents. Mallets seem to stabilize with a few dents, and then a bunch of years later the big cracks start.
Some of you might point to the super-hard lignum-vitae carver's mallet. Carvers hit their chisel handles too, and you don't see them complain. But it's about force. Malleting in cabinetmaking is, especially in mortising, a question of power. You want to hit the chisel really hard. The softer wood mallet does give less "feedback" because the face will distort, but overall the goal is power.
With the lighter mallet, you need a longer stroke to deliver similar power, but the longer stroke is less precise. With carving, precision is everything, and a shorter stoke with a heavier, smaller mallet gives you more control. Even if you are taking away 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.
While lignum-vitae is an endangered wood now, and lignum-vitae have never been the most stable of woods anyway, there are lots of other options for carvers on the market now.
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.