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How to Make a Traditional Froe Mallet

What holds the Holy of the Holies, what did Brahma become? Wood. Why will aspen always tremble? For the nails driven into the cross. What makes the color of wood? The soil it tastes. Cradle, fiddle, coffin, bed: wood is a column of earth made ambitious by light, and made of beauty by the rain.

Kim R. Stafford, Having Everything Right, 1986.

Rive, verb, to split
Shake, noun, a split in a piece wood. (Heart shake, ring shake)
Shake, verb, (Middle English), to split.

I know I should have been in the studio working on my back log of guitars, but the day was so nice and warm with a tall blue canopy, I couldn't stay inside. I decided that I needed to make a proper froe mallet. This style of mallet is traditional to northeastern California, primarily Tehama (where I'm from), Butte, Shasta and Plumas counties where making shingles by hand from sugar pines was an industry. I don't know if it was used in any other region along the Pacific Rim, other parts of the United States or even other counties in California. I haven't had a chance to research this style of mallet more extensively.

This is a copy of a froe mallet that my great grandfather, John Wilson, made around 1900 and is in my brother's tool collection. It's surprising that we have it, these mallets were disposable, they wear out quickly when you rive out a thousand or so shingles a day, and were often made on site. When I was splitting off the cheeks of the legs of the poppits for the lathe, I was wanting a proper mallet to strike the froe with, so here is the process. Tools needed: a crosscut saw, axe and a knife.



First, find a nice young Douglas fir tree that is about six to seven inches in diameter, preferably a dead standing tree with no splits in it. Douglas fir was the preferred wood, it is a hard conifer, it's sectional density is .92, and is quite a bit lighter then foothill live oak which, by the way, makes wonderful mallets. Cut out a section between the branch whorls, a foot or so long. I felled a young Douglas fir that had a double top and cut 2 pieces.




Remove the bark with an axe, hatchet or a drawknife.




Mark out the size of your handle on the growth rings, they are a great reference to use and you'll make a round handle! Orient your piece so that the cut end that was closest to the crown of the tree is up when you mark the circumference of the handle. The opposite end cut should be the end that is closest to the butt of the tree. Why? Wood splits better from the crown, or head, to butt.





Put a line all around the piece, this is where you will the shoulder. Usually the length of the mallet's handle is the same as the diameter of the tree, the same for the head. So a piece that is six inches in diameter will have a handle six inches long and the head is also six inches long. The handle can be a little shorter then the head, it balances better in your hand and is easier to swing saving your arm.




Take your saw and start cutting, again using the growth rings as reference. Don't go too deep, you can adjust the thickness of the handle as you work.




Go to your chopping block and start splitting away what doesn't look like a handle. Try not to split any of the mallet head, some axe marks are okay, go ahead and use your axe to carve the handle.


Keep carving with an axe for as far as you are comfortable, then switch to a knife, pocket, sloyd or otherwise to smooth and finish it up. Traditionally, the handle tapers down a little from the end to the head.




Adjust the thickness to what you desire, I make mine so that my middle finger just touches the pad beneath the thumb. I learned that while attending the Horseshoeing School at Montana State University, we had to size the handle on our 2 1/2 pound rounding hammer to fit our hands before we could start shaping horseshoes.




Two finished froe mallets. I made these as close as I could to the originals, I did not change anything! I say that because hand riving shingles is tough, hard work, the men who first made these mallets swung them all day long, they had to work out a form and shape that worked well for them. As I said earlier, these mallets are traditional to one region in northeastern California and didn't come from a book about woodworking in Appalachia. The originals were made from Douglas fir, were considered disposable and were often made on site. Who knows what shingle making tradition originally used them, the lumber industry in California attracted men from all over the United States and the world.

I spent about an hour making these, I could hear the voices of my mom, my dad and Uncle Frank as I worked, they were the ones who showed me how to make these mallets. I loved them all and now they are gone. It was good to make these.

I hope you enjoy making one!

PS

I buried these in snow, I know that they are going to split!

Comments

  1. Wilson, nice post. I turn mine from hornbeam, a very hard tree but it does chip. Nice to have a history to work from.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Terry:

    I have some really nice mallets that I turned from California live oak on a springpole lathe about 20 years ago.

    There weren't many lathes in the California pineries back then, it was easier to hack out a mallet with an axe. That's another post, lathes, or lack of lathes in northern California.

    Wilson

    ReplyDelete

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