Rawhide mallets are an essential piece of any leatherworker’s toolkit. Mine gets used daily for a variety of tasks including tapping down stitch lines and glued layers, and installing hardware like snaps, rivets, eyelets, spots and grommets. Here’s what I have learned.
Rawhide mallets are a soft striking tool made of tightly coiled leather designed to be used for working with soft metals and striking leatherworking tools. They are available in various sizes, designs and weights with the heavier mallets containing a steel or lead core.
With the variety of tools being offered on the market today, it can be a bit confusing trying to choose the right tool for the job. Read on and I will try to provide some key insights about the differences between the various options and why one version might be better than another.
What Is a Rawhide Mallet?
A Rawhide Mallet is a striking tool used by leatherworkers, jewelers and brass wind instrument makers. Rawhide is a byproduct of the leather-making process, though it is still leather, it is split from the main hide and allowed to dry. Once dry, rawhide hardens (imagine a rawhide dog bone). That thick rawhide material is soaked in a resin or shellac and then rolled up very tight and allowed to cure and harden.
In its cured form, rawhide is a very hard and durable material but still soft enough for use on softer metals without marring them. For example: The saddle tree (the frame of a western horse saddle) is wrapped in a layer of rawhide before the outer leather pieces are added. It is a very solid material. To experience rawhide in its most basic form, not treated with any chemicals at all, go find a plain unflavored rawhide dog bone at the store.
The rawhide in a dog bone is far thinner than the rawhide in a mallet, however, they are the same materials.
Common Rawhide Mallet Uses
Leatherworkers, jewelers and brass wind instrument makers all rely heavily on the rawhide mallet. Many of the tools in a leathercrafter’s toolkit require the use of a striking tool. A non-metallic hammer is a better option for nearly every task because hammering on the end of something like a hole punch with a steel hammer will eventually damage the handle of the punch.
Jewelers and Instrument makers use rawhide mallets because they can hit soft metals like brass, copper, gold and silver without denting or marring their surfaces. Nobody wants to play a dented tuba.
Leatherworkers, jewelers and brass wind instrument makers all rely heavily on the rawhide mallet.
Types of Rawhide Mallets
Rawhide mallets are available in weighted and non-weighted designs. They vary in length and diameter. There is an option on the market for a “Split Head” mallet. It is a solid steel core hammer that holds replaceable rawhide heads on either end. When the rawhide is worn down or damaged, it can be replaced rather than buying an entire new mallet.
Standard Rawhide Mallet
The standard rawhide mallet is just leather rolled very tight, soaked in a resin or hardening compound and attached to a wood handle. The head is very light and perfect for light tapping on soft surfaces.
Weighted Rawhide Mallet
Rawhide mallets can be purchased with a steel or lead core which increases the weight of the mallet head providing added power to each swing while still protecting the surfaces of softer materials.
Common Rawhide Mallet Sizes & Weights
Rawhide mallets can usually be purchased online from 2 oz to 24 oz (56.7g to 680g) head weights. Their sizes tend to start at 3 in. x 1-¼ in. (76.2mm x 31.75mm) and get larger.
On the lighter end of the spectrum, the rawhide is rolled tight with a resin coating that hardens. Those lighter weight mallets are popular with leatherworkers. They are good for tapping down stitch lines, installing hardware like snaps and rivets, and pounding on glued layers to help secure the adhesive bond. These tasks do not require a heavy mallet head.
Heavier mallets can contain a steel or lead core to increase their striking power. In leatherworking, the heavier mallets are useful for tooling leather. Being able to sink a stamping tool into the grain and create a deep set impression is best achieved with a heavier tool. Weighted mallets are also useful for working with soft/precious metals. While brass, copper, silver and gold are softer than steel, they are still metals and having a bit of weight in the mallet head assists in manipulating those metals without damaging them.
In Comparison to Other Mallet Types
Each option has their pros and cons and when it comes time to make a decision, it is more to the discretion of the crafter than the tools themselves that affect the decision. We are going to take a quick look at a couple of options that are available and provide a bit of insight to help in the decision making process..
Rawhide Mallet vs Rubber Mallet
Rawhide and Rubber mallets both offer soft striking surfaces which are designed to prevent damaging, marring or denting soft metals used by leathercrafters, instrument makers/repairers, and jewelers. The decision of which to use is really up to the person needing the tool. They can be used interchangeably. The biggest difference between the rubber and rawhide materials is that when a rubber mallet is damaged it must be discarded. A rawhide mallet can be trimmed, filed, sanded, and/or rasped, then continue being used.
Rawhide Mallet vs Nylon/Poly Mallet
Nylon/Poly mallets are similar to their Rawhide counterparts. They are a soft material designed to provide a hard striking tool without damaging, denting or marring the surfaces of soft metals or damaging leathercrafters’ tools. The main difference between rawhide and nylon/poly material mallets is that when a nylon mallet is damaged, it must be discarded. A rawhide mallet can be trimmed, filed, sanded, and/or rasped, then continue being used.
DIY Rawhide Mallet
Some folks enjoy making their own mallets. With a little time and handy-work, some really great results are possible. Here is an insightful video on making a DIY rawhide mallet:
The biggest difference between the rubber and rawhide materials is that when a rubber mallet is damaged it must be discarded. A rawhide mallet can be trimmed
Rawhide Mallet Care and Maintenance
As with any tool, the rawhide mallet requires care and maintenance over time. Read on as I explain how to condition a brand new mallet for it’s first use and how to properly maintain the mallet head throughout its life.
How to Condition a Rawhide Mallet
A brand new rawhide mallet has an extremely hard shellac or resin coating on it that needs to be removed before being used. Sanding the ends on a 60-80 grit belt grinder/power sander is one way. Another is to lock the mallet in a vise and use a steel file or a rasp to remove the hardened coating. Once the shell is removed, soak the rawhide in water for about an hour, then dry it off with an absorbent shop towel and file, sand or rasp the mallet again.
A rawhide mallet that is ready for use in the shop will not have any discernible spiral of the leather that is wrapped up to form the head of the mallet. The end of a rawhide mallet should resemble the fuzzy side of a piece of leather. There should be fibers of the leather visible on the striking surface.
Please do NOT beat a new rawhide mallet on a concrete sidewalk or curb. The risk is embedding a small pebble that will then scratch a leather surface, dent or scratch soft metals, and eventually damage the rawhide itself.
Rawhide Mallet Head Replacement
A “split head” mallet has a solid steel core hammer that holds replaceable rawhide heads on either end. When the rawhide is worn down or damaged, it can be replaced rather than buying an entire new mallet. New rawhide mallet heads can be purchased online from a number of retailers.
How to Soften a Rawhide Mallet
There are differing opinions on how long to soak the mallet head, but the general rule of thumb is 1-2 hours in warm water. It is important to note that it is a good idea to stay close and check the mallet head often. Once the rawhide begins to soften, it does so quickly. Do not just place the mallet in water and walk away.
Rawhide mallets are a fantastic option for some and a necessity for others. It’s hard to imagine a leatherworker’s toolkit without one. Take care of your tools and they will take care of you. Now go enjoy creating something.