How and Why
V1.1 © Brian Meek. All rights reserved.
Overview: How to make a horn mallet, and why you’d want to.
Materials/tools needed: Drill press, large (.5”) drill bit, belt sander or coarse file, hacksaw, coarse files, (half-round and round).
Horn (Steer or Deer), and hammer handles to match.
Disclaimer: This material is presented for reference only. Any use you choose to make of it is entirely at your own risk.
In this modern age of high-tech plastics, you might think that horn mallets were a bit...well, medieval. Which they are. Paleolithic, in fact. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have a place in a 21st century metalsmith’s tool collection.
The interesting thing about horn, from a structural point of view, is that it’s composed of fibers laminated together. This gives it a grain, and a structure that amorphous plastic lacks. Horn typically comes to natural points, and its entire structure is designed to make sure it stays pointy even through repeated impacts. While modern plastic mallets have replaced horn for most things, horn mallets still have an edge when it comes to sharp, pointed tips. Every so often, you need to hit something with a mallet, but you need to hit one precise place. Right on the dot. For those occasions, horn is still the right material. Unfortunately, horn mallets are getting harder and harder to find. I don’t know of any of the larger tool dealers who’re still stocking them. I suspect a couple of them could still dig them up if you asked, but they’re not in the catalogs any more. The good news is they’re not that hard to make. Finding horn in the first place is the hard part.
I’ve seen, used and made a variety of horn mallets over the years. I’ve only seen one or two commercial ones, and both of those had thin, black horns, which led me to suspect they were deer tips or something similar. The ones I’m going to make in this demonstration are made from cow horn. (Steer, actually.) I’ve seen them made with the ends of deer antlers, as well as moose and elk. Some of the moose and elk antlers have natural anticlastic shapes that make good non-marring stakes as well. The flow of the fibers follows the shape of the curve, reinforcing it more effectively than the unrelated or non-existant grain structures of wood or plastic. Some of those wild early celtic torques were formed anticlastically on a pair of opposed horn stakes used as forming dies.
Raw horns as they first appeared. The coarse brown outer surface was later ground off.
Finding the horn in the first place is usually the hard part. My step-brother-in-law-the-deer-hunter (say that three times fast) has been a useful supplier of deer horn in the past. These steer horns came my way via the serendipity express. Apparently they came from someone who markets to the 17th century re-enactor crowd. (they do a lot with horn). If you’re in cattle country, call one of the large-animal vets, and ask what happens to the horns after they dock the steers. In this modern age of google, finding horn isn’t as hard as in the days of yore. There seems to be a large market in the horns of texas long-horn steers. These are too large to make decent mallets, and are quite expensive. Don’t waste your money on them.
Step 1: Get yourself a couple of bits of pointy horn, of one sort or another.
Step 2: Evaluate how big the horn is. What’s the longest mallet you can make out of it? Where is it thickest? How big of a hole do you think you can drill into it for the handle? Since the whole ‘point’ of horn mallets is to support a pointy tip, I tend to give mine the longest possible tips. I’ve got other mallets that do a better job at being a big flat thing. These are all about that point, and getting it into tight spaces.
Step 3: Take your horn with you to the hardware store, and evaluate the selection of hammer handles in comparison to the size of the horn. Make sure the horn is wide enough still be structurally sound after you drill the hole through it for the width of the handle.
Step 3A: buy a decent respirator while you’re at the hardware, unless you have one already. Horn dust can be nasty.
Rough horn and new handle set up together to make sure the handle relates well to the scale of the horn.
Step 5: Using a fine belt, sand (or file) off the outside of the horn, running with the grain. This is mostly just to get the rough fibers off. It will stink. A lot. Use your respirator, and do this outdoors.
Step 5: Set the horn on a table with the handle in the position you think best for it. Mark the wide end of the horn so that you can trim the wide end so that it will end up parallel to the handle. Make a pair of marks for the handle-hole. One mark in the center of the top of the horn to help center the drillbit, and a line along the outside of the horn, to show the angle that the handle sits at. The drillbit will need to follow this mark.
Photos of one of the horns set up for drilling. Note the center-mark, and the vertical alignment mark.
This makes sure the horn sits on the handle at the proper angle.
Step 6: Clamp the horn in a drill-press vise, and drill through for the handle. Use a large, rough round file to make this hole oval. Try to taper the hole as well, so that the top side of the hole is wider than the bottom side. This will give you a more effective mount on the handle. Drilling will reek as well. Nothing to be done except to get through it. Use slow spindle speeds. Don’t burn the horn with a fast bit. (If you think it smells bad now, wait until you smell it burning.)
Close-up of the finished holes: note that they’re oval, and wider at the top.
Step 7: use a hacksaw to trim off the ‘flat’ side of the horn so that it ends up parallel to the handle. Use the belt sander to sand it flat, and then bevel the outside edges back a little bit.
Step 8: sand the top of the handle so it fits the hole in your horn. Make it a tight fit. Remember to leave the tapered ‘fat bit’ just below the top of the handle. This will help if things loosen up later. Some handles come pre-cut with a slot in the top, some don’t. If yours does, make sure the slot is deeper than the horn head. If your handle doesn’t have a slot, or if it’s not deep enough, take a hacksaw and cut a slot straight down the middle of the handle, with the cut running fore-and-aft along the top of the handle. Cut down until the slot is deeper than the horn. Drive the horn down onto the handle as far as it’ll go easily. The simplest way to do this is to put the horn onto the handle, then slam the handle (and horn) down against an anvil while held straight up in your fist. (so that the bottom end of the handle hits the anvil.) The weight of the head will drive it down onto the handle evenly. Do this a couple of times.
Several shots of the head rough-fit onto the handle
Step 8A: With the handle should have been a wooden wedge. (and perhaps a steel one as well.) Snap the wedge off so that it’s the same width as whatever bit of the handle sticks out of the hole. Drive it down into the slot to open up the top of the handle, and wedge the horn in place. Drive it as deep as you can, then use a hacksaw to trim the top of the handle, wedge and all, even with the top of the horn. (After making sure the horn’s mounted firmly.)
The mallets with the handles fitted, and the wooden wedges driven into place, but not trimmed yet.
Step 8B: If your handle came with a steel wedge, drive that into the top of the handle at right angles to the wooden wedge. The steel wedge is stepped. You won’t be able to drive the entire length of the wedge into the handle without splitting it. Drive it in as deeply as you think you can before you split it. The critical thing is that at least one of those stairsteps in the side of the wedge gets driven below the surface. They’ll keep it from working back out. Once you’ve gotten the steel wedge as deep as you’re comfortable with, cut it off with a hacksaw. If in doubt, it’s better to have the steel wedge driven in less deeply than to have a split handle. Once the first stairstep goes below the surface, you should be good enough.
Finished mallets with steel wedges in place, and the tops trimmed and ground back to match the top of the horn.
Step 9: You’re done. Go back to making metalwork, using your spiffy new horn mallet.