Once you have a hammer or two--probably a standard claw hammer and perhaps a tack hammer--most DIYers (and all serious woodworkers) will find a need for one or more specialty hammers for the workshop.
A standard metal-faced hammer just isn't appropriate for all uses. The first of these specialty striking tools is a mallet, the most common forms of which are the wooden mallet and the rubber mallet.
The Wooden Mallet
Wooden mallets are used in woodworking and carpentry to drive wooden pieces together, such as when assembling dovetail joints, or when hammering dowels or chisels. Metal hammer faces can damage wood surfaces or the ends of chisels, and a wooden mallet will not mar either wood surfaces or tools. A wooden mallet also makes it easier to control a chisel, since it strikes with less force than a metal hammer.
Prices for wooden mallets range from $10 to well over $30, but there's little reason to buy expensive types, especially for ordinary DIY use (skilled woodworkers, though, may well own several wooden mallets in a variety of sizes for use in fine joinery and carving). Wooden mallets are usually made of beechwood, which a medium-density wood that won't damage workpieces.
The Rubber Mallet
Rubber mallets sometimes called "soft mallets," are used when an even softer blow is needed--where even a wooden mallet might cause damage.
The uses for a rubber mallet are many, and for most DIYers, this is the type of mallet that will be most useful. They are often used to form sheet metal, since they are not likely to cause dents, to shift panels of wallboard in place, in upholstery work, and a variety of other uses:
- For ceramic tile, it helps gently tap tile into place.
- Laminate flooring: great for this brittle material, for snugging up joints without damaging pieces.
- Tap carpeting onto tacking strips.
- A “sounding device” if you need to hear what is behind a wall or in a pipe.
- PVC pipe work, to snug up joints.
Rubber mallets come in two styles: those with solid rubber heads attached to a handle, and those to which rubber pads are attached to the faces of a metal head. These latter types often have rubber pads of two different densities on the opposite faces, and some even have interchangeable pads.
Here, too, there's little reason to spend a lot of money on a rubber mallet. If you are paying more than $10 to $20, it is questionable if you are truly getting your money's worth. The Handsam is a good mid-range mallet, both in terms of price and quality.
For working with sheet metal, such as doing automotive bodywork, consider the Thor mallet, which has minimal rebound and features a mallet head tends to mar less than cheaper mallets.