The Word is Out: Mullet

Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘mullet’ refers to something like this:

Apparently the term has only been used in the hair cut sense since the early 1980’s – in Canada at that period a popular choice for hockey players as well. I love the Chambers Dictionary (9th edition, 2003) entry for this:

Mullet: noun. a hairstyle that is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round.

It’s funny to come across such humorous little editorials in a dictionary once in a while.

Perhaps for those of you trapped on a desert island in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, free from the ravages of popular culture, the word ‘mullet’ may bring to mind a species of fish:

That’s not what I’m chasing down today folks. There’s also a definition for mullet referring to a heraldic crest shape, and again, we need not concern ourselves with that here.

As it turns out, the term ‘mullet’ goes way back in carpentry and describes neither a hair style nor the dinner option.


noun. A piece of wood used for gauging the edges of a panel in frame and panel construction. The mullet piece is plowed with a groove by the same tool used to prepare the grooves in the frame members.

verb. Mulleting: gauging the edges of panels to fit the corresponding groove cut in the framing.

A picture explains all I think:

(Above image from T. Corkhill’s The Complete Dictionary of Wood).


The modern dictionaries I have on my desk, Websters Unabridged and the Chambers Dictionary aren’t much help here, making no mention of a woodwork-related definition for ‘mullet’. George Ellis, in his 1908 work Modern Practical Joinery mentions the term, as does Middleton in his 1921 work Modern Buildings, Their Planning, Construction And Equipment Vol. 2.. William Stitt’s work The Practical Architect’s Ready Assistant (1819) also mentions mulleting a panel on page 121. Paul Hasluck’s Cabinetwork and Joinery: Comprising Designs and Details of Construction, with 2021 Working Drawings and Twelve Coloured Plates (1907) mentions ‘mulleting a panel’ on page 221. All of those books are available online in digital format.

To dig more deeply into the roots of this word, a look into the Oxford English Dictionary is really the only way to go (sorry Websters!). According to the O.E.D., def. 8 for ‘mullet’ indicates the word connects to the French word molet (around 1808) and even earlier to the French word moulet. Looking up molet in a 19th century French dictionary, I found:

MOLET.1 (mo-lè) s. m.Petit morceau de bois portant une rainure, dans laquelle le menuisier fait entrer les languettes d’un panneau pour en vérifier l’épaisseur.

That translates as, “Small piece of wood with a groove cut in, which the carpenter brought to the panel to check the thickness”.

So, molet would be the obvious source for the English word ‘mullet’ (in the carpentry sense of the term), and as you can see, our ancestors clearly mangled the pronunciation in borrowing the word from French. I suspect that the word come into English as result of someone reading French, not hearing it, and not being a speaker of the language.

And what about the other root word ‘moulet’? Again, an old French dictionary sheds light:

MOULET (mou-lè) s. m. Terme de menuiserie. Calibre de bois pour régler des épaisseurs.

Translation: “Carpentry Term. A piece of wood used as a caliper to adjust thickness”.

Taking both molet and moulet back a little further, they both connect to the French word moule. In turn moule comes from the Latin word modulus, meaning ‘little measure’ and modulum, meaning ‘measure, model’.  From the same Latin root, and by way of French, we obtain the English words module, mould/mold, moulding/molding, mode, model, and, yes, mullet. Quite a wellspring.

I found the word hunt fascinating to say the least. Thinking about the use of a mullet as a gauging device, I do wonder though about the matter of using the same tool which plows the groove to make the mullet. Surely it is the case that repeated gauging by the block on slightly over-thick panels would render a certain amount of compression set with the block’s wood grain, which would mean the gauge would then have a wider groove, and from there on would be consistently indicating a panel thickness slightly larger than the actual frame’s groove(?). If the goal was to have the panel be a tight fit, I suppose that would work, though having an overly tight panel is a recipe for assembly woes. An interesting question. Does using such a gauging block make sense to you?
Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

13 thoughts on “The Word is Out: Mullet

  1. An offcut from the current door job you're working on would be your molet du jour, I suppose. It would not be a permanent type of tool for the reasons you cite.

  2. Chris,

    As a gauging block it must make sense, it is still quite commonly used in some places. Is there a more practical option? The potential problem with the gauge becoming corrupted is the same as with mortise samples, that a lot of guys keep around to size tenons to. Especially with a hollow chisel type mortisers that will leave an already damaged and more vulnerable mortise wall, repeated use will oversize them and end up causing a too tight fit. “Crack” will tell you it is too late to rectify not having made a new sample. Lazy is the nemesis of clean woodworking.

  3. Chris

    A while back I saw a photo of you with a 'reverse mullet'… long in the front and short in the back. Just kidding! There was a photo where you were gauging the thickness of something with a LV set-up block. Since the human fingers are SO sensitive, this seems like a good way to avoid the problems with a regular mullet. At least until Leonard Lee starts producing the anodized aluminum mullets with laser engraving in a fitted box, accurate to 0.05 chipmunk whiskers.

    Long live live OED!


  4. Tico,

    that makes good sense, and i suspect would be standard practice, however you're need to have generous length with at least one of the frame members to make the mullet.


  5. Dennis,

    absolutely. As for a more practical option, I simply measure with calipers. If I consistently made panels of the same thickness, I'd look at getting a steel gauging block (mullet) made.


  6. Tom,

    thanks for your comment.

    Another strategy one could use when fitting a tongue to a groove in a non frame and panel context (i.e, tongue and groove joints) is to insert a stick into a groove when it is slightly too narrow. Drag the stick along the groove to compress the grain and make the groove slightly wider before inserting the tongue. Then, after fitting, a little moisture along the seam between the two pieces would swell the compressed wood in the groove back to tightness around the tongue.


  7. The gauge block, mullet ( I prefer mine steamed), is essential for panel work. You can slide the piece all around or along and edge to verify thickness. For most any furniture work you need at least .005~.01 narrower panel for finish film thickness and just plain ease of assembly. Entry doors and the like will swell in service from the shop environment typically. Is most typical to use a cut off from the existing door stock being used. Though when working with expensive woods ( $25 BFT and up) , off cuts are still plenty, it is most economical to mill a 24~36″ piece of medium density generic hardwood for set-ups along with your stock used for the project. Sure you could compress the block after time. But for a half dozen panels your fine. If you had a library job maybe make a block from denser woods. The block should be fresh with each project that way. The block is most beneficial when hand planing the edges to thickness. Most shaper produced profiles should be constant after the initial set-up and remain so through the run. Panels should not rattle but should not squeeze in either.
    I have a few woods that you simply can not machine profile to actual thickness and you may have to remove as much as .015 by hand for final finish to avoid tear out and flaws. A caliper is probably best used when coming off the shaper, planer,moulder where the edge thickness is the same ( we hope ) along it's length. YOu check in a spot or two and it should read the same everywhere else. I think the block gauge invaluable when dealing with the subtleties of hand work.

  8. In the workshop in Matsumoto, there was a well that was always bubbling forth clean cold water into a small concrete holding pond. Just about everything that was machined and later to be hand planed, was dipped in the water there, except things that had been glued up. The parts from various cabinets and such would be stacked up on the perimeter of the pond to dry, it was in the shade under a roof. Doing that was a factor in terms of to what dimensions things were machined to, the grain being raised would affect how much wood needed to be removed to finish plane a panel, for example. Knives were kept pretty sharp, so you didn't get too much fuzz coming up. Good to take a drink from the pipe there spewing water and sometimes some watermelons would be floating about. Sizing blocks were the gauges of choice. Ah, sorry about the nostalgia….

  9. Dennis, water is something I had not considered friendly to a wood working environment until planing some cypresses and cedars. It is entirely interesting to me that you would dip and rip dry cabinet parts. Is this prior to joinery? What was the wood?

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