Taking a cue from my uncle, a craftsman, I have many wooden mallets.
I made many of them of different species. I use a softer wood mallet
to tap the harder project wood, so as not to damage the project wood.
When a head becomes too damaged (seldom), I replace it. Some heads
are not perpendicular to the handle, about 8 to 10 degrees off, to
accommodate a slightly different drive when needed. I have a wide
variety of sizes and some have a wedge shape on one face. A few I've
added cow hide straps simply for decor, like a tomahawk. On the
brighter side, those of 4" or larger heads are attitude adjusters, not
mallets, and more for display than use. Many I have are tree limb
heads on tree limb handles, no two alike, and I've learned to
distinguish them for particular uses. Besides, why waste a good tree
limb by trashing it? Make a mallet.... or an attitude adjuster.
I also do upholstery work. Leather or rawhide mallets are used to
drive tack strips into place and to attach front arm panels, and the
like, onto the furniture. The tack strips and panel structures are
under the fabric, so the leather mallet, though hard, does not damage
the fabric when driving these tack/nail applications. I also have a
series of short wooden plugs (3" long dowels of different diameters),
wrapped in scrap fabric, that I sometimes use as buffers between
mallet and fabric-structure application. As with anything, you can go
over-board and tap too hard and damage anything, so some care is
required when tacking/nailing through fabric, this way. Vinyl hammer
heads (tack hammers) are used for decorative tacks, so as not to
damage the decorative tacks. I suppose small wood mallets may have
been used before vinyl came along.