Chisels For All Needs (Almost)

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Chisels are a simple tool. Simple but useful.

For hand tool woodworking, we really can’t be without them, so your skills with a chisel should be built up early.

But which chisels do you need?

Traditionally, there was a different chisel for just about every job. But like a lot of areas with my tool kit, I prefer to break tradition.

I like to keep things minimal, and I use only one type of chisel for everything, but the very finest, or extremely heavy tasks.

A fine bevel edged chisel (left) compared to one of my heavy duty bevel edge chisels.

A fine bevel edged chisel (left) compared to one of my heavy duty bevel edge chisels.

 

The Strong Bevel Edge Chisel –

I find the best chisel for this all round use, is a heavy-duty bevel edge chisel.

A chisel that’s strong and versatile. Don’t confuse them with fine bevel edges, the more elegant and refined chisels can’t cope with mallet blows or leverage.

The heavy set keeps these sturdy enough for taking some welly, and is why I can use them for a good 90% of my work.

Traditionally, the firmer chisel would have been a general purpose choice. These are square across which gives them plenty of strength for the light morticing and such. But without the bevel, they make jobs such as dovetails a bit of a clat, so are not nearly as good as an all-rounder.

A strong chisel, with beveled edges is a good combination.
They help us to get in to corners more easily, and more surprisingly, they’re easier to sharpen.

registered chisel, and bevel edge chisel

The registered chisel (front), along with the more standard, thinner variant, the firmer chisel, both have parallel edges. These are super strong, but not nearly as versatile as the heavy-duty bevel edged chisel (back).

 

Sharpening Chisels –

Tool collectors will have a different preference for tools, than tool users.

For myself, ensuring that sharpening is swift and routine, is probably more important than the tools themselves.

Having the bevel, means that these chisels have a chunk of steel removed that’s otherwise not needed. So we have a strong edge that’s very quick to sharpen.

This isn’t only helping me to keep the tool sharp though.
What’s even more important, is it allows me to adjust the cutting angle, and shape very quickly too.

When a tool kit is minimum this is important, and vastly overlooked by modern woodworkers.

I can optimise my edge for a task, just as you may create a point on a pencil when adding detail, or form a flat for shading.
This means that having just a few chisels on the bench, is enough to make an uncompromising tool kit.

The changes you make will be to optimise the cutting angle as required, and maybe even the shape of the bevel. For example, there’s the importance of a rounded bevel whenever morticing, but we’ll talk about that more another time.

Modern Steel? –

When I say strong chisels, it’s because these chisels can take a pounding. I’m not referring to the type of steel or how it takes an edge.

When it comes to the steel, I keep it old school. So softer high carbon steel.

In general, I dislike the harder, exotic steels, A2 and the like. I would recommend avoiding them whenever possible.
This comes down to that same speed of sharpening and fast geometry change.

Chisel Sizes –

Widths To Start Out With:

Your work may dictate particular chisel sizes, but as a start out kit, these are what I find to be on my bench all of the time:

– 6mm / 1/4″ – Ideal for morticing in small doors, and can even deal with fine’ish’ dovetails.
– 12mm / 1/2″ – This will do the majority of your morticing, and come in when cleaning out the pins on those dovetails.
– 19mm / 3/4″ (or above) – A nice wide chisel is very useful, and I’d probably aim at an inch, though somewhere between 3/4″ – 1 1/4″ will fit the bill.

Buying Chisels –

If you’re looking for a very heavy-duty set of chisels; ones that will get leathered every day, all day, then I actually think some of the ‘good end’ ones with plastic handles shouldn’t be dismissed.
I use these every day, and have never had a single ounce of issue.

I’ve found the plastic actually transfers the energy far better than any of the wooden handles can. Wood is a beautiful shock absorb, which is kind of good to hold, but it’s not good when you’re trying to pummel energy through the chisel. Most handles are there to make a connection between us and the tool, and for that wood is preferable. But chisels are a bit different, because for many tasks, we’re working through the handle, more than we’re holding it.

In terms of brand, I’m not here to support any particular company, but you can’t beat the pricing and durability of what I’ve seen and feel that the Narex can offer.
I’ve also heard tremendously good things for these, from many good woodworkers, including many of your good selves.

Three chisels that are always on my bench. My Marple's Splitproofs.

Three chisels that are always on my bench. My Marple’s Splitproofs. Whack them, pry them… A true indestructible chisel.

Marples Splitproofs

The Marples Splitproofs have got a bit of a cult, legendary status. They’re still made today, but not by the traditional English brand. I’ve only used the older ones, but I’ve yet to find a set of chisels that can compare.

My old man says the new ones are still good, but lack the charm….whatever that means?

If you’re after some, you can get the old ones for ten a penny on eBay.

Their nothing fancy, just high carbon steel, but were the generic chisel of English sites at the end of the last century. They were always my Dad’s favourite, he even had some worn out ones that he chopped short as butt chisels, for hinge recessing and stuff like that.

Chisels designed for site joiners are generally that bit more heavy duty. They can take a good prying and are designed for more abuse. That doesn’t mean I don’t look after my tools, or encourage any disrespect. But if you’re going to use general purpose chisels for heavier tasks, such as morticing, then it’s nice to know they can stand it.

I do have some beautiful chisels as well, but once you get them in to a woodworker’s workshop, who’s going to use them and not just look at them, they all become grubby and scruffy by the end of it. Sometimes you’ve just got to look at a tool as a tool. And a chisel is definitely one of those tools.

Generally, I believe that you get what you pay for, so cheap as cheap isn’t the best way to go. But you certainly don’t need to spend too much on a chisel.

Chisels For Very Fine Jobs?

Those beautiful chisels I mentioned are for the other 10% of my chisel needs. I have a separate set for very fine work, such as dovetailing, so I’ll discuss those next time.

15 Responses

  1. Glen

    I’ve still got my first set of the yellow plastic Stanley bevel-edged chisels that I got as part of my toolkit when I started school for cabinetmaking. I suppose they would be considered heavy duty because they’re just massive. I love them, but I’ve worn them down and can’t find a replacement set! They originally looked equivalent to your Narex above, but without that red stripe.

    Reply
    • Michael Dickson tiny

      Yes I too have a same set given about 50 years ago as a birthday present from my father.

      My 3/4″ is the most used but the 1″ is the shortest so I tend to use the other to keep the length. I would recommend grinding back using a water wheel to keep the iron cool thus preventing the iron from getting soft.

      Reply
  2. Ken Haygarth

    Hi Richard,
    Chisels of choice at the present are Faithfull Blue B/E Chisel for rough work, and Ashley Iles Mk.2 Butt Chisel for everything else.

    Very Best

    Ken

    Reply
  3. Lyndon

    My Ashley Iles bevel edge chisels are my most prized set for all round best performance. My collection of Swedish and English registered firmer chisels, all over 75 years old, by well known makers are also great performers. Like Richard, I prefer the steel in older chisels. I’ve resurrected some gems from what appeared to be old junk, and I’ve been majorly disappointed in some modern chisels by reputable brand names. For dovetailing, I assembled a set of antique Sheffield made chisels quite inexpensively then custom ground and sharpened them to specific profiles. I’ve been very pleased with their performance.

    Reply
  4. John

    Hi,
    I have several brands, but I still go to the Stanley contractor type as my first choice. They are as old as the hills, but keep a fair edge and they are easy to hone up.
    I have – from the kids – a set of four, in a leather wallet, LN chisels but I have no work for them as the old ones are still preferred.
    John

    Reply
  5. Steve

    Hi Richard,
    As a relatively new convert to hand-tool working I am doing a huge amount of reading and and studying in order to grow my know-how and skills. So much of what I see and read directs the user to the same ‘top-end’ hand-tool brands that are aggressively marketed and promoted. I imagine we all know the ones I am referring to. It would be easy for the uninitiated to come to the conclusion that in order to create anything of any worth then the only option is to purchase the same high-end tools. It is for this very reason that I find your no-nonsense plain-speaking sensible approach just so refreshing and engaging. You are one of the very few who balances a lot of the commercially driven hype that I see on-line and you are to be congratulated for this. More power to you! Thank you
    Steve

    Reply
  6. Rob Stoakley

    The acetate, yellow handled chisels from Lee
    Valley are better than the Marples chisels. I know because I tested them side by side some years ago for F&C.
    The LV ones are just stunning…I couldn’t break the edge or make one chip.

    Reply
    • Kevin de Silva

      I suppose Rob it depends who does the testing ! . I have a set of Maples I brought 40 years ago use them daily as mostly a site carpenter. They hold a great edge and I have never broken or chipped an edge except on the odd occation when they have got knocked of the scaffold .

      Reply
  7. John Thomas

    I have set of stanley chisels that look just like your picture. I think I got them in the ’60’s. I have an assortment of others, but as you said, theybwork fine.

    Reply
  8. Mark Dennehy

    I bought all my current chisels for next to nothing off ebay. Footprint firmer chisels (¾”, ½” and ¼”) and a small collection of others from various makers like sorby (didn’t care much about names, I figured if it was from sheffield and it was older than me, it’d be hard to go wrong).

    I was looking to get some “nice” chisels for fine work though, so I’m looking forward to part II of this post (and particularly on any thoughts about the Ashley Iles MkIIs versus their roundback dovetail chisels).

    Reply
  9. Paul Bouchard

    I’ve got a grab bag collection of old chisels that I’ve grown really fond of. I gifted myself a 3/8″ Veritas PMV chisel in the spring and have been extremely happy with it, too. I’m Canadian, so it feels great to support a company making such well made products.

    Reply
  10. Patrick

    Great article! I use cheap marples chisels for morticing. I can hit them and not give a s**t about the handle.

    Reply
  11. norman lafond

    Thanks Richard for standing up for ordinary tools that do the job. I have been using Buck Bros. firmer chisels and Marples heavy duty chisels for years for mortising and cutting dados. The Bucks are still made in Massachusetts and the Marples were the last from the UK. The Narex fine edge chisels are what I use for fine work. Narex also makes a firmer chisel that is very good as well. I am always a bit embarrassed to admit that I use Home Depot chisels, but they work well for me.

    Reply

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