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.
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.
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.
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.