Ever Considered A Hollow Chisel Morticer?

by | May 25, 2018 | 28 comments

As noises go, there’s nothing much worse than banging.

About the only thing that’s completed in my life at the moment is my workshop door.
I spent far too much money to get it right. We focused on the acoustics to keep out the noisy world when filming, and put in some beautiful reflective glass to allow in the light without too much heat.

The door’s just right.
Except there’s these two bastard crows that whale on it every single morning. They’re not tapping, they’re knocking the crap out of themselves and the door.

Every morning they wake me up at 4 o’clock. It’s ok because that’s the time I like to get up, but then every night it’s the same. It’s none stop banging. The amount of scenes I’ve cocked up when filming due to these crows; it’s become my new frustration.

Wadkin Morticer

This huge Wadkin morticer isn’t quite the ‘small’ machine I’m recommending here, but I’m afraid it’s the only one I have available to photo.

Machines For Peace & Quiet

Whenever I’ve touched on recommending any kind of machines it’s been for your donkey tools. A bandsaw and possibly a planer to save time and energy at the roughing stage of a job.

But something else that I would definitely consider if you were doing apartment woodworking, or working in a built up area, would be one of those dead cheap little bench top morticers.

Banging on a chisel will do nothing but do your neighbours’ head in.

Woodworking by hand is a quiet hobby bar morticing.
But morticing is the most anti-social job you can do. I feel guilty now even though I live pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so I still don’t like to mortice in the morning.

Hollow chisel morticers are highly efficient, and you don’t have to spend much at all. If I was worrying about creating too much noise then it’s a machine that I would consider.
Just because the mortice and tenon is such a staple joint, and I like to work early.

This is the kind of way that I look at machines now. It’s not necessarily how can I give myself an advantage on speed here, the speed’s not the issue, but sometimes a machine can give you advantages in other ways.

A cordless drill for example gives me a spare hand. It’s not that drilling by hand is slow, it’s just that I don’t have to clamp the work when using a cordless drill.

It is weird that as you progress with hand tools you look at machines in a different way.

I like hand prepping because it allows me to take some time and watch a bit of YouTube (last week I watched a chap eat about ten pizzas in one sitting all whilst productively prepping. And he was built like a rake?). You can listen to a bit of the radio if you want. I actually look forward to this stage of a build because you’re thinking about the project. Let’s say you’re building a big old chest and have a lot of prepping to do, you can really mull things over and get to know the project in your head, because it’s just repetitive work.

Planing on machine, it’s a pair of sweaty ear muffs, sticky goggles. It doesn’t give me owt.

mortice and tenons by hand

In our chair building project we’ve been cutting the mortice and tenons all by hand. If you’re not leaning towards the machine then you can learn my approach to hand cut mortices in the video series.

Unusually the issue with morticing by hand is noise.

And a morticer is bloody quiet compared.

When I was building workbenches I burnt through quite a few morticers, so whilst I’m no machinery expert I do consider myself a bit of a connoisseur with these things.
The reason for this broad experience was that I tried to get by using the wrong machine for the job.

The joints were huge and needed several passes, and the piddly mortice chisel just bounced right off the kiln dried ash.
It was hateful work because it was so beyond the ability of the machine.

In the end only a nigh on one tonne hunk of cast Wadkin with a chain got close to being man enough for this daily grind. But then I got impatient with that and returned to a good old stout chisel.

The moral of the story is to get a machine that’s built a little beyond your needs. You can get some good kit pretty cheap if you follow this rule, and it’ll last you well too.

traditional mortice chisels

I’m generally not a fan of the huge traditional mortice chisels, but when your mortices are more like house footings they can come in. For more normal sized joints I don’t think you can beat some good strong bevel edge chisels.

If you’re cutting mortices in pine then a lightweight bench top machine will be a joy to use.

These machines are simple and dependable when used within their limits, though don’t push beyond that or things may start getting messy.

Forcing a blunt, crappy chisel through hardwood will give you some grief – burning and a tendency for cutting on the piss.
And cutting wide mortices around the inch mark will certainly be testing on even the biggest machine.

But for general furniture making you’ll be fine with a nice cheapy, and it may well be kinder to the neighbours than banging like the bastard crows.

Related Posts

About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  1. Ken Haygarth

    Yeah as much as I love my hand tools, a Hollow chisel mortiser would be great for me. Working from an unused room in the flat, noise is my worst enemy. Chopping mortices, even dovetails can get you on the wrong side of the neighbours.

  2. Paul

    Good to read this because I’ve been really thinking about it. I’m in an apartment, so last evening I had to take a couple of rock maple breadboard ends to the park and bang on them with the mortise chisel. The work holding and the light was less than optimal.

  3. Greg

    I love my workbench mortiser. makes the cuts so easy. that, and I never seem to be able to cut it straight with a chisel. Great article.

  4. Richard Simpson

    “last week I watched a chap eat about ten pizzas in one sitting all whilst productively prepping”

    I struggle to hand prep at the best of times. I certainly couldn’t do it whilst eating.

    • Michael Ballinger


  5. Shane MacMillan

    I was looking into getting a Veritas shooting plane but thanks to this I’m pondering the Rikon Sliding Table bench top mortiser. Always more things to buy. 😀

  6. Peter

    Lol – we have non stop wood pigeon cooing dawn til dusk up here in Northumberland, and once you notice them you can never unhear them . . .

  7. Darryl

    I know in the past you have mentioned that this isn’t your preferred method for digging a mortise but drilling the bulk of the waste out before refining the walls could also be an option for apartment dwellers or those who don’t want to offend the neighbours and are not willing to commit to a machine. Also no extra expense as it is likely you will have a drill, suitable bits and a chisel.

    • Ken Haygarth

      Thanks Darryl, I was thinking along those lines. Well worth considering buddy.

      • Darryl

        No Problem Ken, happy to offer a viable option. As an apartment is in my near future I have put a bit of thought in to keeping the noise levels down for my own piece of mind as well as the neighbours.

    • Andrey Kharitonkin

      Yes, that makes it much easier and I explore that option at the moment. Especially, I want to try with up cut spiral routing bits designed for low speed (like 4000 rpm). They are usually used in horizontal slot drilling machines. But perhaps can also be used in drill press. Or drill bits from Fischer with sharp cutting sides (normal drill bits are not good for routing). The important thing here for me is that this method produces smooth and perpendicular mortice walls. As I’m not so good with squaring with chisel after drilling out with forstner bit… it always goes away from 90°. Bad thing is that you need bits of many sizes, per each size of mortice.

      • John Woods

        Hi Andrey, I am not sure that router bits are set up to
        make clockwise cuts, or am I wrong?

        • Andrey Kharitonkin

          Hi John, there are solid carbide upcut spiral bits which cut on right hand or left hand rotation, you choose. For example, 191 series from CMT. Or series 0212 mortise bit cylindrical shank from Fisch with recommended rotation speed 3000-5000 rpm (these cannot be used in router).

    • Mario Fusaro

      LOL!! I’ve been cutting mortises this way for years! It’s fast, easy on the tools and easy on the ears (of the wife, that is). The trick is having good, sharp auger bits that will cut oak & maple like butter. I use a brace rather than chucking into a cord or cordless drill. No real reason just my preference. I hog out as much as possible near the lines then sharpen the hell out of my chisel and finish the job.

      • Mo

        I’m wondering about chiselling out a mortise vs brace and auger bit. Is there a certain size above which one technique has the advantage over the other?
        I’ve spent the best part of an hour chiselling out 2 mortices 1″ wide by 2″ deep and am wondering if there is a faster way?

    • Patrick

      1 happen to know that they used that method 400 plus years ago in Somerset because when I renovated our house some years ago I found the marks of the carpenter’s auger bits at the bottom of the mortises in the central beam!

  8. Pete Maddock

    Yes…I too have a small mortising machine and it’s a great little tool for the woodworking that I do, as I work mostly with pine and it saves me alot of time when I do have alot of mortises to digg out.

  9. Andrey Kharitonkin

    Great topic, Richard. Banging in apartment for me is not easy and internally disturbing because of the neighbors and such. I was thinking about building a sturdy saw horse that I can take outside and bang on the ground, rather than on the top floor of our building.

    And I was also thinking hard about buying a morticer. But while considering using machines, what do you think about router and Leigh FMT Mortise & Tenon Jig, or Pantorouter, or Festool Domino. What bugs me also is that routed mortice has smooth walls, compared to hand cut with chisel or with morticer, and that means much stronger glue joint. I can make smooth tenon with hand tools like route plane and rabbet plane. But I cannot make a smooth and perpendicular mortice with hand tools still.

    I’ve learnt recently that route plane can be used to smooth and make walls of mortice parallel to the opposite sides of the stock (first few centimeters, or as far as the cutter would go inside the mortice). But it doesn’t work for thick stock.

    The best method for me that I found so far is to form mortice by laminating three layers of wood, with omission of wood in the middle. Also works great for workbench size joints. And makes mortice with smooth perpendicular walls…

  10. Ronald Boe

    I picked up a cheap benchtop morticer a few years back. A couple years after that my wood pusher had a deal on a Powermatic stand alone morticer (base was missing, ordered that it bits which kinda made the deal less attractive). More power, better hold down vise and you can rack it back and forth and in and out. It’s glorious! It really helps me to accurate repeatable mortices. My bane.

  11. Brandon Wilson

    Banging is exactly the reason I added a cast iron vise to my workbench. It was originally supposed to operate entirely off of holdfasts, but that didn’t hold up with the baby or the neighbors very well.

  12. vinhnu

    So its the same everywhere with wood workers’ the noise spoils the sport. Many times I end up spoiling the mortise trying to hurry up lest the neighbours walk in and ask me to stop this nonsense in an apartment and also call up my landlord and ask to get this family vacated. We all seem to have the same pangs.

  13. Mark Williams

    Noise is a funny thing, it’s very subjective. For instance it is never as loud or as annoying to the one making it as it is to those unfortunate enough to be within range. Myself, for instance, I don’t mind banging so much, but that screeching noise you get from hollow chisel morticers going through hardwood drives me nuts (short trip). I’ve tried everyting. Lubrication, adjustment, types and makes of chisel. No good! So, it’s a large rawhide faced hammer and chisel combo for me.
    Now I realise I’m lucky. I have a shed at the bottom of the garden. It has wall and roof insulation, double glazing and a stout floor with no body (living anyway) under it. For those not so blessed, Darryl has the right idea. I still use a drill first for larger jobs. As for getting verticle sides, use a square block to guide the back of your chisel. A bit like Richard showed use how to drill straight.
    Loving the chair series, making infrequent progress on my new bench, but irt is close now..

  14. Steven

    Well Richard
    If your up at 4 am knocking mortises out ! Then a think the bastard crows a just getting there own back for you waking them up haha!
    As for mortise machine a think that might be a good idea as I’ll be working from me garage which is right under me bedroom and our lass is a nurse so works shifts and let me tell yuh she would be worse than crows if a woke her up haha!
    I was in me local machine mart the other day looking at the Clarke drill presses and seen that for certain models you can buy a mortise attachment about £60
    Have you ever used one ? A watched them on YouTube seem ok and obviously then you could use the drill pres for peg holes etc

  15. David os

    Ah where’s the fun in a Morticer .i just made a garden gate with through 1″ tenons .sharp cheisel and burst into it . Great fun . I did get a bandsaw though .brilliant time saver .as for noisy neighbours you got to make them something .

  16. Kermit

    Crap. After a lifetime of working around damnable machinery, I hear I might need a morticer. Working in custom furniture and trad boats, morticers were present. Hated ‘em. A bastard to keep sharp, requiring setup time, limited mortice width options. I have the lixury of not living in a flat, so the noise is nothing. Most of the lads—younger—were convinced every operation required a steady flow of electrons. But push time and who got to do the really fun stuff? Handtool work—I purely love it. Well, except for the lovely bandsaw……..

  17. Aaron

    Looks like I’m almost a year late to the party, which is often the case, actually! I wanted to ask if anyone’s tried to substitute an arbor press for a mallet. You’d probably have to use a pretty short chisel – possibly one with no handle.

  18. Ajs

    Can an auger and paring the waste with a sharp chisel eliminate hammer blows completely?


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