Tools for Working Wood
 

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A Short Guide to Chisels

We get a lot of questions about chisels. Some of the questions are about different brands, but many are about how different styles of chisels are used for different applications. A century ago, tool catalogs carried pages and pages of chisels - different sizes, different shapes, different styles, an amazing array. A good many of the styles and shapes popular then have disappeared. However, the basic criteria for selecting a set of chisels have stayed the same.
The descriptions below are not exhaustive. They'll to help explain the basic styles and use of each type of chisel. Click on any of the photographs to get to the department where we stock those type of chisels and for more information on specific models of chisel. (For the moment we have left out unusual styles and special purpose chisels to concentrate on the styles that are most popular.) For a detailed definition of the entire family of chisels and in fact all and woodworking tools we highly recommend the classic Dictionary of Woodworking Tools by R. A. Salaman.

Beveled Edged Bench Chisels

Not too short and not too long these chisels are the most common and most useful chisel found in a cabinet shop. The most important criteria are that they should be comfortable in the hand, hold a good edge, and be easy to sharpen. The backs of the chisel should be flat or very slightly hollow for ease of sharpening. They are beveled on the sides for allowing maximum access to dovetails. They are the most important first set of chisels for any shop with the widest array of sizes available. Some versions are hooped to strengthen the handle for malleting but this isn't really necessary, and plenty of styles have no extra hooping for a lower balance point.

Heavy Duty Beveled Edged Chisels

Not really used much in furniture making. This is a fine choice for boat building and to a lesser extent timberframing, or any application where the joinery is big and complicated. However because demand is so low we do not stock this style of chisel

Registered Chisels

Any chisel except a mortise chisel with square, rather than beveled sizes. Usually hooped. Used in timberframing and of limited use for general woodworking. Due to low demand we currently do not stock any of these type chisels.

Japanese Bench Chisels

Similar in size to Western bench chisels, of laminated steel construction and in general thicker than their Western counterparts. The major difference is that Japanese bench chisels come from a framing tradition and usually have less of a beveling on the sides (especially in the narrower sizes). Other then that they usually are a very high quality chisel, hooped and with hollow ground backs. The edges are harder than Western chisels, which is why they do so well on lab tests. Japanese chisels are designed to take a very keen edge for cutting softwoods without crumbling, and to resist the natural abrasion of topical exotic woods. A special type of dovetail chisel was introduced for western woodworker which is triagular in section and has narrower edges then any Western chisel.

Mortise Chisels

In the classic tradition of mortising, a chisel is malleted into the wood and then levered out to remove waste. Bench chisels don't have the thickness to withstand the levering out, nor the stout blade angle to resist abuse, nor the length to put leverage behind the levering out. In addition, the abuse would quickly chip the blades and mushroom the handles of a nice set of bench chisels used for fine joinery. A special class of mortising chisel was developed. True English mortise chisels had not been manufactured for over 50 years. We take great pleasure in bringing them back to the market. These are heavy chisels, thicker than they are wide, with giant forged bolsters and oval beech or oak handles to take pounding. However, you will find them very easy to handle and a joy to use. Now available in sizes 1/8" - 1/2" by 1/16". It is perfectly acceptable to just have one mortise chisel ( 1/4" or 3/8" being the most common) and size all your mortises accordingly. With rare exception, mortise strength is determined by total glue surface, not width of the tenon.

Sash Mortise Chisels

Sash mortise chisels are light mortising chisels that are easy to handle and were originally used for chopping the relatively shallow mortises found in the mullions and muntins of a wooden window. If you consistently drill out the waste when mortising, these chisels will work well even for deep mortises. However, they are of thinner section than regular mortising chisels (see comment about heavy duty mortise sash mortise chisels below). Traditionally, mortise chisels were sold in a wide range of sizes, but were bought in a much more limited range. Demand has been very low since we started selling regular mortise chisels and we no longer stock this style.

Heavy Duty Sash Mortise Chisels

Orginally developed in Continental Europe, these chisels are a heavier version of the sash mortise chisel. They are more general purpose and will get the job done. The round handles and square chisel section make them less comfortable to use than true English mortise chisels, but these features also make them less expensive to manufacture, and they certainly work. Prior to the re-introduction of true English mortise chisels, we were pretty happy with this style. Now we recommend them only for the occasional mortise. Due to low demand we no longer stock this style of chisel

Paring Chisels

Paring chisels are light, long, thin, almost flexible chisels which are never malleted. They are used primarily for carefully shaving off thin amounts of wood when fitting joints. The long length gives maximum control. One hand on the handle pushes the chisel forward while the other hand, up front on the blade, guides the cutting action. A classic use is to dress the sides of a mortise after roughly chopping it square with a mortise chisel. A secondary investment, very handy to have if you do a lot of joinery.

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