A chunk of steel with a sharp edge and a piece of wood for a handle. Tools for working wood do not get any more basic than this. Chisels are not that hard to learn to use and learning to use the proper chisel for the task at hand is simple as well.
Chisels are a good example of getting what you pay for. Cheap ones are not worth your time. Most of the time they will not hold an edge, which is the worst thing possible in a chisel. Spend a little extra on a quality set and you will not be disappointed. I have had good luck with Footprint and Sorby chisels, both of which are made in England.
Types of Chisels
There are many different types of chisels, but the ones you will find the most use for are beveled edge Bench chisels, Sash Mortise chisels and Registered Mortise chisels. Bench chisels are primarily for paring with hand pressure and mortise chisels are made to withstand the heavy pounding from a mallet. Bench chisels can be tapped with a hammer, but they should be the “hooped” variety to avoid splitting the handle.
I cannot over emphasize the importance of sharp chisels. Sharp chisels are necessary for any kind of accurate work and dull chisels are dangerous at best. A sharp chisel is easier and safer to use and gets better results. A good way to check for sharpness is to pare a little bit of endgrain and look at the surface left by the chisel. If it is not smooth and burnished, your chisel could stand a bit of attention. (See the sharpening chapter for more). Mortise chisels don’t need to be quite as sharp as bench chisels, but it does make them more efficient. I do tend to let them go longer between honings even though I know better.
Be sure to keep all chisels away from nails, screws and any other edge nicking material. It doesn’t take much to destroy, at least temporarily, a perfect edge.
There are several other types of chisels that you will find beneficial. Some of them you can buy and others you will have to make yourself.
Pattern and Crank-necked chisels are just variations on bench chisels. Pattern chisels have long thin blades and crank-neck chisels have a bend at the handle to get it out of the way when paring in the middle of a board or other awkward location. I have the 1/2″ size of each.
A 1/4″ In-cannel gouge is extremely helpful when setting hardware that has curved edges. Unlike a carving gouge the bevel is on the inside of the curve allowing you to chop straight down with ease.
I have two small chisels that I made for working on keyholes. One is a 1/16″ mortise chisel and the other is a very thin, flat 1/4″ bench chisel. Two other chisels that are a good idea to have are, a 3/8″ bench chisel ground down very thin and a Lock mortise chisel. The thin 3/8″ chisel finds it’s way into narrow gaps of some dovetails and other narrow spots that most chisels can’t reach. The lock mortise chisel has two 90-degree bends to enable you to get into some awkward locations that no other chisel can reach.
Using Bench Chisels
I place a lot of importance on using chisels. Dexterity with a chisel is a skill that will never let you down and it just may get you out of a tight spot when no other tool
will do the job.
While there are many quality chisels available, the Sorby paring chisels I use have an advantage over most other chisels; they are fitted with “London Pattern” boxwood handles. In my opinion there is no better shape for a paring chisel handle. These are much better than the typical round handles found on most chisels. London Pattern handles can be held comfortably many different ways and with narrow chisels they won’t roll off your bench.
The first thing to take into consideration when using your chisels is that there is not a wrong way to hold them. Some ways just work better than others. A general rule to think about is the closer your chisel is to your body the better control you will have. The chisel has more stability this way. Sometimes I even use my chin to aid stability and to push the chisel when practical. And don’t be afraid to choke up on the blade with your hand either. Your fingers will act as a stop and help you control the cut. This is really good for paring when there is no back up board to prevent blowouts.
Paring on end grain takes a little bit of care. I have a simple way to avoid tear out on the back side of a piece I am paring. I either make sure the workpiece is tight against the bench and use it as a backing board or I only cut halfway from each side of my stock to meet in the center. Also, several light cuts are better than one heavy cut, as they are more likely to cut the end grain cleanly. A heavy cut tends to crush and tear things.
An important point to remember is to never put yourself in the path of the blade. If it slipped, the only thing in its path is your flesh and you are no match for a razor sharp chisel.
As with your planes remove the finish on the handles of all your chisels to avoid getting blisters. A scraper and light sanding is my preferred method, but some of the new non-toxic strippers do this quickly and easily as well. Do tape off any metal, as the stripper will discolor it.
Mallets and Hammers
I use two things to pound on my chisels. A large wood mallet for my mortise chisels and Warrington hammers for doing delicate tapping. I prefer wood mallets for heavy pounding, as they are less likely to do damage to the chisels. The face of the mallet is flat and angled to make it easier and more accurate to use. Warrington hammers make it easy to maintain control when doing lighter work and are handy when setting the blades of wooden planes. I also have a round Lignum Vitae mallet, but it is only used for working with carving chisels. The round angled face is not the best for trying to chop mortises or other precise cutting, but it is just what’s called for while carving.
Using Mortise Chisels
Mortise chisels are made heavy and meant to be smacked with a mallet. Registered Mortise chisels are “hooped” at the top and bottom of the handle with a steel ring to prevent splits in the handle from heavy pounding. They are used on large mortises. Sash Mortise chisels are only “hooped” at the bottom and are used only on smaller mortises.
Mortise chisels are pretty easy to use. Line up the chisel with your marked lines, chop down and lever out the waste. When I start chopping, I always stay a bit away from the ends of the mortise. Saving some of the mortise for final fitting makes for a cleaner job that is a better fit for the tenon.
Make sure your chisel is going in straight and square to your stock. Frequently eyeball this as you get deeper into the mortise. It’s easy to wander, but hard to correct. I have a tendency to lean my chisel to the right so I need to be cautious and remember to correct for this.
For small mortises, I just chop out the waste with my chisels, but whenever I am removing large amounts of stock I always take out the bulk of the waste with a brace and bit. This speeds things up considerably over just chopping out the waste of a large mortise. Make sure to use a bit that is a tad smaller than your mortise.
Whenever you have to cut a through mortise, first chop in from one side then turn your stock over and chop in from the other side. This makes for a more accurate through mortise. Most of the time I clamp my workpiece to the bench while I am working on it. Make sure the pounding doesn’t loosen up your clamp. Falling clamps put nice divots in tool boxes….
Something to keep in mind is to pay attention to what is under the mortise you are chopping. You don’t want to chop into your bench so you may find a backing board to be a good idea. This is about the only time I use a backing board. It’s hard to tell just when you cut through, as there is not much difference between the wood of your bench and your stock.
I have not spent that much time carving and only recently have I added to a small set of carving tools. Primarily, I use these when working on knobs and pulls or doing some type of clean up. I am just getting started into more involved carving so, needless to say, it would probably be for the best if you looked elsewhere for some good information about using these specialized tools. The advice I offer up on other chisels though is still valid, buy quality and keep them sharp.
More About Carving
How to Carve Wood, Richard Butz, 1984, The Taunton Press.
This book should get you started. It covers all sorts of carving styles.
Lettercarving in Wood, Chris Pye, 1997, Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd.
Just the book for learning how to do just what the title implies.