The Right Tool for the Job: Chisels

I thought I’d expand upon the series of posts I started earlier this year on The Right Tool for the Job. So far I’ve covered the unbacked saws and the backed saws. Now I want to take a look at chisels. Chisels in the hand tool shop are like spices to a chef. You really can never have too many. However, if you are serious about your work, there are several types you shouldn’t be without. Names of different chisels can overlap. This can be very confusing, so I’ll try to clarify that as I go along as well.

Bench Chisels
Bench chisel is a general term, like bench plane, to describe a group of different types of chisels, and differentiate them from specialty chisels like mortise chisels and carving chisels. Just like the jack, try and smooth planes are all bench planes, there a couple of basic types of chisels that fall under the moniker of bench chisel.

The first of these is the jack plane of the chisels, the firmer chisel. These chisels are fairly stout and can be either straight sided or bevel edged, though the straight sided versions are more generally referred to as firmers by tool retailers. They are designed as general use chisels and are suitable for moderate chopping and paring tasks. They can also be socket or tang type, referring to the method of joining the blade to the handle. Some tang type chisels, like the Marples pictured below, have a bolster that gives them the appearance of a socket chisel, but they are actually tang type. If you have only one set of chisels, they should be firmers. I hone my firmer chisels to about a 30 degree angle.




The second type of chisels that fall under the bench chisel group are the paring chisels. These are the equivalent of the smooth plane in the bench plane group. Their primary purpose is to make finer, smoother, more precise cuts than the firmer chisels. They come in handy for tasks like paring dovetail shoulders after chopping the waste with a firmer, paring tenon shoulders after sawing, light fitting tasks and other tasks requiring finesse, an extremely sharp edge, and a light touch.

There is some confusion about these chisels today that is really not helped by the tool manufacturers. Most chisel manufacturers who even carry a paring chisel in their product line, have adopted a form once used primarily by patternmakers. Pattern maker’s chisels are very long, thin chisels originally developed for the pattern making trade.

However, I don’t think joiner’s and cabinet maker’s paring chisels were any longer than their firmer chisels. In the old references that I’ve read (e.g. Nicholson, Roubo, Felebien, Moxon) the paring chisel is different from the firmer only in the thickness of the steel and the angle of the hone. In essence, the paring chisel looks just like a firmer chisel, only it’s much thinner and honed to a much shallower angle. Being thinner allows them to cut into tighter spaces (like those in the corners of dovetails) and being honed to a shallower angle makes them cut smoother and cleaner.

As with the firmers, paring chisels can be tang or socket type, straight sided or bevel edged. They are designed to be used with hand pressure only and are not designed for chopping. If you don’t have room or funds in your shop for a separate set of paring chisels, you can get almost the same benefit as a real paring chisel by chosing one of your firmers, somewhere about 1″ wide, honing it with a low bevel angle, and dedicating it to paring tasks only. I hone my paring chisels at about a 20 degree angle.




A third type of chisel often included in the bench chisel category is the butt chisel. These are basically short versions of firmer chisels made popular by carpenters. They are really not a traditional chisel of the joiner or cabinet maker, but some folks prefer their shorter length to the longer firmer. I don’t find them particularly useful, but you might feel differently.


Mortise Chisels
Mortise chisels, as their name suggests, are used for chopping mortises. They are very stout chisels, with very thick blades, designed for heavy chopping and prying. If you used a normal bench chisel for such a task, you’d likely snap the chisel. As with the other chisels, they come in bolstered tang versions and socket versions. There is also another type of chisel called millwright chisels that are becoming popular for use as mortise chisels. One final note on mortsie chisels. Don’t mistake sash mortise chisels for joiner’s mortise chisels. Sash mortsie chisels are smaller and more delicate and were designed for chopping small mortises in window sash. They can’t stand up to the beating of chopping furniture sized mortises for very long. You can make just about every piece of furniture you would ever want with no more than 3 mortise chisels; 1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″. A whole set is nice to have, but not necessary. I hone my mortise chisels at about 35 degrees.





The typical bench gouge is heavier in construction than a carving gouge and resembles a firmer chisel. They are in fact frequently called firmer gouges. Bench gouges are a type of chisel that many woodworkers don’t own. This is unfortunate as they are incredibly usefull tools. As with the other chisels, they come in tang and socket styles, but they also come in two different grinds. Out-cannel gouges have the bevel of the tool ground on the outside of the curve and in-cannel gouges have the bevel ground on the inside of the curve. If you can swing it, a set of 4 of each (1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″ and 1″) is great to have. If you can’t do four of each, then you can make do with a 1/2″ and a 1″ of each grind. I hone these tools at a bevel angle similar to firmer chisels.

Out-cannel gouges are useful for all sorts of tasks around the shop. They can be used for roughing in troughs or long rabbets across the grain without tearing the grain, they can be used for carving molding profiles, but they probably see the most use in my shop for paring convex curves like those found on table aprons and other shaped parts.

In-cannel gouges have the bevel ground on the inside of the curve. These tools are often attributed to the pattern making trade, however, they were used by joiners and cabinet makers as well. In fact, this is the only type of gouge described by Peter Nicholson in the joinery section of his book “The Mechanic’s Companion”. These gouges are incredibly useful for paring concave shaped curves of parts like cabriole legs, case aprons and scalloped table tops. They are also the preferred tool for coping moldings at inside corners, especially in door frames with moldings on the interior edges. In fact, in-cannel gouges are frequently referred to as paring gouges or scribing gouges because they perform these tasks so well. They can be a little challenging to grind and sharpen, but the effort is worth it as they save hours of sanding time.





8 thoughts on “The Right Tool for the Job: Chisels

    • They look like a socket mortise chisel but with a lot longer blade. I have some that have a tip of blade to top of socket length in the range of 16-18 inches long.

      The also made gouges to match.

  1. Thanks for the article Bob. It’s basically my thoughts on chisels after several years of trying different styles/sets. If I had read this five years ago, I could have saved some money for wood.

  2. Thanks for the very useful information about these. I recently asked in another venue what use one would have for the very very narrow firmer gouges. I’ve come across several (maybe they survive because their uses are limited???) in the 1/8 to 1/4 inch range. They just seem incongruous in that they have sockets for heavier pounding than tanged gouges, the side walls are thick–adding about 3/64 to the total width of the gouge–and very long. Were these just included in sets with their other, wider, more useful brothers because people have fetishes for sets? Or was there some sort of cove necessity that often came up that I’m not thinking of (running telephone/electrical wire along a 2×4?)?

    • Jay,
      The small gouges are nice for detail work like coping inside corners of small moldings and such. The very long ones were typically patternmaker’s tools. The long length gave them the ability to reach deep into areas of the casting patterns they made. For furniture and joinery work, the long length isn’t necessary. In fact, I don’t like them. I feel like I have less control with the patternmaker’s style chisels and gouges. There are a lot of folks who like them for paring though and feel that their long length gives them more control. Different strokes for different folks.

  3. Great post, Bob. Your willingness to muddle through the naming conventions of the various handtools is to be applauded, though I fear that most woodworkers believe these terms are a fixed set of names that everyone agrees upon. If only that could be true 🙂

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