Quick Tip #14: Choosing Chisels

It’s Get Woodworking Week 2013, and that means that it’s time once again to do our part to promote woodworking and grow the craft. Of course this should be a year long activity, but this week, we really focus on newcomers and rank beginners to the craft. Today, I want to talk about chisels. There are a lot of different styles as well as specialty chisels designed for specific tasks. They’re not all needed to get started though. You just need a few basic bench chisels. So that’s the topic of today’s tip.


 

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9 thoughts on “Quick Tip #14: Choosing Chisels

  1. This informative. Even better would be a demo of a few operations. Also I’ve been looking for a good 1/4 inch mortising chisel…my local stores (Rockler & Woodcrafter) don’t seem to have them… any ideas?

    • Just my 2 cents. but the Narex mortise chisels sold by LeeValley are standard size, don’t cost much, and work great. I gave up a couple Ray Iles chisels for an entire set of the Narex and still had money left over.

    • Old mortise chisels and the new Ray Iles are absolutely the best. I’ve used a lot of different mortise chisels, and none even come close to the old ones and the Ray Iles ones in terms of performance in terms of efficiency and control. I don’t like mortise chisels that do not have the trapezoidal cross section, and none I’ve seen have this other than the old ones and the Ray Iles. The thing with mortise chisels is that you really don’t need a full set. A single 5/16″ mortise chisel will suffice for 90% of the mortises that most furniture makers will do. In the case of large dining tables, 2 5/16″ mortises could be used instead of one large 9/16″ one and they’ll be easier to chop than a wide one. For narrow mortises in thin stock (if you do that kind of work) a 1/8″ or 3/16″ mortise chisel might be useful, but these mortises are pretty delicate, so a regular bench chisel will work just about as well as a mortise chisel as long as you don’t pry with them.

  2. Bob, I am just starting to use chisels. I have 3 bench chisels, and in reading blogs and posts, many hand tool woodworkers suggest owing a paring chisel? What is the difference between the bench and paring chisel, and with all the chisels available at flea markets and ebay, how do you know what is a paring chisel?

    • A lot of folks define paring chisels as the long patternmaker’s chisels that you see. They are very long and very thin. While these can be used as paring chisels, they’re certainly not the only option. Historically, a paring chisel was simply a chisel that was ground with a lower bevel and sharpened really well (and low) and only used with hand pressure (not hit with a mallet). So any chisel you already have can be turned into a paring chisel. Simply take a somewhat wider chisel, 1″ to 1½” is ideal for a paring chisel, grind it and hone it with a 20 degree bevel, keep it surgically sharp, and never hit it with a mallet.

  3. Bob,

    I currently own a 1/4″ Shur Kut Mortising chisel, and see from your comment above, that you recommend a 5/16″ mortising chisel for 90% of your furniture work. I do find the 1/4″ chisel a bit on the narrow side, and can be a little tricky to clean out shaving in the mortise. I would like to purchase a Ray Iles chisel. A friend has a Peason chisel that looks just like a Ray Iles in terms of appearance and the bolstered handle. I know you recommend the Ray Iles, and was wondering what your opinion is on Pearson chisels.

    • I’ve never used a Pearson, but if it’s an old oval bolstered style mortise chisel it should perform well. I have a mix of Ray Iles and antique chisels.

  4. Thanks Bob. Do you prefer the 5/16″ over the 1/4″ for the bulk of your mortising? If you are doing a mortise for a 3/4″ stock, would you prefer the 5/16″ to the 1/4″?

    Thanks
    Harry

    • The general rule I use is that the mortise should be about 1/3 the thickness of the stock being mortised. So if I’m mortising 3/4″ stock, I reach for the 1/4″ mortise chisel. However, since I hand plane my rough sawn stock, the thickness of the 4/4 stock I use is typically more like 7/8″ to 15/16″ thick. So in those cases, I reach for the 5/16″ mortise chisel. If you thickness your stock to 3/4″ or if you typically use S2S from the lumber yard (typically thicknessed to 3/4″), then the 1/4″ will be more useful to you. Keep in mind though that for things like table legs, the stock being mortised is typically much thicker. So for table legs I’ll usually go with the biggest mortise I can for maximum tenon thickness. This typically means about 3/8″ or 1/2″. If you are going to buy only one, go with either the 1/4″ or 5/16″ based upon the thickness of the stock you typically work with.

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