INTRODUCTION TO BUYING WOOD CHISELS FOR WOODWORKING
By Joshua Farnsworth
It’s impossible to make fine furniture without woodworking chisels. Wood chisels are used for so many different steps in making wood joints. And it’s easy to spend way too much money on the wrong wood chisels. After several months you may discover that an “affordable” woodworking chisel doesn’t work as well as you had hoped. You may also discover that you didn’t need to buy the huge set of chisels. This brief buying guide is designed to help you save money and avoid the mistakes of buying the wrong woodworking chisels. I’ll talk about the three types of wood chisels that you need to buy to get started with basic traditional woodworking: Bench Chisels, Mortising Chisels, and Paring Chisels. I’ll also share my recommendations and what brands of wood chisels to avoid.
Main Types of Wood Chisels: Bench Chisels, Mortise Chisels, & Paring Chisels
Before you start into my woodworking chisel buying guide, I want to simplify a couple things about wood chisel types. The main type of wood chisels that you’ll want to buy when first getting started in traditional woodworking are bench chisels, mortise chisels, and paring chisels. There are other specialty chisel, like Japanese chisels, carving chisels & gouges, wood turning chisels, fishtail chisels, dovetail chisels, etc. But we’ll talk about those specialty chisels later. In these buying guides I focus mostly on basic woodworking hand tools. Here are the basic three types of wood chisels:
Bench chisels are multi-purpose woodworking chisels that are used so often that they usually “sit on the bench” and are used for chopping and paring the wood. Bench chisels can be shaped as bevel edge, firmer, or registered.
Also spelled “mortice chisel”, these chisels are used for heavy chopping of mortises. Common types of mortise chisels include “Sash” Mortise Chisels, “Pig Sticker” Mortise Chisels, and “Registered” Mortise Chisels.
Paring chisels are more delicate chisels used for paring, or careful slicing of the wood. Paring chisels have thinner steel and are usually sharpened with a low angle to aid in paring end-grain and other difficult grain. Paring chisels should never be struck with a mallet, but only used with the hands.
Wood Chisel Handles: “Socket Chisels” or “Tang Chisels”?
Wood chisels have to be attached to their handles so you can work with them. They are manufactured to attach by either a “socket” or “tang”. A socket chisel has the cone-shaped chisel handle fit into the metal socket of the chisel. Tang chisels have a pointed metal tang that is fastened inside the wood chisel handle:
Why are socket handle chisels more expensive than tang handle chisels?
Socket chisel handles are more durable than tang handles, and so they are more popular. Socket chisels sit on top of the handle’s cone and can take a severe beating, whereas Tang chisels sit inside a handle’s mortise and can split the wood handle if repeatedly struck hard enough with a mallet. When you see a broken chisel handle, it is usually a tang style. However, tang handle chisels aren’t as fragile as you may think. I own dozens of tang handle chisels and dozens of socket handle chisels, and I have never split a handle on either type. Chisel handles usually break when they are struck with an unreasonable amount of force. This often happens when someone strikes a wood chisel with a metal hammer. You should only ever strike a chisel with a wooden mallet. I teach my woodworking students to chop sparingly with a bench chisel, and to not keep pounding a chisel after it has sunk deep into the wood. Chop a little way down, clear the waste, then return to chopping. I give this advice even for mortise chisels. Bench chisels usually shouldn’t be used to chop mortises, and when being used to chop dovetails, I stop hitting the chisel when too much resistance is met.
Above you’ll see an antique tang handle chisel that is a prime candidate for rehabbing and sharpening. It’s hard to go wrong buying an antique chisel, tang or socket style. Either style should work just fine if treated well.
Woodworking Chisel Handles: Wood or Plastic Handles?
I prefer wooden handles because of the balance it gives to the chisel, and also because of the amazing feel and look. Top-heavy plastic handle chisels can be a tad cumbersome to use. But for the budget-conscious new woodworkers, I’ll also include a good plastic handled woodworking chisel set below. Plastic handles most certainly hold up better to repeated blows. But because you would never use a metal hammer to strike a chisel handle (you would use a wooden joiner’s mallet) it takes a very long time to break a wooden chisel handle.
What are the Best Brands of Woodworking Chisels?
What are the best wood chisel brands? This list of vintage and modern woodworking chisel makers will help you search for quality western-style bench chisels, mortise chisels, and paring chisels (sorry, I’m not listing Japanese chisels). The brand names below are linked to eBay & other searches so you can compare prices & models. Certain brands may not always be listed on eBay, so check back from time-to-time. Some of these recommendations have come from Wood And Shop readers like you (I couldn’t possibly find or try out all the chisel brands). Please let me know if I’ve missed any:
- Addis Chisels
- Ashley Iles Chisels
- Barr Chisels
- Beaver Chisels
- Blue Spruce Chisels
- Buck Bros. Chisels
- Butcher Chisels
- Dastra Chisels
- Disston Chisels
- D.R. Barton Chisels
- Erik Anton Berg Chisels (E.A. Berg)
- Eskilstuna Chisels
- Freud Chisels
- Greaves Chisels
- Greenlee Chisels
- Harold & Saxon Chisels
- Henry Taylor Chisels
- Herring Chisels
- Hibbard Spencer Bartlett Chisels (H.S.B.)
- Ibbotsons Chisels
- J.B. Addis & Sons Chisels
- James Swan Chisels
- L. & I. J. White Chisels
- Lie-Nielsen Chisels
- Marples / Record Chisels
- Mathieson Chisels
- Pfeil Chisels
- R. Timmins and Sons Chisels
- Ray Iles Chisels
- Robert Sorby Chisels
- Stanley Chisels (antique version)
- Stormont Chisels
- Stow & Wilcox / Peck, Stowe & Wilcox Chisels
- Swan Chisels
- T.H. Witherby Chisels
- Titan / Stanley Titan Chisels (made in Tasmania)
- Toga Chisels
- Underhill and Peck Chisels
- Veritas Chisels
- Ward Chisels (later Ward & Payne)
- Winsted Edge Tool Works Chisels
- Am I missing any??? Email me to add other favorite!
WOODWORKING CHISEL BUYER’S GUIDE
A. Urgent Wood Chisels (Buy these First)
This is my list of woodworking chisels that I feel would be the first chisels that you should buy to get started in traditional woodworking. Other woodworkers may have slightly different priorities and terminology, but these are the basic hand woodworking tools that I recommend.
Buy 4+ Woodworking Bench Chisels
The first chisels that I recommend that you purchase are bench chisels. Bench chisels are the most common type of chisels because you use them for so many woodworking tasks. They’re called bench chisels because they’re usually on your workbench, just like “bench planes”.
Bench chisels can either have beveled edges or normal, flat edges. The “bevel-edge” means that the sides move up at an angle to allow the chisel to fit more easily into joints (especially dovetail joints). This is the most common style of chisel, but I like the straight chisels as well (sometimes referred to as “registered chisels or firmer chisels”).
You can either buy a set of five to 10 bevel-edge bench chisels, or acquire different antique bench chisels in the common sizes. Yes, sets look nice and uniform, and I have several chisel sets, but you never really see the old school furniture makers with a shiny set of matching chisels. You see their chisel racks filled with random antique chisels, and their furniture doesn’t show a difference! Here are my chisel racks with a lot of mixed and matched antique chisels:
I have purchased many antique chisels, and the quality of steel is almost always superior to what comes in modern chisels. It’s like tool steel manufacturing processes were universally understood before World War II, which resulted in amazing chisels that hold an edge well, and then it’s like everyone lost the instructions in the hysteria of mass power tool production. And it seems like only a small number of manufactures have rediscovered the process to make great tool steel.
Unless you can afford a high-end set of new chisels from some of these new tool makers (Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Blue Spruce, etc.), I’d recommend that you try and piece together some antique bench chisels, in useful sizes for furniture making. Either random chisels, or matching sets. Your choice. Start off with at least four bench chisels: 1/4″, 1/2″ (or 5/8″), 3/4″, and 1″ (or 1-1/4″). I would recommend scrolling up to the section titled, “What are the Best Brands of Woodworking Chisels?” and just have fun piecing together a motley crew of high-end antique bench chisels in the sizes just mentioned. Expect to pay $10-$20 per chisel. You can also try visiting a hand tool swap (like M-WTCA). Or you can try to find (or piece together) one of my favorite vintage bevel edge chisel models:
My Favorite Vintage Bevel-Edged Chisels: Stanley 750 Bench Chisels
If you are determined to purchase a matching set of bench chisels, one of my favorite antique chisels are the Stanley 750 chisels, which feature beveled edges. Years ago I pieced together seven antique 750 chisels for this set: 1/4″, 1/2″, 5/8″, 3/4″, 1″, 1-1/4″, and 1-1/2″. Buying a 1/8-inch chisel is also really useful if you can find one for a descent price. 1/8-inch Stanley 750 wood chisels are rare and somewhat expensive, so get another brand if you can’t afford a Stanley 750 version. You can certainly get along with fewer than seven chisels to start with (perhaps four, as I mentioned above) and add more as needed on projects. Click the below links to find antique Stanley chisels on eBay:
- 1/4″ Stanley 750 Chisel
- 1/2″ Stanley 750 Chisel
- 5/8″ Stanley 750 Chisel
- 3/4″ Stanley 750 Chisel
- 1″ Stanley 750 Chisel
- 1-1/4″ Stanley 750 Chisel
- 1-1/2″ Stanley 750 Chisel
There are so many bad chisels out there (usually new chisels)…and a lot of “chisel-looking things” that I won’t even classify as a chisel. So you should really stick with well-made and proven chisel models (see my list of good chisel brand names earlier in this article). And if you can afford it, again I highly recommend finding some vintage Stanley 750 bevel-edge chisels. I love mine.
Christopher Schwarz said of the vintage (not new) Stanley 750 chisels, “Without a doubt, the out-of-production Stanley 750 chisel is one of the most well-designed cabinetmaking chisels ever made. The tool is finely balanced and comfortable for both paring and chopping – a rare quality in a chisel of any vintage. And I’ve always had a fondness for the long-term durability of its socket chisel design.”
If you decide to purchase Stanley 750 bevel-edge bench chisels, you can easily piece together different sizes (with handles) on eBay like I did. I found it easier (and cheaper) to purchase, on eBay, a lightly rusted (but not pitted) set of seven Stanley 750 chisels without handles. Then you can either turn your own handles or make them with a draw knife. But I went the simpler route and bought some beautiful (yet affordable) maple handles from this craftsman who sells his handles on eBay:
He turned the handles with leather pads on top to mimic the original maroon colored Stanley 750 handles. I had to shape them a bit on the lathe, but you can do it with sandpaper.
Most Popular New Wood Chisels: Lie-Nielsen Bevel Edge Bench Chisels
If you want one of the best new wood chisels then Lie-Nielsen’s Bevel Edge Bench Chisels are the standard among many traditional woodworkers (buy them here). These Lie-Nielsen wood chisels don’t come very cheap, but they will last several lifetimes. And they come sharp and ready to use, which certainly counts for something.
They’re based on the Stanley 750 chisels (my favorite bench chisels), with some improvements, like horn beam handles and A2 Steel. Some people still prefer the O1 high-carbon steel for ease of sharpening, so they offer O1 as well. Here’s Lie-Nielsen’s YouTube video that talks about bevel edge chisels:
Here are the buying options for these Lie-Nielsen woodworking chisels:
Inexpensive New Bench Chisel Option:
Irwin Marples bench chisels
If your budget is really limited, then you can try this set of four Irwin Marple bevel edge chisels on Amazon. I own a couple sets of these chisels (I purchased them for my sons), and they work pretty well….not perfect, but good enough for beginners. The edge doesn’t last as long as any of the above-mentioned bench chisels, but if you strop really often, then you may get by.
Narex bench chisels
Years ago I bought a Narex 6-piece bench chisel set to try out as a cheaper option for my readers. I bought it because Fine Woodworking Magazine contributor Chris Gochnour recommended them as a best value set. Read more here. I liked these chisels, but not as much as my Stanley 750 chisels or other antique chisels. They hold an edge longer than the above Irwin chisels, but not as long as many of my antique chisels. However, that’s a non-issue if you are disciplined about using a leather strop quite often (every couple minutes of use). And at $12 per chisel (plus shipping) the price is right. These chisels have a nice traditional look and feel with wooden handles.
Buy One or Two Mortise Chisels
Mortise chisels (or “mortising chisels” or “mortice” chisels as they’re spelled in Britain) are used for “chopping” out mortise joints. They take a real beating, so they need to be tough. But many hand tool woodworkers opt for a weaker mortise chisel without even knowing it.
My favorite (and the toughest) chisels are traditional English “Pig Sticker” chisels. They are much stronger than the smaller and weaker “Sash” mortise chisels that are carried by most modern manufacturers, including Lie-Nielsen Toolworks (see the Lie-Nielsen “sash” mortise chisels here).
Antique Pig Sticker style mortise chisels are what we predominantly use in my traditional woodworking school, because they can take a beating, because they are more comfortable in the hand (due to their oval shaped handle), and because they don’t roll off the workbenches (again, due to their oval shaped handle). Oh yeah, and they’re more affordable than most other mortise chisels. Go figure.
Some people feel that the tang handles on a Pig Sticker wood chisel can split easier than socket chisels (yes, I’ve seen some split handles), but I have yet to split a handle on one of my Pigsticker mortise chisels. However, replacing the handle isn’t incredibly difficult.
Chris Schwarz and Peter Follansbee love the classically revived English “Pigsticker” mortise chisels made by Ray Iles in Sheffield, England. Read Chris’s review (here) and Peter’s review (here). They’re sometimes available at Tools for Working Wood here for around $70 each, although they’re often sold out of popular sizes. This confuses me, however, because the price of the new pig sticker chisel is twice that of the beefier antique pit sticker chisels.
Jim Bode Tools has the best selection of antique Pig Sticker mortise chisels. All are about $36 with free shipping. Here are some links to vintage mortise chisels for sale:
I also purchased several new Narex Mortise Chisels for my school. However, I haven’t been terribly impressed by them. They are somewhat affordable, but for some strange reason I get constant complaints from students about how these mortise chisels tend to twist in the hand when the mallet hits it, causing the mortises to expand. I have found the exact same problem when I use them, and I really haven’t been able to figure out what is causing it.
Also, you most certainly won’t need to purchase a whole set of mortise chisels. My favorite mortise chisel size is 3/8″… not too small and not too big. I also use a 1/4″ mortise chisel on occasion (5/16″ is a good substitute for 1/4″). 3/8″ and 1/4″ mortise chisels work great with standard board thicknesses of 3/4″ or 7/8″.
B. Semi-Urgent Wood Chisels (Buy these next)
This is a list of basic hand woodworking tools that are very useful, but that may not be absolutely necessary for beginner’s projects. But they might, depending on what you’re building!
Buy a Paring Wood Chisel
Paring chisels are used for fine paring (or hand trimming) of joints. You can pare with normal bevel edge chisels, but paring chisels can help with creating smoother joints. They are typically longer, thinner, and are sharpened at a lower angle than other chisels (around 20 degrees), which enables you to trim end grain with greater ease. However, with a 20 degree angle and thin steel, they should never be used with a mallet. They can have a bevel or no bevel.
You’ll be pretty safe buying most of the brands mentioned in the list of wood chisels above (e.g. Stanley, Swan, Witherby, Buck Bros, Blue Spruce, etc.). The size of paring chisel you buy will depend on what you’re building. I really love my classic 1/2″ Witherby paring woodworking chisel. It has amazing steel, and sharpens nicer than most wood chisels. But more common sizes are around 1-inch.
C. Non-Urgent Wood Chisels (Buy these as needed)
Below is a list of some non-urgent specialty chisels & accessories. You may find that you eventually need them, but you won’t need them for getting started in traditional woodworking.
Buy Wood Chisel Accessories
I’ve really loved having a good sturdy leather chisel roll to hold my wood chisels when I travel, or even in the workshop. It protects the chisels edges & chisel handles, but also protects everything else from your chisels!
Plus, it’s a really beautiful way to display your nice chisels. I purchased my “Large Deluxe Leather Chisel Roll” online from Highland Woodworking and am very satisfied with it. It was $25 cheaper than the Lie-Nielsen tool rolls, and may actually be higher quality from what I can tell.
Another chisel accessory that I’ve found very convenient is a magnetic tool holder. I bought two 12″ magnetic tool holders from Highland Woodworking (I wanted to stack them vertically) for around $8. But you can also purchase a 24″ holder for around $15. It’s not necessary, but it is convenient to grab a chisel off the wall. You can also build shelves to hold chisels: