By Joshua Farnsworth

Introduction to Buying Chisels

It’s easy to spend way to much money on the wrong chisels. After several months you’ll discover that it doesn’t work as you had hoped. This brief buying guide is designed to help you save money and avoid the mistakes that I made.

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

I’ll talk about the three types of chisels that you need to get started with the basics: Bench chisels, Mortising chisels, and paring chisels. I’ll also share my recommendations and what chisels to avoid.

Main Chisel Types (Bench, Mortise, Paring):

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

Before you start buying chisels I want to simplify a couple things. The main type of chisels that you’ll want to buy (for starters) are (1) “paring chisels” (above left), (2) “bench chisels” (above middle), and (3) “mortising chisels” (above right). Below I’ll talk about how many of each type you need to get started on basic woodworking projects.

Handles: Socket vs. Tang:

Most western chisels are either “socket” or “tang” style:

socket-chisels-tang-chisels

To start off I’d recommend that you look for socket chisels:

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Although the socket chisels are a tad harder to make than a tang handle, the socket chisel handles are much more durable. Socket chisels sit on top of the handle’s cone whereas Tang chisels sit inside a handle’s mortise (see below). The tang can split the handle if struck hard enough.

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

Wood or Plastic Handles?

I prefer wood handles because of the balance it gives to the chisel. Top-heavy plastic handle chisels can be cumbersome to use. But for the budget-conscious newbies I’ll also include a good plastic handled chisel below. Wood handles also feel and look amazing.

 

Best Brands of Chisels (Vintage and New):

This list of vintage chisel makers will help you in searching for quality western-style bench, mortise, and paring chisels (sorry, I’m not listing Japanese). The brand names below are linked to eBay & other searches so you can compare prices & models…please let me know if I’ve missed any:

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1. Urgent Chisels (Buy these first)

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Buy a Set of Bevel-Edge Bench Chisels

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The first chisels that you should purchase are a set (5-10) of bevel-edge 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”. 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). Below I’ll share my favorite vintage and new bevel edge chisels (favorites of many others also).

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My Favorite Vintage Chisels

You don’t have to purchase a matching set…but sets are just easier to piece together and look nice. My favorite set of Stanley 750 chisels has 7 chisels: 1/4″, 1/2″, 5/8″, 3/4″, 1″, 1-1/4″, and 1-1/2″ (I really wish I could find an affordable 1/8″). But you could get along fine with fewer than that…four or five. If you really have to choose five, then buy (click blue links to find used on ebay):

Then if you later find that you’re limited you can slowly add more sizes.

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There are so many bad chisels out there…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 list of good vintage & new brand names below). I highly, highly recommend finding some vintage Stanley 750 bevel-edge chisels. I love mine. Chris Schwarz reviewed top bench chisels (here) and decided that the Stanley 750’s, Swan, and Lie-Nielsen were his favorites.

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They are the most popular and one of the most well-made bench chisels. Tool Guru 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.”

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If you decide to purchase Stanley 750 bevel-edge bench chisels, you can easily piece together different sizes (with handles) on eBay. I found it easier (and cheaper) to purchase, on eBay, a 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 (I don’t do wood turning yet) and bought some beautiful (yet affordable) maple handles from this craftsman who sells his handles on eBay:

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

He turned the handles with leather pads on top to mimic the original maroon colored Stanley 750 handles.

Favorite New Bench Chisels
lie-nielsen-bench-chisels

Photo courtesy of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

If you want one of the best-of-the-best new chisels, then Lie-Nielsen’s Bevel Edge Chisels are the standard among many traditional woodworkers (buy them here). But they don’t come very cheap…but they will last several lifetimes. And they come in ready-to-use condition…which sure counts for something.

They’re based on the Stanley 750 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. You can read Chris Schwarz’s review of them here. Here’s Lie-Nielsen’s YouTube video that talks about bevel edge chisels:

Here are their buying options:

Inexpensive New Bench Chisel Option:
Irwin Marples

If your budget is really limited, then you can try this set of four Irwin Marple bevel edge chisels on Amazon. I bought them when I first started, and they work pretty well….not perfect, but good enough for beginners:

 

What about the popular Narex bench chisels?

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My next set of chisels was a Narex 6-piece bench chisel set. I bought it because Fine Woodworking Magazine contributor Chris Gochnour recommended them as a best value set. Read more here. But I quickly realized that these chisels are a hit and miss. Mine were a miss. Some other people really like them. But I’ve heard more negative feedback from my friends than good feedback. I’d recommend that you don’t purchase these Czech made chisels. The steel was too soft and burns up too easily on the grinder. I have, however, enjoyed my Narex Mortise chisels (read below).

Buy Mortise Chisels

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Mortise chisels are used for “chopping” out mortise joints. They take a real beating, so they need to be tough. I mentioned above that I didn’t like my set of Narex bench chisels very much. I have, however, had pretty good luck with my Narex Mortise Chisels. However, I made the typical newbie mistake of buying the whole set of 6 mortise chisels. This isn’t necessary! So I sold my whole set. You only need to start out with one mortise chisel (either a 1/4″ or 9/32″ or 5/16″). That size will work perfectly with board thicknesses of 3/4″ or 7/8″. Think about it: you determine the size of a mortise and from there a tenon.

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

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 under $70 each, although they’re often sold out of 1/4″ and 5/16″ (the most popular sizes).

Yes, it’s almost as much as a whole set of Narex chisels, but it’s got all the classically desirable features…plus you only really need one (1/4″ or 9/32″) mortise chisel (you can buy a 1/2″ later) so you’ll save $10! The tang handles can split easier than socket chisels so you may be inclined to look to the smaller Lie-Nielsen “sash” mortise chisels. They’re pretty pricey, but again, they’re expected to last multiple lifetimes.

But I finally discovered Jim Bode Tools has the best selection of Pig Sticker mortise chisels. All are about $35-$36 (free shipping). Here are some links to vintage mortise chisels for sale:

2. Semi-Urgent Chisels (Buy these next)

Buy Paring Chisels

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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 and can have a bevel or no bevel (as pictured above and below).

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

You’ll be pretty save buying most of the brands mentioned in the list of 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. Chris Schwarz recommends buying a 1-1/2″ paring chisel, which I’ve used for building hand planes, etc. I also really love my classic 1/2″ Witherby paring chisel. It has amazing steel, and sharpens nicer than any of my other chisels. I started out with a smaller size (like the 1/2″) to get into some smaller spaces (e.g. smaller tenons, dovetails, etc.).

Buy Chisel Accessories

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I’ve really loved having a good sturdy leather chisel roll to hold my chisels when I travel to classes. It protects the chisels edges & handles, but also protects everything else from your chisels!

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

Plus, it’s a really beautiful way to display your beloved 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.

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

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 just super convenient to grab a chisel off the wall.

3. Non-Urgent 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 also may not. You definitely don’t need them for getting started in traditional woodworking.



Next I’ll cover Sharpening & Honing supplies…

 

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