WOODWORKING HAND TOOL BUYING GUIDE #5: CHISELS

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WOODWORKING HAND TOOL BUYING GUIDE #5: CHISELS 2017-04-21T15:15:29+00:00

INTRODUCTION TO BUYING WOODWORKING CHISELS

By Joshua Farnsworth

It’s easy to spend way too much money on the wrong chisels. After several months you’ll discover that an “affordable” chisel doesn’t work as you had hoped. This brief buying guide is designed to help you save money and avoid the mistakes of buying the wrong chisels. I’ll talk about the three types of 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 chisels to avoid.

The Main Types of Chisels: Bench, Mortise, & Paring

Before you start into the chisel buying guide, I want to simplify a couple things about chisel types. The main type of chisels that you’ll want to buy (for starters) are bench chisels, mortise chisels, and paring chisels.

BENCH CHISELS

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 bevel edge, firmer, registered, etc. 

MORTISE CHISELS

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

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. Paring chisels should never be struck with a mallet, but only used with the hands. 

Chisel Handles: “Socket” Chisels or “Tang” Chisels?

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”:

socket-chisels-tang-chisels

For bench chisels, to start off, I’d recommend that you look for socket style chisels:

Although the socket chisel handles are a tad harder to make than tang handles, 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 repeatedly struck hard enough with a mallet. This is a non-issue with paring chisels, which you’d never strike with a mallet.

Chisel Handles: Wood or Plastic Handles?

I prefer wood 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 chisel below. Plastic handles most certainly hold up better to repeated blows. But because you would never use a 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 chisel brands? This list of vintage and modern 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. 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:

WOODWORKING CHISEL BUYER’S GUIDE

A. Urgent 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 this is from my perspective.

 Buy a Set of Bevel-Edge Bench Chisels

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).

My Favorite Vintage Bevel-Edged 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. Click the below links to find used Stanley chisels on eBay:

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

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 and decided that the antique Stanley 750’s, Swan, and Lie-Nielsen were his favorites.

They are the most popular and one of the most well-made bench chisels. 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. 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:

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

Most Popular New Bench Chisels

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?

Several years ago I bought a Narex 6-piece bench chisel set to try out. I bought it because Fine Woodworking Magazine contributor Chris Gochnour recommended them as a best value set. Read more here. I really liked these chisels, but didn’t love them as much as my Stanley 750 chisels. However, the price is right, and these chisels have a nice traditional look and feel with wooden handles.

 Buy One or Two Mortise Chisels

Mortise chisels (or “mortice” chisels) are used for “chopping” out mortise joints. They take a real beating, so they need to be tough. Several years ago I purcahsed a set of Narex Mortise Chisels to test out. You most certainly won’t need to purchase a whole set of mortise chisels to start off with, unless you plan on chopping multiple sizes of mortises. Realistically you only need to start out with one or two mortise chisel. My favorite mortise chisel size is 3/8″…not too small and not too big. I also like 1/4″ and 5/16″). All three of those sizes will work great with board thicknesses of 3/4″ or 7/8″. Think about it: you determine the size of a mortise and from there you make a tenon.

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 popular sizes.

The tang handles on a Pigsticker chisel 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. My Pigsticker mortise chisels are antique, and they have taken quite a pounding from me over the years, but I haven’t broken a handle yet.

Jim Bode Tools has the best selection of antique Pig Sticker mortise chisels. All are about $35 with free shipping. Here are some links to vintage mortise chisels for sale:

B. Semi-Urgent Chisels (Buy these next)

This is a list of  hand 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 Paring Chisels

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 have a lower angle (around 20 degrees) than other chisels, which enables you to trim end grain with greater ease. They can have a bevel or no bevel.

You’ll be pretty safe 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. I really love my classic 1/2″ Witherby paring chisel. It has amazing steel, and sharpens nicer than most chisels. You can start out with a smaller size paring chisel (like 1/2″-3/4″) and then get a larger size if you run into the need.

 Buy Chisel Accessories

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

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.

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.

C. 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.

 Continue to the Tool Sharpening Buying Guide (#6)…

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