INTRODUCTION TO BUYING WOOD CHISELS FOR WOODWORKING
By Joshua Farnsworth
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. 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:
For your first wood chisel set I recommend that you look for socket style chisels:
Socket chisel handles are much more durable than tang handles. 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. This is a non-issue with paring chisels, which you’d never strike with a mallet.
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:
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 a Bevel-Edge Bench Wood Chisel Set
The first chisels that I recommend that you purchase are a set of five to 10 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). I recommend that you purchase a whole wood chisel set so that you always have the correct size chisel to fit into any space. Below I’ll share my favorite vintage and new bevel edge chisels and wood chisel sizes.
My Favorite Vintage Bevel-Edged Chisels
You don’t have to purchase a matching set…but sets are just easier to piece together, and they look nice. My favorite wood chisel set is my Stanley 750 chisels. I pieced together 7 antique chisels for this set: 1/4″, 1/2″, 5/8″, 3/4″, 1″, 1-1/4″, and 1-1/2″. 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 expensive, so get another brand if you can’t afford a Stanley 750 version. You can certainly get a long with fewer than seven chisels to start with (perhaps four or five) and add more as needed on projects. Click the below links to find used Stanley chisels on eBay:
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 my list of good chisel brand names earlier in this article). 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 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 Chisel Set
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. You can read a great review of this wood chisel set here. Here’s Lie-Nielsen’s YouTube video that talks about bevel edge chisels:
Here are the buying options for these Lie-Nielsen woodworking chisels:
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.
Narex bench chisels
Several 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 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 as they’re spelled in Britain) are used for “chopping” out mortise joints. They take a real beating, so they need to be tough. Several years ago I also purchased a set of Narex Mortise Chisels to try out as a cheaper option for my readers. I actually found these mortise chisels to be quite satisfactory for chopping mortises.
You most certainly won’t need to purchase a whole set of mortise chisels, unless you plan on chopping multiple sizes of mortises. I just wanted to get a feel for all the sizes. Realistically you only need to start out with one or two mortise chisels. 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 wood 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.
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 Paring Wood 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 are sharpened at a lower angle than other chisels (around 20 degrees), 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 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. You can start out with a smaller size paring wood chisel (like 1/2″-3/4″) and then get a larger size if you run into the need.
I’ve really loved having a good sturdy leather chisel roll to hold my wood chisels when I travel. 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:
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.