Choosing the Best Chisel

Learn which types of chisels work best for woodworking, carving, timber framing and masonry.


| February/March 2007



ButtChisels

Butt chisels.


Photo courtesy WWW.TRADITIONALWOODWORKER.COM

If you work with wood, stone or metal, sooner or later you’ll need a chisel. Whether you’re making furniture, installing doors and trim, shaping stone for a foundation or fireplace, or working with logs to build a timber-frame structure, chisels are essential tools for the job. Few tools offer so much utility in such a simple package . But there’s a catch: Even the best chisel isn’t worth much unless you use it appropriately and sharpen it well (see Tool Sharpening Made Simple).

Chisels for Woodworking

If you’re just starting out with woodworking and cabinetry, a general-purpose set of “bevel-edge” chisels in quarter-, half-, three-quarter- and one-inch widths makes the most sense. This design has a relatively long blade with a flat bottom surface and angled corners along the top edges, making it perfect for creating hinge pockets, cutting woodworking joints and installing door handles and latches.

Are your hands small? The blades of “butt chisels” are shaped like bevel-edge chisels in cross section, but they’re roughly half as long. This makes them easier to hold and control, especially when you’re chiseling along a critical line. Butt chisels get their name because they’re well suited to cutting pockets for butt hinges, which are used on everything from fine cabinets to barn doors.

The key to quality in a woodworking chisel is the steel. It’s got to be hard enough to hold an edge, but not so hard that it becomes brittle. And sadly, you can’t buy excellent wood chisels just anywhere. Specialty woodworking supply outlets, such as Lee Valley, GarrettWade or Traditional Wood-worker, are the best places to find woodworking chisels of good quality. Expect to pay $30 to $70 for a decent set of four.

Other sources are yard sales and auctions. Antique chisels are almost always made of excellent steel, and often you can get them for good prices. Keep your eyes open and you might be lucky enough to find a piece of history that’s perfectly useful today. It will need sharpening, but you’ll need to hone most brand-new chisels anyway.

Carving Chisels

Living the good life is about more than just practicality. It’s also about making beautiful things with your hands in partnership with natural materials. That’s the philosophy behind the woodcarvings I add to things I build (see photos in A Handmade, Debt-free Home). Sure, decorative carvings take extra effort, but I consider it time well spent. What else can you say about visual details that make you feel good every time you see them?





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