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Still handy after all these years

Even though the chisel dates back to the dawn of woodworking, it can still do a lot of things for you today.

Simplicity in itself

Tools don't come much simpler than the chisel, as shown in the illustration below right. Though the drawing shows one with a wooden handle, many today feature plastic handles. Plastic handles absorb shock and resist deformation at the end when driven by a mallet, making them ideal for general shop use. (The chisels in the WOODŽ magazine shop have plastic handles.)

If you buy a wooden-handled chisel and you'll be using a mallet on it, look for one with a leather washer between the bolster and the handle to help absorb shock. A steel hoop around the top of the handle minimizes mushrooming. (Stouter double-hooped handles feature one steel hoop at the top and another in place of the brass ferrule at the bottom.)

Names are not important

Over the centuries names by the hundreds have been heaped upon chisels. You'll hear references to the firmer chisel (an ordinary, general-purpose chisel with a blade 3-5" long), butt chisel (a shorter chisel), framing chisel (a wider, heavier one), mortise chisel (a longer version), paring chisel (one with a long, flexible blade), and more.

But when you're buying chisels, those names don't mean much. You'll do better to pick a chisel by looking at it and assessing how well it fits your needs than by relying on a name. A blade of high-carbon steel and a durable handle are the most important features.

Keep chisels sharp

Don't even try to use a dull chisel. Hollow grind the edge on a grinding wheel, maintaining the factory bevel angle. Then hone the blade on a flat oilstone or waterstone, using a sharpening jig, such as the one shown above.

Be sure, too, to keep the back of the blade flat all the way to the cutting edge. If it curves up as shown in the illustration at right, the chisel may be hard to control and won't cut cleanly.

Putting chisels to work

Chisels handily meet many workshop situations. But, leave such things as opening paint cans or prying off door and window trim to the proper tool. You can use the chisel to clean off dried glue squeeze-out, pare down a tenon to fit a mortise, or trim a plug flush to a surface. Here are some other chores where the chisel comes in handy:

Cleaning a mortise

After drilling to remove most of the waste, go in with a chisel to finish a mortise. Work with the bevel up--that is, facing away from the mortise wall. For a through mortise, cut inward from both sides to prevent splintering the back.

Squaring corners

The chisel shines for squaring up corners, as in this routed rabbet. First, hold the chisel vertically to make a cut extending each side to the corner, as shown at right.

Then, remove the waste with a cut into the side of the rabbet, as shown at right. Toward the bottom of the rabbet, turn the chisel over, and work with the bevel flat against the wood.

Insetting hardware

Set hinges and other hardware into shallow mortises so they'll sit flush with the surface. Trace the item's outline on the wood with a knife blade. Holding the chisel perpendicular to the surface with the back of the blade to the line, cut to the required depth. Then, clean out the shallow mortise with the chisel, as shown at right. Here you work with the bevel down.


Cut the sides of the dado to depth with a backsaw or chisel. Then, clear out the waste with a chisel of appropriate width, as shown at right. A scrapwood gauge block, shown, guides the chisel straight into the end of the dado for a flat bottom. (You don't need it as you cut farther in.) To bring the top of the gauge block flush with the bottom of the dado, shim it with a 3x5" notepad opened to the required thickness. Cut from both ends to prevent tearout.

Photography: Hetherington Photography Written by: Larry Johnson


Comments (4)
themortiseguide wrote:

great article!very detailed. i am from!

1/12/2016 07:14:33 AM Report Abuse
kim_s2 wrote:

i have NO problem enlarging..the problem is probably with your PC.

2/25/2011 03:08:35 PM Report Abuse
mrdan100 wrote:

Sometimes a name does matter. "Mortise" chisels are VERY different than all the other chisels you mentioned and lumping them together in this overly simplistic way doesn't make it easier for the novice, only more confusing. I guess if you HAD to you could lump firmer, butt, framing, and paring together and say the names don't matter much, but a mortise chisel with it's unique shape and mass, is in a whole separate category that's designed for one purpose only.

2/24/2011 02:17:02 PM Report Abuse
chip14401 wrote:

Good info thanks

2/24/2011 11:31:19 AM Report Abuse

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