How much should you spend on chisels?
I'm ready for a new set of bench chisels, and am wondering if it makes sense to splurge on a high-priced set. Some brands cost 10 times as much as others! Will I find satisfaction in paying for top-quality chisels, or rue the day I overspent?
—Harley James, Arlington, Texas
If you make frequent use of chisels, and depend on them for precise cuts, you'll feel good about investing in a quality set, Harley. Generally speaking, better chisels arrive ready to work properly out of the box, hold an edge longer and can be resharpened more times, take greater punishment, feel more comfortable in your hand, and look prettier. Now let's unpack each of those benefits.
Though you should hone any chisel before putting it to work, an expensive one will likely come with its back ground perfectly flat, and a cutting-edge ground at the proper bevel and square to the blade sides. If you buy a low-dough set, be prepared to do a fair amount of grinding or sanding before any honing commences.
Make no mistake: You can hone any chisel, regardless of price, to razor sharpness. But a better chisel stays sharp longer, with an edge less likely to fracture or dull. Hard, durable steel requires higher-priced diamond stones or lapping plates, but you'll be rewarded with longer work sessions between resharpenings. Longer blades not only reach farther but they also provide a lifetime of sharpenings.
For long-term durability, better chisels have handles made of dense woods such as hornbeam or hard maple. You'll generally find blades with sockets (for accepting handles) only on better-quality chisels. Sockets readily absorb and evenly distribute the force of mallet blows. Good chisels may also have tangs on the handle end of the blade—with those, look for a metal ferrule at the top and bottom of the handle to prevent splitting.
Wood handles on better chisels feel comfortable in your hand and provide a firm grip. Their additional length, sized to provide proper balance with longer blades, also helps prevent striking your hand when using a mallet. And let's face it: An attractive wood handle, properly finished, looks great on your workbench.
If, despite these advantages, you still can't justify buying a good set of chisels, buy one chisel at a time and build a personalized set over time, as your budget allows. You may find you only need bench chisels in two or three sizes, one or two paring chisels, and perhaps one or two mortising chisels. And keep a few cheap bench chisels on hand—we all need a "beater" set for chopping into wood that might contain metal.