These days, carpenters and cabinetmakers often use power tools for the joinery, shaping, and cutting tasks they used to do with chisels. But that doesn’t mean chisels have become obsolete! Far from it, in fact. Woodworkers typically maintain a whole collection of wood chisels and use them often. Even jack-of-all-trade DIYers keep at least one chisel in their toolbox, and often a whole set.
I’m speaking from experience. I’ve used my yellow-handled wood chisel — which I call Old Yeller — for tasks as diverse as separating plastic pipes, wedging floorboards together and cutting mortises for door hinges. Not all of these jobs are ones for which the tool was intended — some woodworkers might consider them chisel maltreatment — but it has often been the case that no other tool could do the job better.
Of course, Old Yeller wouldn’t be of much use in a cabinet shop unless a fair amount of effort went into re-sharpening it, but that can be done. In fact, that’s one of the best qualities of chisels; you can make one last practically forever.
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What Is a Chisel?
A wood chisel (not to be confused with a cold chisel used by a stone mason) is a tool woodworkers use to shape and cut wood. It has two parts: a long, rectangular blade that terminates with a sharp bevel, and a wood or plastic handle. The beveled end may be flat or angled.
You can use a chisel in one of two ways. The most common way is to position the beveled end on a piece of wood and strike the handle with a wood mallet to force the bevel into the wood. You can also use a chisel without a mallet by holding it at a low angle and pushing it to remove thin layers from the surface.
What Does a Chisel Look Like?
Chisels are typically between six and 12 inches long, and the blade and handle are roughly equal in length. The blade may be attached to the handle in one of two ways. On a socket chisel, the end of the blade opposite the bevel is shaped into a socket into which the handle is inserted. On a tang chisel, the end of the blade is formed into a pointed tang that fits into a notch in the handle. Socket chisels tend to be more durable, because the tang can split the handle if you apply too much force. Fortunately, handles are replaceable.
Socket and tang chisels differ in appearance. The socket extending from the blade forms a bolster (a metal sleeve, like the ferrule on a paintbrush) around the top of the handle of a socket chisel. A tang chisel doesn’t have a bolster because the tang fits into the handle, but the top of the handle may be wrapped tightly with wire to prevent the tang from slipping out.
What Is a Chisel Used For?
A utility chisel like Old Yeller may be subjected to uses for which it isn’t intended, but the chisels in a woodworkers shop have specific purposes and are normally used only for those purposes. Some examples are:
Shaving or paring
Woodcarvers use chisels to gradually whittle away layers of wood to shape it. Woodcarving chisels are generally small and very sharp, and they come in a variety of widths. Some are angled on the beveled end to make them resemble knives.
Woodworkers also pare wood to reduce its thickness for a variety of purposes. Perhaps the wood needs to fit into a small opening, or perhaps the opening itself needs to be deeper. Paring is something you can do with a mallet or without.
Chopping and splitting
Driving a chisel straight down into a piece of wood with a mallet is one way to cut it. You chop wood when you pound the chisel across the wood grain, and you split it when the chisel is parallel to the grain.
Woodworkers often use these techniques — in combination with paring — to make notches and recesses known as mortises for installing hinges and other hardware. The techniques can also be used in combination to make rabbets (grooves on the ends and edges of wood) and dados (grooves in the middle). Another purpose for which woodworkers use these techniques is to make dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joints.
You can draw a chisel across the surface of wood to scrape off the top layer. This is a good way to remove a layer of old finish, a glue deposit or a surface stain.
Types of Chisels
Because they’ve been using them for centuries, woodworkers have developed a huge variety of chisels, but they fit into three broad categories:
So-called because they are the type you’re most likely to find on a woodworker’s bench, bench chisels have flat, beveled ends that vary in width from 1/4 to 1-1/2 inches. The sides of the blade may be straight (this is known as a registered chisel) or beveled.
Featuring a steeply beveled end that may or may not be pointed, a mortise chisel is designed to be pounded directly into wood and tilted to dig the wood out. It has a thicker, more robust blade than a bench chisel, so it can better absorb the force of the mallet and dig efficiently without bending.
Paring chisels look like bench chisels, but they are thinner, more delicate and longer, which provides the user more leverage. The bevel is ground at a low angle (around 20 degrees) to make it easier to shave without digging into the wood too deeply.
How To Use a Wood Chisel
The most important thing to remember is to keep your woodworking chisel sharp, which you can do with a grinding stone. If it’s sharp, a chisel will pare thinner layers, dig deeper and leave cleaner edges when you drive it with a mallet. The difference between digging and paring is largely a matter of angle. Hold the chisel at an angle steeper than about 30 degrees, and it will dig. Hold it at a shallower angle, and it will pare.
Where To Buy Woodcarving Chisels
Woodworking chisels are available almost everywhere, including big box stores like Lowe’s and online sources like Amazon, Rockler and Grainger. The best quality chisels are often used, however, because vintage chisels were made with better quality steel. You can search for these on Ebay, Craigslist or local garage sales.
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