What is a firmer chisel?

Firmer chisel definition?

The firmer/firming or in some text called former chisels are heavy duty, general use bench chisels that can be driven with a mallet or hammer for chopping and levering out wood.

A firmer chisel blade is thicker and it has steeper bevel angle than paring chisel. The handle is also generally bigger and has ferrules/hoops for reinforcements. Fine paring duties are also possible with a firmer chisel if the bevel is not steep enough. 

Narex firmer chisels with straight sides are sturdy registered chisels.

Narex Firmer Chisel Set
  • Made by a small tool manufacturer in the Czech Republic
  • Blades are made from fine-grained, nicely tempered chrome-manganese steel and hardened to Rc 59
  • Blade sizes are 6 mm (1/4"), 12 mm (1/2"), 20 mm (13/16") and 26 mm (1 1/32"
  • Sides are ground square and bevels are ground at a 25 degree bevel.
  • Handles are made from super hard European Hornbeam

 The term “bench chisel” started to replace the terms “firmer” and “former” at the start of the 20th century. 

Robert Sorby Registered firmer chisel
Robert Sorby Registered firmer chisel with straight sides

Nowadays many comprehend the firmer chisel as a stout chisel with a thick blade with a rectangular cross-section. However, this perception is incorrect or insufficient if we look at the old texts and commentaries about general woodworking and joinery. The firmer chisel was the general workhorse of any joiner, as a matter of fact, if we could show the chisels that we today call bench chisels to the woodworker of the past, he could name them firmers or formers. 

Kirchen/Two Cherries light pattern bevel edge firmer chisel

However, in some woodworking cultures the firmer chisel has maintained its meaning, take a look for example at the German brands like Two Cherries/Kirchen, Hirsch, and Ulmia who offer bevel-edged firmer chisels in many variants that can be considered as a bench chisels in other parts of the world. 

The old tool catalogs from the end of the 19th century are filled with many types of firmer chisels. They were offered in registered, bevel-edged, socketed, tanged, single and double ferruled variants and from short butt firmers to long millwright’s firmer chisels. 

 The term “bench chisel” started to replace the terms “firmer” and “former” at the start of the 20th century.

Firmer chisel name origin

The term firmer/former was so widely used for a long time in the past that the origin of the term is not clear anymore. I searched many different sources for the origin of the name firmer/former and found a couple of sensible explanations about the origin: 

  • The one, and for me the most plausible explanation, comes from the French verb “former” which means “to form” and its derivative “formoir” meaning “that which forms”. When looking at the old texts written by Joseph Moxon (1678) , Richard Neve (1736), Nicholson (1812) and James Smith (1812), the suggested use of the firmer chisel is compatible with the French word “former”.
  • “The term ‘firmer’ refers to the manner in which the tool is made and the material out of which it is made. Firmer chisels have blades wholly out of [cast] tool steel, while in some kinds of chisels iron blades overlaid with steel [cutting edges] are used.” Educational woodworking for home and school, by Joseph C. Park 
  • Another good interpretation for the term is also derived from French, this time from the French word “fermoir” meaning “to make firm”
  • One source also suggested that it was called a firmer chisel by the reason of being able to withstand hammer or mallet blows.
The Bahco 424P bench chisel can be classified as a firmer chisel
The Bahco 424P bench chisel can be classified as a firmer chisel. Image by Bahco.

Firmer chisel uses

As with planes, where the jack plane is for the fast and rough material removal and smoother is for cleaning and smoothing the surfaces, the firmer chisel is the workhorse that removes most of the material and after that, the paring chisels finishes the surface.

Firmer chisel uses are: 

  • A general use chisel for almost all tasks especially good when driving with a mallet. 
  • Coarse preliminary shaping of the joints and other wooden parts: rebates, half laps, housings, mortises, hinge mortises… 
  • Removing lots of material fast and effectively with a mallet when carving 
  • Any job where the delicate paring chisel is too weak 
Bevel edge firmer chisel blade vs slimmer paring chisel
Bevel edge firmer chisels have a thicker blade when compared to dovetail type paring chisel. The firmer chisel bevels do not really help when dovetailing but the reason for them is better balance and stability in use.

Features of the great firmer chisel:

Which characteristics make a great firmer chisel?

The key features you should look for when shopping for a firmer/former/bench chisels: 

  • A blade that tapers in thickness toward the cutting edge. This gives a better overall balance and also helps to use the chisel in confined places where the thicker tool wouldn’t fit 
  • Blade that tapers in width from the edge for better clearance and less resistance when chopping mortises and other cavities. 
  • Quality steel is paramount! When driven with a mallet or hammer, the chisel steel quality matters, the cutting edge of the poor quality steel gives in quickly by breaking or bending over and you need to stop often to re-sharpen the tool. The chisels with better and more durable steel cost premium but the price difference is quickly saved by the longer sharpening intervals. Remember, the time is money! 
  • Sharpenability, beginners should look for easy to sharpen O1 steel chisels. If you have good sharpening skills go for modern steel alloys as A2 or PM-V11. 
  • Comfortable and ergonomic handle.
  • Double ferrules in the handle to strengthen the handle to withstand the mallet strikes, or otherwise well-designed handle to endure the constant beating. Modern composite handles take the beating well but are not aesthetically pleasing. 
  • When searching for the strong pattern, heavy duty firmer chisel, the shock absorbing leather washer between the tang and the handle is a must. Traditional firmers had a leather washer between the tang shoulder and handle to shield the handle from the sharp impacts 
  • Straight back of the blade. You can’t do precise work with bent or otherwise mall-formed chisel

Firmer chisel sizes? 

What are the most useful sizes for my first set of firmer chisels? 

For general bench use, get at least three different widths in the light pattern: 

  • ¼” (6mm) 
  • ½” (12mm) 
  • 1” (25mm) 

Narex sells a firmer chisel set with the three widths above, the fourth being a ¾”.

Read more about choosing the best chisel sizes from my article about the subject: THE MOST USEFUL CHISEL SIZE – WHICH SIZES FOR MY FIRST SET OF CHISELS? 

Firmer chisel set - Is it worth buying a set when searching for firmer chisels?

You can definitely save some money when buying a set when compared to acquiring them separately. Usually, though you get chisel sizes with little or no use.

I advise for getting only couple quality chisels at first and getting more when the real need arises. 

General tips for choosing the best firmer chisel for you 

Because the term “firmer” is so widely used for many different types of chisels, I decided to write some tips to help you narrow down the right chisel. 

Firmer chisel for general bench use

This is the broadest category. Almost all bench chisels belong to this group. 

  • Look for the term “Light Pattern” 
  • The handle should have double ferrules 
  • For the tanged version, look for wide bolster shoulder for best support against the handle. Avoid chisels with tang and no bolster. 
Kirchen Two Cherries carpenters firmer chisel
Kirchen/Two Cherries carpenters firmer chisel is big and durable chisel.

Firmer chisel for heavy duty use, with a mallet or even hammer 

  • For a heavy chopping look for carpenters, timber framing, or “registered” firmer chisel. Another term to look for is “Strong Pattern” 
  • Handles should have double steel ferrules and a leather washer between the bolster and handle. 
  • Thick blade, the rectangular cross-section is strongest. 
  • Socketed blade with steel ferruled handle is the most durable chisel type 

Firmer chisel sharpening angle 

What is the right bevel angle for firmer chisels? 

The right bevel angle/sharpening angle for firmer chisels is 30°-35°. Firmer chisel has to endure the constant beating and crosscutting of the hardwoods which set stringent requirements for blade durability. A good and durable starting point for firmer chisel blade geometry is 25° primary bevel with a 10° micro-bevel. 

It is hard to define the best exact bevel angle because the composition and quality of the steel have so great effect of the edge quality and durability. A suitable bevel angle can only be found through experience. If it seems that the edge doesn’t hold up enough then you need to steepen the bevel angle and vice versa, if the cutting edge holds-up well then you could lower the angle for better cutting action. 

Firmer chisel steel quality

In an ideal world, there would be perfect steel grades for each type of chisel. For firmer chisels, the best steel should have qualities such as durability against mallet strokes and the ability to hold the edge sharpness for long, even in most demanding abrasive wood species when using lowest possible bevel angle, ease of sharpening, corrosion resistance, resistance against bending when prying with it…

Well, you can’t have everything! In reality, the best steel is always a compromise of the above features. Every toolmaker has their own personal preferences for steel qualities which are based on long experience.

As the work experience gains the woodworkers and carpenters learn what are their personal preferences of the ideal chisel steel qualities. One likes to sharpen often and keep the chisels razor sharp, another doesn’t like sharpening and needs a chisel with a blade that holds its edge acceptably sharp for long periods.

Ideal hardness? 

Hardening and tempering are the phases of the blade making process which affect the properties of the steel. Firmer chisel blade should be suitably hard and resilient to withstand the cutting forces without breaking or bending. Individual makers have their own views on how the firmer chisel blade should be hardened and tempered.

Steel hardness is measured with Rockwell scale, the higher the number, the harder the steel. Firmer chisel hardness ranges from 56RC of the O1 to pretty high 66RC of PM-HSS steel. 

Most durable edge 

When the durability and longevity of sharp edge is the most desirable feature and all other features are put aside, the unmatched winner is fine-grained PM-HSS steel. Its resistance and durability properties are superior compared to all other tool steels. But, but, but, the sharpening of the PM-HSS steel is absolutely pain in the butt, it takes a forever and it is hard to get razor sharp with standard sharpening equipment. 

Genuinely sensible alternatives when searching for the best cutting-edge durability are the modern Veritas PM-V11 steel and laminated white paper steel used in Japanese firmer chisels. They are almost as durable and resistant as PM-HSS but are easier and more comfortable to sharpen. 

Read more from Derek Cohen´s fascinating article: Four Chisel Steels Compared: PM-V11, A2, White Steel, O1/HCS 

Ease of sharpening 

Some steels are easier to sharpen than others. When the ease of sharpening is the number one feature, the one and only choice is traditional oil quenched carbon steel called O1. It is the easiest to sharpen steel and even a beginner can, with a little practice, achieve a razor sharp edge. That cannot really be said with A2, PM-V11, and PM-HSS steels. The resistance properties of the O1 steels are lower and don’t endure as well as modern, more durable steels.

Beginners with no or minor sharpening experience should really get O1 chisels as their first tools. When you have gained enough experience with tools and their sharpening you could get more expensive and durable steels.

Firmer chisel handles are designed to take beating
Firmer chisel handles are designed to take the beating

Firmer/bench chisel handle

The firmer chisel handle is an important part of the function of the tool. Its shape should fit the hand of the user and be comfortable during long working periods. With firmer chisels, in particular, the durability of the handle is of great importance.

Proper choice of the handle wood species, grain direction and straightness are paramount. Grain run-out can contribute to accidental splitting during the work or even crack when the air humidity changes too much 

Wood is a warm and comfortable material for firmer or really any chisel handle. 

Handles of the firmer chisels are strengthened with a ferulles or hoops. Most durable handles are reinforced with double ferrules, one in both ends. 

Great and durable choices for the species for the wooden handle are not in any rational order: hard maple, beech, oak, elm, hickory, ash, hornbeam, boxwood, rosewoods, bubinga, and apple. Many other species are also used with success. 

Modern composite materials are durable and work well. Unfortunately, they lack the warmth and good looks of the wooden handles. 

Firmer chisel diagram

Firmer chisel diagram
A comparison of different firmer chisel types/patterns

Firmer/bench chisel types

Firmer chisels/bench chisels can be classified according to the blade-to-handle joint and blade shape. The blade can be mounted to the handle in two ways, either by a socket or tang joint. The blade can be straight and square-sided or bevel-edged.

Firmer/bench socket chisels

Firmer socket chisels can take the heaviest beating. Socket chisels are best for general carpentry and heavy joinery work due to their sturdier build. One thing that set the socket chisels apart from tang chisels is its ability to easily remove or swap longer handles for paring operation.

If the chisels primary function is to work with mallet or hammer go with socket chisel or hybrid socket & tang construction 

Socket chisels will take more of a beating though before the handles split. For carpentry and heavy joinery work, socket chisels are great. For delicate work and light furniture joinery chopping though, tanged chisels get my vote. 

Firmer tang chisels

Firmer tang chisels are in general lighter and less top heavy. Many craftsmen prefer the feel and balance of the firmer tang chisels. Firmer tang chisels are best for joiners, cabinet makers, pattern makers and for other delicate operations. 

If you are going to whack the firmer tang chisel lot then make sure to get model which is reinforced with ferrules or hoops. Wide bolster shoulder is also great at securing the handle to the blade.

Tang is the pointed bit of metal that runs from the bolster up into the handle. 

Stanley Everlasting firmer chisel

Stanley Everlasting firmer chisels were an innovative chisel pattern, designed and touted as an unbreakable firmer chisel which takes even the hardest beating of the claw hammer. The patented construction where head, shank, and blade were forged from one piece of steel enabled the force of the hammer to transmit directly to the cutting edge.

The wooden handle was out of the harm’s way and the leather washer was inserted between the steelhead and handle for security. Stanley Everlasting firmer chisels were made in three different lengths, bevel-edged, square edged, and butt chisel variants. Type numbers to look for are: No.20 – Bevel edge firmer with 5 1/2″ blade, No.25 – square edge firmer with 5 1/2″ blade, No.40 – Bevel edge pocket firmer with 4 1/2″ blade, No.45 – Square edge pocket firmer with 4 1/2″ blade, and No.50 – Bevel edge butt firmer with 3″ blade.

Registered firmer chisel

Registered firmer chisel is a peculiar tool. Most commonly understood as a heavy bench chisel with squared off sides and handle with steel ferrules on both ends to prevent splitting of the handle, there is also a leather washer between the bolster and the handle that works as a shock absorber. A registered firmer chisel is useful for the heaviest of work such as chopping out mortises. It is reminiscent of sash mortise chisels. 

Definition and origin of the term “registered” are as obscure as is the term “firmer” and nobody seems to agree on the exact origin of the term.

Firmer bevel edge chisels

Bevel edged firmer chisels are offered in a couple of configurations. German woodworking catalogs speak about light and strong pattern firmer chisels. 

Light pattern 

What is light pattern firmer chisel? 

Light pattern firmer chisel is a common bench chisel intended for general bench use. Usually with reinforced handle.

Strong pattern 

What is strong pattern firmer chisel? 

Strong pattern firmer chisel is big and sturdy carpenters chisel intended for most demanding, hard work with a mallet. The blade is thick and there is a leather washer between the bolster and the handle for impact protection. The handle is reinforced with steel ferrules.

Japanese firmer chisels - Atsu Nomi, Damekiri and Tataki Nomi 

Japanese firmer chisels are called Tataki Nomi – Striking Chisel. They are designed for heavy-duty work and they look like scaled up oire-nomi, Japanese regular bench chisels. 

Japanese firmer chisels come from completely different toolmaking tradition. They are made of laminated steel, the body of chisel blade is made from soft iron and acts as a backing for the harder and more durable layer of thin carbon steel that forms the cutting edge. Harder steel layer is made from either white paper or blue paper steel. 

Japanese chisels, in general, have hollow back called “ura” which speeds up the sharpening process. Time needed to flatten the chisel back is minimal. The “ura” also reduces cutting friction. 

Japanese firmer chisels are designed to be hit with genno’s which is Japanese for hammer. 

There are at least three patterns for Tataki Nomi chisels: 

Chu-Tataki (medium striking) 

Smallest and lighter of the Japanese firmer chisels. Still larger, heavier and stronger than Oire Nomi, Japanese standard bench chisel. 

Tataki Chu-Usu (Striking medium thin) 

Medium sized firmer chisel 

Tataki Atsu Nomi (Striking thick) 

Big and heavy, oversize Japanese firmer chisels, usually with straight, square sides.. For most demanding tasks. Can handle everything imaginable in woodworking and carpentry. 

Butt Firmer Chisel 

Butt firmer chisel is a short bladed version of firmer chisels that can be used with a mallet. The good example of this type of chisels is old Stanley Everlasting chisels with 3” blades. Their heavy handles are buttressed with steel and can take the beating of hammer rather than a mallet.

Difference between firmer chisel and mortise chisel? 

The firmer chisel has a thinner blade and shallower bevel angle than the mortice chisel.

Thicker blade of the mortise chisel helps when prying chips out of mortises. The handle of the mortise chisel is also bigger and heavier. 

Firmer chisel vs bench chisel

According to the original definition, there is no difference. Bench chisels are the same tool as a firmer chisel. However, in recent times the definition of the firmer chisel is for many changed to a thick striking chisel with rectangular cross-section blade. 

Best Firmer chisel brands

Firmer “registered” chisel brands 

Brands that offer “registered” firmer chisels or chisels with straight, square sides are: Narex, Robert Sorby, Henry Taylor, Pinnacle, Irwin, Ashley Iles.

Bevel-edged firmer chisel brands 

Bevel-edged firmer chisels aka bench chisels are offered by almost all chisel manufacturers: Narex, Stanley, Bahco, Two Cherries/Kirchen, Hirsch, MHG, Pfeil, Veritas, Ece, Ulmia, Lie Nielsen, Ashley Iles, Diefenbacher, Connex, Stubai, Buck, ECE.