What is paring chisel?

Paring chisel definition

Paring chisel is a woodworking hand tool that is primarily used for carefully shaving off thin slivers of wood when fitting joints or finishing other hard to reach places. Paring is generally the finest work you can do with any chisel.

“The plane finishes large surfaces but the paring chisel finishes small ones”

There are two ways to define the paring chisels:

  • According to the loose definition, all the chisels that are pushed by hand or sometimes chest or other body parts and that are never malleted or hammered are called paring chisels. Blades are thin and slender with finely beveled edges and the handles are designed to be pushed and don’t have hoops or other reinforcements. The patternmakers paring chisels, dovetail and other light bevel-edged chisels, skew and fishtail chisels, cranked chisels, even slicks belong to this group.
  • A tighter definition of the tool comes from patternmaker’s tradition. Paring chisel according to patternmaker’s lore has over 9” long (sometimes up to 14” long), thin and flexible blade with wide bevels along the sides. The long blade length gives the user maximum control and references well when making delicate paring cuts. Flexible blade allows the user to advance the blade minute amounts by flexing it with another hand.
15 inch Narex paring chisels are long compared to normal bench chisels

The 15″ Narex paring chisels are long compared to normal bench chisels

Paring chisel features

Paring chisel blade length

Length of the paring chisel is one of the most important features. When looking at the factors affecting the accuracy of handwork, the paramount component is the hands of the craftsman, they aren´t perfectly steady, especially when using a lot of force. By making the chisel very long as is the case with patternmaker´s paring chisels the natural inaccuracy of hand movement is minimized at the cut giving better control over the tool. The sufficient length has also other benefits, with the long blade you can sight along the chisel and keep the angle correct it also gives better tactile feedback of the cut. Long blade references also well on the surface when making delicate paring cuts.

Paring chisel blade shape

Great paring chisel should have a beautiful flat thin blade that tapers toward the cutting edge. The Blade should also have finely beveled sides. With a correctly shaped blade you could get into the corners and other hard to reach spots more easily.

Registered chisel is vintage chisel type with a long blade but square sides. They don´t possess the finesse one would want in a paring chisel. They are thicker and more suitable for larger work such as timber framing.

The proper paring chisel blade is quite thin and light which makes it arduous to make and require the highest skill level of any chisel. Currently, only manufacturers that make long and slim paring chisels are Henry Taylor and Robert Sorby. Other makers such as highly popular Narex Bystrice make good paring chisels which are little bit thicker but otherwise great tools. A thicker blade is easier to mass produce and hence keep the price down.

Paring chisel bevel angle

The sharpening angle for the paring chisels is 20°-25° or even less, the best bevel angle is dependent on the steel quality and the wood to be cut.

One and the most important feature that is shared with all paring chisels is the low cutting angle. The less force you need to use with the paring chisel the more accurate cuts you can make. The lower bevel angle directly reduces the cutting resistance which again allows for more accurate work.

The low bevel angle is naturally more fragile and you need to hone the edge more frequently. Remember to dedicate paring chisel only for fine paring duties. Never hit with mallet or hammer or try pry with it, paring chisel is a delicate tool and must be treated as such.

Best bevel angle depends on the wood paring chisel is to be used with. For Softwoods and very soft hardwoods such as alder the low 15° degree bevel angle with couple degrees micro bevel is great. But for maple and other harder hardwoods go for 20° or more for a more durable edge.

Paring chisel steel quality

As you could expect with such a low bevel angle, the choice of right steel quality is critical. For the best performance in low bevel angles, the simple hand or drop-forged O1 steel is a must. It is easy to sharpen to razor sharpness. Modern A2 and PM-V11 steels although more durable, need steeper bevel angle and can´t be sharpened well for the low angle needed.

Paring chisel handle

Paring chisel handles are designed to be pushed by hand. The handle shape is usually thin, long and elegant without bulky, hooped appearance of the firmer chisels.

Traditionally best paring chisel handles were made with boxwood. It is quite hard and brittle wood and doesn’t like being struck by hammers. It finishes well and the fit and feel of boxwood handle are great.

Handle shape varies from octagonal to oval shape. It is a matter of personal taste which shape feels best in hand.

Long paring chisel is a precise tool

Long paring chisel is a precise tool, whose length helps to counter the natural imprecise movements of human hands.

What is a paring chisel used for?

Paring chisel is used for:

  • Trimming the sides of the mortise to size and/or paring the tenon cheeks to fit the mortise
  • Cleaning and paring the waste out of the hinge mortise after chopping.
  • Paring the sides of the dovetail pins to fit, if the space between dovetails is large enough.
  • Originally paring chisels were used by pattern makers for final dimensioning of a wooden pattern that was used for metal casting.
  • cleaning hard to reach surfaces where a plane or thicker or shorter chisels couldn´t reach

How to use paring chisel?

  • For most control, the workpiece should be secured on your bench or in a vice.
  • Place the chisel flat on a work surface. When you pare, you just gently slice thin shavings off the surface.
  • One hand on the handle pushes the chisel forward while the other hand, up front on the blade, guides and brakes the cutting action.
  • Keep the pushing hand locked and use your lower body movement as a power source for paring
  • When cleaning out dadoes, laps or dovetails, remove waste in stages, half from one side and half with the work turned around
  • For vertical paring hold the chisel as a dagger, thumb on a handle end and guide with another hand. Tuck your right-hand thumb in a shoulder joint and lock your position. All downward power comes from the hips and shoulders, not from hand muscles.
  • For the paring chisel to pare well, the chisel needs to have a flat face and sharp edge
  • Never hit the paring chisel with mallet or hammer!

Flexing the blade – a Special technique only for long parers

Long, flexible paring chisel can be used with a unique technique. When you need to pare very precisely so that the chisel stops at a certain spot without going past, a great way is to advance the chisel by flexing it. Position the chisel edge where you want to cut, then flex the chisel blade, either by pushing on the middle of the blade with your guiding hand or by levering with your hand on the handle. The flexing moves the chisel only minute amount and stops immediately. This kind of control is possible only with traditional long and thin paring chisels.

Bench chisel vs paring chisel

Compared to paring chisels the bench chisels are stronger, thicker and more general use chisels which can be used with a mallet or hammer. The bevel angle is generally higher, 25-35° degrees.

Best paring chisel size?

Best paring chisel size depends on what you do.

  • For general joinery I recommend Narex 1” wide, long paring chisel with which you can pare joints, trim plugs and dovetail excess flush with a surface.
  • As a luthier, I have found Narex ¼” paring chisel to be great for cleaning and trimming guitar parts.
  • Use your bench chisels as paring chisels to get suggestion which size you need.
Paring chisel diagram

Paring chisel diagram

Paring chisel types

There are couple types of paring chisel in existence:

Pattern maker´s paring chisel

Pattern makers paring chisel is the elegant, very long, thin-bladed chisel that was originally used by pattern makers for final cleaning of the wooden patterns for iron casting. Its length and thin profile make it useful for cleaning hard to reach places. It was made also with cranked blade version.

Cranked/bent paring chisel

Cranked/bent neck paring chisel has a handle that is angled up from the blade so you can keep the blade flush against the surface. The blade is usually long and slender.

Cranked paring chisel uses:

  • Working in recesses
  • Cleaning up the bottom of the grooves
  • Trimming plugs and dowels flush with a surface

Skew paring chisel

As the name suggests, the skew paring chisels have a skewed blade edge. Skew chisels are generally shorter than pattern makers paring chisels. They are usually sold in pairs.

Skew chisels use:

  • Cleaning and trimming corners of half-blind dovetails
  • Precise paring and finishing of tricky joinery gets into places where other chisels can´t
  • Great for finishing end grain

Slick paring chisel

Slick is a large chisel, with a wide and heavy blade(2-4” wide) and very long and slim, socketed handle. Slick chisels can be as long as 2ft/60cm in length. Handle of the slick chisel is angled upward so the socket and the handle clear the surface when the blade is laying on it.

Slick chisel is always pushed, never struck with mallet or such. Tool´s weight and long handle provide effective use when bracing the handle against the shoulder, upper arm or chest. Fine paring cuts are possible with this humongous tool.

Slicks are used by carpenters, timber framers, and shipwrights.

Slick paring chisel use:

  • Cleaning up the pockets and large notches in timber framing and log home building
  • General timber shaping, mortise and tenon joinery and scarf joint making in carpentry
  • The multi-purpose cutting tool in boat building. Slicing of bungs, forming joints and general shaping of timbers. A very versatile tool
  • Stripping bark from the logs
Lie Nielsen fishtail paring chisel

Lie Nielsen fishtail paring chisel. Image by: Lie Nielsen Toolworks

Fishtail paring chisel

Fishtail paring chisel is a special tool in which the blade width tapers rapidly after cutting edge to a width of only about 3/16”/5mm. The shape of the blade resembles the tail of a fish. The shape is ideal for half blind dovetail or other tricky joint corners.

Fishtail and skew chisels are for the same uses but you need only one fishtail chisel instead of skew chisel pair.

Fishtail paring chisel use:

  • cleaning back corners of the half-blind dovetails or other hard-to-reach areas in joints
Japanese paring chisels Usu Nomi have short blade and long handle

Japanese paring chisel, Usu Nomi, have short blade and long handle. Image by: fine-tools.com

Japanese paring chisels, Usu Nomi

Japanese paring chisels, Usu Nomi, have thin, short blade but long, slender handle for maximum control over the cut. They lack the flexibility of long, thin traditional paring chisel but are still great tools for precise work. In fact, they are ideal for the precise joinery that the Japanese are known for.

Best paring chisels

Robert Sorby paring chisels

Sheffield toolmaker Robert Sorby& Sons have been making woodworking tools over 200 years. Sorby paring chisels are traditionally shaped, that feature a 9½” long, flat, thin blade which tapers towards the cutting edge. Comes with a boxwood handle. Overall length 15-16”. Paring chisels are offered from 1/4” to 1½” widths.

Narex paring chisels

Narex paring chisels are a modern take of the traditional tool. They have 9”/230mm blades with finely beveled sides that gives excellent sightlines and good clearance. The blade is made of the Narex special CrMn high carbon steel that is isothermally hardened to RC59. The overall length of the chisels is 15” (380mm). Chisels are fitted with a round hornbeam handle. There are 5 widths available from ¼”/6mm to 1¼”/32mm.

Narex makes also a beautiful cranked neck version of the paring chisel.

Blue spruce paring chisels

Blue spruce paring chisels. Image by: Blue Spruce Toolworks

Blue Spruce paring chisels

Blue Spruce makes excellent, eye-candy, paring chisels from heat treated A2 steel that is tempered to Rc60. The 6¾” long, thin blade is precision ground to fine tolerances, and is available in widths ranging from 1/8” to 1½”. Sides are machined concave.  Multiple handle shape options, handles are made with curly maple infused with polymer for long-lasting performance. Beautiful tools with premium price-tag.

Henry Taylor paring chisel

Henry Taylor paring chisel. Image by: Axminster

Henry Taylor paring chisels

Henry Taylor Tools have been making woodworking tools in Sheffield since 1834. Their paring chisels are made with traditional pattern maker´s style. The thin blade that tapers towards the cutting edge is 9” long, and with handle, the total length of the tool is approx. 14”. Paring chisels are made from ¼” to 1¼”wide. Handles are made from English beech. Cranked neck paring chisels are available

Lie Nielsen paring chisels

Lie Nielsen doesn’t make dedicated paring chisels but offers Long Chisel Handle upgrade for their Bevel Edge Socket Chisels which makes the overall chisel 13” long.  Excellent for paring. Made from Maine-harvested Hornbeam.

Crown paring chisels with rosewood handles

Crown paring chisels with rosewood handles. Image by: Crown Hand Tools Ltd

Crown paring chisels

Another proud Sheffield toolmaker. The Crown paring chisels are also made with traditional pattern maker´s style. Long, a thin blade made from hardened carbon steel is 8”/230mm long. Crown paring chisels are available in widths ranging from ¼” to 1¼”. Beautiful handles are turned from rosewood and fitted with brass ferrules.

Cranked handle version is also available for the hard to reach areas.

Buck Brothers Paring Chisels

American made paring chisels from old Buck Brother brand. These fine chisels have 6¾” blade with 6¼” maple handle whit total length slightly under 14”. The blade is made from high carbon tool steel and is hardened to Rc59. Available in 3/8”, ¾”, 1”, and 1 ½”. Bent-shank paring chisels are also available.

Vintage paring chisels

If looking for a quality vintage paring chisels, look for A.Hildick, Buck Brother, Greenlee, Sorby, and Taylor brands. They are well-made tools and offers great value for years to come.