Read below why these are the most important sizes and what other things you should consider when choosing your first chisels.

Chisels are one of the most essential tools in every toolkit. Every woodworker, carpenter, and homeowner will find a myriad of uses for the chisel.  However, they are made in a bewildering array of, prices, styles, and sizes that a beginning woodworker is overwhelmed when choosing his or hers first chisels. In this article, I’ll scrape the surface of the world of chisels and what are the most important chisels to get first.

What is the most useful bench chisel size?

For a beginning woodworker, this could be hard to determine because of the lack of experience. It really depends what you want to do with them and beginners usually don’t know it yet. But there are still some general sizes and shapes that work well in every shop.

I scanned through the articles and many woodworking forums to find an answer. I collected about thirty recommendations for a basic set of chisels and put them into a spreadsheet.

Results tell that you need two to three bevel edged chisels to get started. One smallish, one middle-sized and one quite a wide, in that order. Beveled sides allow for maximum access to difficult to reach places, such as a dovetail. For the first set of chisels, it is also recommended to get the type of handle that will take the pounding of the mallet without breaking.

1/4" chisel is the most useful according to survey.

Most useful chisel size is ¼” or 6mm

The ¼” or 6mm wide bench chisel is the pre-eminent winner. 87% of all the recommendations raise the ¼” bench chisel as the most useful chisel. A few (29%) recommended also 3/8” (9mm) chisel as a substitute for ¼” chisel. This really depends on the work you are after.  ¼” wide chisels are ideal for morticing small doors and cutting smallish dovetails. They are also good for a countless small task around the workshop.

Ashley Iles MK2 1/2" chisel

Second chisel –½ or 12mm chisel is number two to get

The ½” or 12mm wide chisels is the safe number two chisel to get. 63% of all participants recommended it as one of the first chisels.  5/8” (16mm) chisel got only 8% votes. ½” wide chisel will do the majority of your morticing task, and come in handy when for cleaning out dovetail pins

1" Ashley Iles chisel

Third chisel – For third, get the ¾” or 1” wide

The ¾” (19mm) got 33% and the 1” (25mm) 21%. So the third chisel to get is either ¾” or 1” wide. A nice wide chisel is always useful when installing hinges, and trimming wide joint surfaces. It is also useful as a scraping tool.

My chisel collection

As a luthier, I use my chisels every day. When I started and acquired my collection, I asked the same questions; what chisels should I get, and which size? I didn’t know a lot when I started so I searched the internet for answers and bought chisels accordingly. Money was scarce so I had to make accurate predictions about what should I need. Now after a couple years of work I can evaluate my selection of chisels and how well I figured their use.

My collection of chisels consist of following sizes and styles: 3mm (1/8”), 12mm (1/2”) and 25mm/1” Ashley Iles MK2 bevel edged bench chisels, 6mm (1/4”) and 19mm ( ¾”) Narex paring chisels, and 2mm wide Two Cherries for narrow luthier works. I have found out that every chisel gets to use. Some more than others. Most used sizes is my 12mm Ashley Iles MK2 and 6mm Narex Paring chisels. Sometimes I feel that the length of the paring chisel is too much for certain task when working inside the guitar and maybe next chisel for me is the short, even butt chisel, in 6mm width. However, the length of the paring chisel is handy many times so it is still a keeper. I use the 1” wide chisel bevel down for carving the heel and headstock curves. For some trimming task, even wider chisel could be useful.

Most useful butt chisel size

Butt chisels are useful because of their size. Shorter and generally wider than general bench chisels, butt chisels are handy in confined spaces where normal bench chisels are too big. They allow maximum control by allowing you to get close to the workpiece. With butt chisel, you can chop the butt hinge mortices easily and with precision. Butt chisels can also be hit with a mallet.

The most useful mortise chisel size?

Mortice chisels are made to chop the mortises with a mallet. The size of your mortise chisel dictates the width of your mortise. Before buying your first mortise chisel, think and plan what size of mortise and tenon joint you need and buy the chisel accordingly.

Paring chisel is useful in luthiery

The most useful paring chisel size?

When looking at the woodworking forums, expert articles around the web and my own experience using paring chisels, the general consensus for the width of the first paring chisel is to go with  1” or wider

I wrote an article about the paring chisels and their use:  PARING CHISEL – CUTTING TOOL FOR THE FINEST WORK

The most useful dovetail chisel size?

Your collection of dovetail chisels determines the dimensions of the dovetail joint you should make. The narrowest dovetail chisel you have is the minimum width of your pin sockets on the tail board. ¼” dovetail chisel is too large if doing London pattern dovetails but suitable for common dovetails. For those skinny pins that really show of the skill of woodworker, get a 1/8 dovetail chisel.

Other considerations when choosing your first chisels

Handle type – wood or plastic?

Take some time to consider what type of handles your first chisels should have. I collected the advantages and disadvantages of both types:

Wooden handle

Plastic handle

AdvantageDisadvantageAdvantageDisadvantage
Aesthetically pleasingCan split due to improper useSplit proofLooks – not the most beautiful tools.
Greater comfortIs subject to humidity changesFor heavy-duty useCan feel cold and unpleasant in hand
Absorbs vibrationsTransforms the energy of mallet better

When choosing wooden handles, go for slow-growth, straight grained hardwoods for more impact resistance and longevity.

Bolsters and Ferrules – Prevent the splitting

Bolster and ferrules are designed to strengthen and support the chisel handle during use.  Bolster prevents the blade tang to drive further into the handle causing it to split. Ferrule supports the blade end of the handle from the levering forces that could cause the handle splitting. All in all important features to have.

The Hoop – protects from mallet blows

Heavy duty wooden handled chisels come with a hoop at the end of the handle. It supports the end from the forces of hammer or mallet blows. If you are going to use mallet lot, go for handles with a hoop. Take a note though some hoops are uncomfortable when paring with hand only.

Blade – What Type of Steel?

Woodworkers of the past didn’t face the number of choices we face when shopping for cutting tools. A local blacksmith was the source of the tool and offered only one type of steel as a material. It was a high carbon, oil quenched steel, referred to as an O1. “O” stands for oil.  Nowadays we have countless different steel alloys to choose from. Some are harder to sharpen but stays sharp longer, whereas others blunt easily but sharpens easily. Other, laminated steel types come from Japan and are made from two different types of steel; harder for the cutting edge and softer to back the hard and brittle steel.

Generally, I would say that newcomers and beginners should stay away from the hardest to sharpen steels and gain the sharpening experience and skill with easier/softer steel alloys.

Comparison of the most common tool steels found in chisels:

O1

A2

PM-V11 by Veritas

Easiest to sharpen and hone with any sharpening mediaMuch tougher than O1Modern “Powder metallurgy” steel
Good general tool steelHolds the edge longerLongest edge life of all
Recommended for beginners.More difficult to hone. Needs good quality water or oilstones for fast sharpening.Easier to sharpen and hone than A2. But you have to use expensive ceramic stones!
Cheaper to produceMore expensive than O1Expensive
These companies use their own alloyed variants of O1 steels: Narex, Ashley Iles, MHG, Two Cherries, Hirsch, Pfeil,

 

Lie Nielsen and Veritas make or have made chisels with A2 steels.PM-V11 Steel is solely used by Veritas

 

Ideal steel hardness – a result from hardening and tempering process.

The hardness of the steel varies between manufacturers albeit the same type of steel used. Every tool maker has its own ideal recipe and ideal what features tool steel should poses. Hardening and the tempering process influences the hardness of the steel and every maker does its own way. Steel hardness is measured with a Rockwell test. The normal range for chisel blades ranges from 58 to 62 RC.  Higher the number, the harder the steel. Harder steels retain a sharper edge longer but can become brittle if hardened too hard. Harder steel take also longer to sharpen and hone. Good chisel is always a tradeoff of hardness and ease of maintenance.

A good chisel should be hardened and tempered along its entire length. Over the years of using and sharpening, the blade shortens. A completely treated blade will take a keen edge even when mere stub only.

Bench chisel sets – should I get readymade set

If you are low with funds then don’t buy readymade sets. Although there is a price advantage when buying 5,6 or even 10 chisel sets, the amount of money spent is still more than acquiring a couple single chisels in the right widths. Pinpointing saves money here.

When money is no object then buying the chisel set is money well spent. Many tasks around the workshop need not some specific widths but could be made with many sizes and types of chisels. And of course, the more chisels you have, the more sharp edges you have to blunt before sharpening them again.

The more chisels you have, the more sharp edges you have to blunt before sharpening them again

Best chisel brands for beginners?

  • Narex chisels give the best bang for your buck when buying your first set of chisels

Throughout the many woodworking forums and expert articles, one brand rose above the others every time. Narex chisels were time after time recommended as the first and best chisel brand for the beginning woodworker. Quality of steel and machining is well regarded and Narex chisels ability to keep a keen edge is praised highly.  The price/quality ratio of Narex is staggering, for the price of one Veritas PM-V11 bench chisel you can get the whole set of beautiful Narex bevel edged bench chisels.

My experience with Narex chisel is based on their paring chisels. My ¼” and 3/4” paring chisels have seen lots of use and they have been great so far. Blades are easy to sharpen and hone and the keep the edge long even with hard to cut woods like a rosewood. Handles are comfortable to hold, but roll with narrow ¼” blade it rolls too easily if placed on a sloping surface.

Other good quality but more expensive brands for beginners are Ashley Iles, Lie Nielsen, Veritas, Pfeil and Two Cherries.

There is an old saying: “A rich man buys once, a poor man buys many times”. Buy the best you can, you will save money in the long run. Good quality tools keep their value.