Chisels come in many shapes and sizesWhat is a chisel and what is its use?

A woodworking chisel is a fundamentally simple tool: A sharpened steel blade attached to a handle.  A Chisels are used to cut, chop, pare, carve or scrape wood. They can be held in one hand and struck with a mallet, or used two-handed for precise paring cuts. Softwoods or hardwoods, chisel work equally well with any types of wood.

There is many types of chisels designed for particular tasks. Mortising, paring, butt and firmer chisels to name few but the jack of all trades is the bench chisel.

Etymology of chisel

The term “Chisel” comes from the old French word “cisel”. In Latin there was a word cisellum, a cutting tool.

History of chisel

Chisel is one of the earliest tools. Peoples of stone age learned to broke stones to flat shaped and sharp-edged flints that were used to cut meat, bone, leather, sinews, and wood.

Later at the bronze age, people learned to smelt ore. Flint tools were replaced by those made from copper and later bronze. Ancient Egyptians were known to use bronze chisels in the construction of pyramids.

Iron age blacksmiths invented the use of hotter furnaces to smelt the iron. This again led to better chisels, knives and other cutting tools that replaced softer bronze tools.

how do you use a chisel

There is a multitude way to cut wood with chisels. Some types of chisels are better suited for certain jobs. Read below how you can use your chisels in different ways:

A chopping cut with a mallet

For a chopping cut, you need a suitable chisel such as bench, butt, firmer or mortise chisel and hammer or mallet. Paring chisels are never used with mallet or hammers. Chopping cut is used when you need to cut down into a piece of wood, like to establish a line around mortise or removal of the waste of dovetail tails or pins. Chopping is performed by striking the chisel with a mallet.

  • When chopping, a chisel is held vertical and perpendicular to a workpiece. Hold the chisel with your nondominant hand.
  • Align the cutting edge of the chisel with your marking or cut line. Beveled side of the chisel is facing into the waste side of the wood. That way your chisels will not damage the wood you want to keep.
  • Strike the top of your chisel with a mallet. For a shallow cut, an only moderate blow is needed. If you are making deep cuts then you have to strike multiple times with a more power.
  • For a very deep cut, you need to remove the waste every now and then by cutting along the grain (horizontally) This way you could keep going very deep.

Cutting a shallow mortise or recess.

When you need to install a hinge to a door or its frame, you need to cut a shallow mortise. Chisels suitable for this are bench, butt, firmer and mortise.

  • Lay out the mortise by place the hardware you are going to install on top of your workpiece and score or scribe around it. For best results use a sharp utility knife or a marking knife. By skipping this step you risk chipping wood outside the mortise.
  • At first, you start by cutting across the grain at both ends. This way you establish the boundary of which the wood could split. Align the blade carefully in the scoring you just made with the beveled side of the chisel facing to waste. Hold the chisel vertical with your nondominant hand.
  • Tap the end of the chisel lightly with a mallet. Move the chisel along the scribe lines and tap with a mallet as you go.
  • A series of cuts side by side is the key to a precise mortise. With a wide chisel at about a 45º angle, cut across the grain in increments of about 6mm. Gently tap the chisel with a mallet until the blade reaches the right depth.
  • Remove the waste with horizontal slices. You don’t need a hammer or mallet, just gently paring cuts with two hands are enough for the job. Start with one end and cut it flat and smooth, Use the freshly cut surface as a guide for chisel when cutting the waste next to it.

Paring with chisel

  • Attach the workpiece to the workbench with clamps or vice
  • Keep the back of the chisel flat against the wood. Pivot the chisel as you move the blade to slice wood easier.
  • Rule of thumb: if you are shaving into the wood, use blade bevel down. If you are flattening a cut then face the bevel up.

 

Scraping with a chisel

A chisel can be used like a scraper. Hardened glue, drops of paint, tiny nicks and scratches, all can be removed with the use of a chisel. However, the edge of the chisel needs to be very sharp and flat.

  • Mount the workpiece so it doesn’t move or buckle when working with it.
  • The chisel must be vertical and the back of the chisel is facing you. That way you can scrape the surface with a precision.
  • Hold the chisel with your finger firmly, press it on the surface and move the chisel towards you.
  • Do not press too hard, and beware the corners of the chisel, they can mar the surface.

How to keep your chisel sharp longer?

Many woodworkers are not happy with their chisels. They complain that the tools of their choice are not behaving as they thought it should. More you pay for you tools more you think it should endure.

Use light cuts!

More than often the problem is not the chisel but the user. Chisels, by nature, are designed for light cuts and thin shavings. If you take heavy cuts, chisels edge dulls very quickly, but when you cut thin shavings, the tool stays sharp for a long time.

A proper storage and workbench organization is important too, so they don’t rattle with each other and dull themselves

how do you use chisels safely?

Here is a collection of tips on how to use chisels safely:

  • Always use a sharp chisel! A dull chisel is a dangerous tool because cutting with it requires more power. More power always means less precision and the danger of slipping and damage to the workpiece or the worker.
  • Always fasten or clamp the workpiece to the workbench or vice. Never hold the workpiece with one hand when chiseling with the another
  • As with all cutting tools, always cut away from your body and keep your hands behind the cutting edge.
  • New chisels have sharp edges along the blade. You can break the edges with a sandpaper to prevent accidentally cutting yourself.
  • Store chisels on a rack, in a leather tool-roll or use blade-cover, when you stop using them. A chisel is a sharp tool and proper storage is key for keeping it sharp and safe.

The old chisels were made with a good steelWhat are the characteristics of good chisels?

Steel quality is crucial

The chisel is as good as its blade. If the blade can’t hold the sharp edge for basic cutting tasks then it is a carbage. My first set of bench chisel was bought from a department store and I chose them by price and good looks. Such a poor choice I made. They didn’t hold an edge for a minute when cutting even pine. My time was spent sharpening them.  Lesson learned.

The quality and hardness of steel used for the blades is the most important factor when choosing a good chisel. Blade hardness is measured on the Rockwell scale. The Rockwell test determines the hardness by measuring the depth of penetration of an indenter under a large load. The higher the number, the harder the steel. Premium western chisels test in the R 58-62 range, but Japanese chisels are harder, in the region of R 65.

There is another factor besides the hardness though: Steel that is too hard can be brittle so manufacturers walk a tightrope between hardness and toughness. Accurate heat treating and steel metallurgy make the difference between good and bad quality of the blade.

Japanese blacksmiths come up with a unique laminated steel. A blade with a thin layer of steel forge welded to the thick body of wrought iron. The advantage of lamination is that the hardened steel part is supported and protected by the soft iron. The steel can be left very hard from the quench process.

The shape of the blade

Chisels have to have a flat and polished back. A sharp cutting edge is the meeting of two flat, polished surfaces. If you really want to have your chisel sharp, you need to pay attention to your chisels back.  Usually, a new chisel back needs a lot of work. First, you must flatten and smooth it, then you polish it to remove all the scratches. It Should be as clear as a mirror. Usually, a more premium chisels you buy, less work you would have to do with its back.

For delicate dovetail chisels, edges are beveled so they fit in the narrow dovetail sockets. For a heavy use chisels like a firmer chisel, edges of the blade are square and the blade is thicker. Paring chisels have long, thin blades. Butt chisels are short.

Different chisel handle types

Octagonal, round and oval are the most common types of handles in chisels.

Types of handles in chisels

There are a generally two types of woodworking chisels when looking how the handle is connected to blade. One is the tang end type and the other is the socket type.

The blade of a tanged chisel ends in a prong that is set at the end of the handle. The handle is reinforced with a ferrule to prevent splitting. Tang-type chisels are normally used with a hand pressure only. They are lighter and they have thinner blades than their socket counterparts. If needed the handle is easily replaced with a tang design.

The socket type has the blade and the socket for handle forged from one piece of steel. The handle is inserted into a socket. Socket type chisels are generally used for heavy work with a mallet. Socket-type chisel can take a heavy beating without splitting. Replacement of the socket handle is more difficult and laborious to do than its tang relatives.

Shapes of the chisel handle vary. They can be round, tapered or octagonal in shape. Round-handled tools can roll off a bench while those with octagonal handles stay put. Traditionally they are made from wood. Some chisels have metal hoops at the end of the handle so they won’t mushroom or split when struck by a mallet. Modern plastics are replacing wood as a handle material in some hardworking chisels. Advantages of plastics are greater durability when banging with mallets.

I personally like wood as a superior handle material. It is warm to touch and offer a more intimate connection to the tool.

What are the types of wood chisels?

My favorite bench chisels made by Ashley IlesBench chisel

Bench chisels are the most used chisels on your workbench, the real general purpose chisel. Their name says it all: bench chisels are for the bench use. You can do chopping, paring, trimming, joinery, almost every task with them.

A blade is a typical medium length with beveled edges. Straight-edged bench chisels are also common but I don’t recommend them. Beveled edged ones have a wider range of applications.

They come in both, socket and tang-style fittings. The blade is honed at 25 to 30 degrees.

What is a bench chisel used for?

A bench chisel is general purpose chisel. You can use a bench chisel for almost any tasks. It is usually the first chisel to purchase when equipping a workshop.

Dovetail chisel

Dovetail chisel is a special tool with a long thin blade with finely beveled edges. Dovetail chisels are never tapped with a mallet.

What is a dovetail chisel used for?

Dovetail chisels are designed specifically for the finishing of dovetail joints. They typically have a long thin blade with beveled edges and a honed cutting edge of between 20 and 30 degrees. These types of chisel are particularly useful when cleaning out and sharpening up the edges of the interlocking parts of a dovetail joint.

Butt chisel

Butt chisel is a short version of a bench chisel. Historically they may have been chisels resharpened so many times that the length of the blade was shortened under 3-4 inches. Woodworkers found out that these shorter chisels are useful for certain tasks, so they became manufactured in their own right. Butt chisels have both bevel edged and straight edged variants

What is a butt chisel used for?

As the name suggests, butt chisels are used to to install butts and hinges to doors. Butt chisels are also good when working in confined spaces, were normal bench chisels are too big to use.

Mortise chisel

A Mortise chisels are very strong and heavy thick bladed chisels. They are designed to withstand repeated mallet blows and are rigid enough for prying the waste out of the deep mortise. Well-designed mortise chisel has an oval handle assisting the user to keep it aligned and square to the workpiece. The cutting edge of the blade is honed steeper than normal bench chisels, usually, the cutting angle is from 30 to 40 degrees

What is the use of a mortise chisel?

Mortise chisel is solely used to chop mortises. The width of the mortise chisel defines the width of the mortise. They are sold in widths exactly the width of the mortise to be chopped.

A couple of old firmer chisels

Vintage firmer chisels found from the flea market

Firmer chisel

Firmer chisel is a chisel for heavy duty tasks. It has a thicker blade and square edges without the bevel. However, it is lighter than the mortise chisel. Firmer chisels are used with a mallet.

What is the use of a firmer chisel?

Firmer chisel is good for coarse and heavy cutting tasks where you remove lots of wood with a chisel and mallet.

Narex paring chisels

I like my pair of Narex paring chisels

Paring chisels

Paring chisel is a very long thin edged chisel for a delicate work. They are to be used by hands only, never struck by a mallet. Length of the chisel gives the user exceptional control. The edge is ground usually a more steep angle (25 degrees)than normal bench chisels. The blade is usually beveled along its length

What is a paring chisel used for?

Paring chisel is used to cut thinnest slivers of wood with utmost precision. The long blade is very well suited for cleaning the grooves and finishing and neatening up joints

Read more of paring chisel from my recent in-depth article: Paring chisel – Cutting tool for the finest work

Corner chisel

Corner chisel is a special tool with a blade where the two cutting faces meet at 90 degrees to give an accurate, square corner. The bevel is on the inside.

What is the use for corner chisel?

Corner chisel is a paring tool useful for trimming mortices and other cuts precisely square. They can be also used to cut grooves.

Skew chisels

Note: The skew chisels that this speaks about is not for woodturning!

Skew chisel is a bevel edged bench chisel with a skewed cutting edge. They are usually sold in pairs.

What is the use for a skew chisels?

Skew chisels are used for smoothing and cleaning the corners of dovetails, for precise paring and finishing of many other kinds of wood joinery. The angled edge is useful for fitting half blind joinery such as dovetail and secret miters. Skew chisels are also suitable for finishing end grain.

Fishtail chisels

Fishtail chisel is a special version of paring chisel with a flared blade that resembles the tail of fish. They are meant to be used with hand power only. Never struck them with a mallet!

What is the fishtail chisel used for?

Fishtail chisel is good for finishing hard to reach corners and undercuts. You can use it, for nearly all wood joints. They are used similarly as paring chisels.  

Japanese chisels Nomi

What is the difference between Japanese and western chisels?

Japanese and western type chisel are for the virtually same jobs. So what really separates them?

A Japanese chisel consist of a four parts

One key difference between the Japanese and western chisels are the number of parts they consist of. Western chisel is usually made with two parts: a blade and a handle while the Japanese nomis consist of four: a blade, a tapered ferrule, handle and a hoop. The blade has a tang which fits into a hole in the handle. The ferrule goes around the tapered part of the handle forming a socket. This construction makes the Japanese chisel robust. As a matter of fact: a constant use with a mallet reinforces the structure.

A hoop

Most Japanes chisels have steel hoop at the top of the handle. The hoop protects the top of the handle from the blows of a hammer. New Japanese chisels come usually with the hoop installed but sometimes you need to install or adjust it. Some Japanese chisels do not come with a hoop, they are intended for paring and thus are to be used only by hand, not struck with a hammer.

A laminated blade of a Japanese steel

Typical Japanese chisels have laminated blades made of a thin bottom layer of very hard steel called hagane (either white paper steel Shirogami or blue paper steel Aogami) and a top layer of soft wrought iron called jigane. This hard steel/soft iron composition gives the blade a hard and durable cutting edge with shock resistance and the added strength of wrought iron. A Japanese steel hardens to a much higher degree than their western counterparts. 

Ura

The backs of the Japanese chisel blades are ground hollow. This recess is called “ura” Purpose of the ura is to speed sharpening process. Typical western chisels have flat back.

What are the type of Japanese chisels?

Japanese Chisels come in a variety of styles, usually based on their intended use.

Oire

The most common used type of Japanese chisel is the Oire Nomi (Nomi is Japanese for chisel). The Oire Nomi is short bladed “Butt” chisel Blade length is typically 2-3”. The blade is quite a thin. The handle comes with a hoop so the Oire Nomis can be struck with a hammer. The Oire Nomi is controllable and responsive, much suited to fine or close work. They are available in the widest variety of widths.

What is the use of Oire Nomi

The Oire Nomi is a general purpose bench chisel. It can be used for almost every task.

Atsu Nomi

Atsu Nomi is a Japanese version of the firmer chisel. It is like Oire but the blade is thicker and stronger.

What is the Atsu chisel used for?

Atsu Chisels are used by carpenters and cabinetry makers to make large joints.

Mukomachi

The mukomachi striking mortise chisels comes with a thick square section blades with a hollow back and slightly concave top and edges. This is to reduce a friction when removing waste from mortise.

What is the use of Mukomachi?

The mukomachi chisels are used to make deep mortises and grooves.

Tsuki

Tsuki Chisels are push chisels used with two hands for cleaning mortises and smoothing joints. Western counterpart for it is a paring chisel. The blades are sharpened at a low angle for easier paring.

What is the use of Tsuki chisel?

A Tsuki chisel is used to cut thinnest slivers of wood with utmost precision. Long blade is very well suited for cleaning the grooves and finishing and neatening up joints

Kote

Kote Chisel is a push chisel, like Tsuki chisel but with an offset blade.

What is the use of kote chisel

Kote chisels are used for cleaning out long joints, such as housing joints or sliding dovetail joints. The offset blade makes it easier to clean the joint without interference from either the handle or the user’s hand.

My chisel rack

Keep your chisels sharp by storing them safely in a rack.

how would you care for a chisel

Chisels blades are made with a steel and handles with wood. Unlike modern power tools, the hand tools will last for generations if cared well.

Keep your chisels sharp

Store your chisels in a rack, tool roll or in a tool cabinet so they don’t hit each other and lose the sharpness of the cutting edge.

Protect your chisels from rust

The steel used in chisels is not rustproof. You can keep the chisels oiled with a jojoba or camelia oil to prevent rusting. Other way is to keep them in a room with controlled humidity. Closed tool chest is also a good way to prevent rusting.