For more information on chisels, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.
John bought some chisels from the car boot sale last week. Pennies go a long way in scrap tool bins here and for a pound or two you can walk away with a bag full of tools. There can be no doubt William Marples of old was the single most productive tool maker in Sheffield and when you see the Shamrock logo stamped, embossed or print labeled on old tools you can buy with confidence knowing that it will be a lifetime tool. I own four or five sets of bevel-edged chisels rising in 1/8” increments from 1/8” to 1” and then on up 1/4” intervals up to 2”. I use the lesser sizes every day. I posted on a chisel the other day in the one about brass and steel and boxwood. What makes a good chisel depends on the work type. I’d like to look at expectations. I know that many woodworkers believe massive mortise chisels are the best way to go for mortising holes in woods like pine and oak and mahogany. They were indeed designed for that purpose in a period when mortises were chopped out by bench joiners and cabinet makers (UK for furniture maker) using only hand methods. Where the chisel types cross over is not always definitive. Mortise chisels weigh in at three to four times that of a bevel-edged chisel. The handles are twice to three times the size and the steel massively increases by four to five times the bulk in comparing the same two chisel types. Why do I generally not use the different types? Well, mostly it isn’t so much to do with much more than practicalities. Yes, I do cut all of my joinery by hand as a common rule. If I am at my bench I use the well with a tray of about ten chisels in in the everyday of life and that takes space. Were I to add in other chisel types I would soon be catering to more tools than I really care to. That translates into tool maintenance too. Time and space are at a premium around the workbench so I choose the most practical set that have other uses too. I can chop, pare and do other things with the bevel-edged chisels throughout my day. When I have a larger amount of deeper mortises to cut, I will bring in a heavier gauge chisel. Usually a mortise chisel.
These are some of my accumulated chisels. About a third of what I have I think. In general, everyday use I rely on about half a dozen bevelled-edge chisels with boxwood handles.
Mortise chisels are robustly strong with features designed for easier registration and alignment whereby the thickness and wideness of the chisel chops ever deeper into the mortise holes and the walls keep the chisel well aligned as the deepening process of chopping continues to depth. The significance of chisel thickness becomes more evident as the deepening holes require more leverage and generally it’s here that I make a delineation between work types and woodworker types. Joinery became more specialised and separated from general carpentry when the two crafts, joinery and cabinet making (furniture making and not American box building for kitchens) emerged as greater speciality crafts demanding more refined levels of workmanship. Joiners in general joinery making staircases, doors, window frames and so on tended to use mortise chisels, firmer chisels and registered chisels. All heavier, squarer chisel types than the bevel-edged chisels we tend to see more commonly and prefer today. You should not dismiss the positioning of the thicker bevel ‘knee’ in relation to the long axis of the mortise chisels. This chief fulcrum of the mortise chisel is what we use for leveraging out the waste wood from mortises. No other chisel works quite the same and especially is this so when we work on deep mortises more than one, two and three spits deep. A spit is the distance from the chisel tip to the ‘knee’ of the bevel. Usually about 30mm.
On mortise chisels of the type shown here it’s easy to think that the heavy handle was purely for striking with a heavy mallet. Wheres there is truth in that, that wasn’t so much the reason as was the grip needed for levering the waste from the deeper mortises. and the need for the oval handle. As mortise chisels were best designed with oval handles., the oval required more wood mass and so the handle was larger to accomadate that. The bolster of this type of chisel was larger to absorb the pressure of heavy mallet blows and so the large handles stood their ground even until today when Ashley Iles as far as I know are the only supplier of UK-made mortise chisels of this type in the world. The sole supplier in the US is here:
These square edged more lightly made carpentry chisels are rarely made today. Few joiners work with hand tools and carpenters too rely on machine cuts and the ripping claw of a hammer to beat out any needed recesses. Slewing the skilsaw from side to side finishes off the cut and the chisel remains in the tool pouch as much as possible.
When I was a joiner’s apprentice, many firmer chisels lay on the bench in the usual sizes. The common use was chopping mortises and fitting tenons. The half inch was good for filling holes and flaws like that with wood filler and then leveling off with the side corner of the chisel edge. Most of the joiners I knew kept a couple f firmer chisels for that. The firmer chisel was also preferred by school woodworking classes of the day. The added corners reduced the risk of bending and breaking by insensitive 13 year old boys proving their strength. But in the long term I think it was as much the square corners that felt awkward and clunky that saw off the firmer chisel. I don’t know that I ever used one for very long. I always reached for the bevel edged chisels over any and all others.
Large Registered Sash Mortise chisels were used in English joinery and especially so for window and door making, frames and so on.
Try to remember that joiners made mostly windows and doors and then frames to house them. Sliding sash windows and casements had many a dozen mortise joints in one frame or sash, often small and compact mortise and tenons made from moulded sash stock. The larger mortise chisels were impractical for some of this work and so we used firmer and registered sash chisels that were better suited to this type of work. I made hundreds of window frames each few months as an apprentice. Much of the work was machined, but some of the work was quicker by hand and that’s when we used square edged chisels like firmer and sash mortise chisels.
Bevel-edged chisels do deserve respect. These are some of mine.
Furniture makers tended more toward the bevel-edged chisel across the width range to usually 1 1/2”. In fact, I rarely saw any other type used by furniture makers making their living from their work. I am speaking of people using the chisels regularly and include myself and those I have trained through the decades. I don’t believe this is copycat influence so much as the lightweight streamlining demanded by more fine and exacting work, whether that be joinery and furniture making or fine instrument making for musical instruments. Remember too that early woodworking provided some fairly complex wooden projects such as storage and carrying and display cases, stands for measuring instruments, tripods, telescopes, silverware and flatware cases and a million other pieces of treenware. There was a real demand for fine work revolving around the bevelled edge chisel, which with its extremely slender tapered bevels could slide into narrow spaces and between wood grain like no other. These cutting edges along the long side bevels of the chisel felt only minimal resistance. The internal corners of joints were accessed to allow precisely cut corners and to pare back the end- and face grain of all joints. Paring surfaces becomes clearly traceable with a bevel-edged chisel and this makes the work operation highly sensitive and pleasant. I have chopped mortises with bevel-edged chisels for 50 years. I have also enjoyed mortise chisels for this too – and firmer chisels.
I hasten to add a note here regarding the stupid fashions created by tool manufacturers for the construction trades to beat on with waffle head hammers. Most of the original plastic handle chisels were indeed indestructible. Carpentry had a respectable name and carpenters building homes were regarded as careful workers. As fashion encroached into the building trades to create fashion clothing and tools and equipment for the building trades. we saw a decline in the quality and refinements that no longer represent the tool of the craftsman at all.
I generally use different makers of bevel edged chisels – several of them
I once used the older, British-made Record-Marples blue-chip chisels when they first came out in the 1960’s, as well as the two-tone yellow and red models of the same era. I still use them for general carpentry work around the house and in the shop but prefer not to promote them because people confuse them with the current Irwin Marples models that are not UK made. The old models were very robust and stout alternatives to wooden handled models and less expensive on an apprentices wage back then. You can still get secondhand sets and individual chisels on eBay at reasonable prices but don’t be conned by look-alikes sold on eBay as new chisels under the Irwin-Record banner. These sellers use the old model images to sell Irwin’s Asian models. I liked the more squarish handles of these old Record Marples chisels. I think they enable good registration and adjustability and they don’t roll away from me or onto the floor.
Aldi bevel-edged chisels as an options
I have blogged on the Aldi chisels too many times now I suppose, but the reason I have is that I think they solve a cost issue for new, young and or impoverished woodworkers without compromising quality and functionality. Yes, I suppose they could be more refined, but this is more aesthetic to function than functional entirety itself. Fact is you can refine them yourself by changing the ferrules, refining the handles and polishing out the steel. The handle shapes are very practical and offer the same functionality you get with squarish plastic handles and they enable the same good registration and adjustments as the blue ones I mentioned. These chisels parallel the Two Cherries brand of chisels in terms of handle shape, length ratios etc but at a small fraction of the price.
Older Marples models of bevel-edged chisels
Marples chisels, the boxwood bevelled edge ones, are and will always be my favourites I think. There are several other makers you can buy besides these that are also excellent makers of the same era, but the prolific manufacturing of marples means they are the most readily available secondhand chisels from outlets like eBay. Why do I like them so much? Well, it’s not so much that they are perfected. They are not. I do like the handles even though round handles are not necessarily the very best. I love boxwood though and that’s a definite plus for me. With care, no steel or indeed metal hammers of any type, they will last a lifetime and then plus some. In terms of worth, they are worth about £30 each really, but you can often buy them for a fraction of this. I just bought two on ebay for £8.90 plus £3 shipping. Not too much really. The thing I like the most about the steel is not refinement of the surfaces but the slender length and thinness near to the cutting edge. They enter the wood readily and trim my joinery with and across the grain with ease.