Can You Use Chisels on Plywood?


Plywood is a tricky wood to shape, and since plywood is made up of glue, resin, and wood chips stacked in layers, using a chisel can prove to be rather tricky. Using a chisel on plywood is not only problematic but amazing when done correctly. Slow and methodical is what wins the race. Whether you are carving out a new design or board, using chisels on plywood is an art. 

A sharpened chisel can be used on plywood to square it up or put some finishing touches on a joint. Thin plywood can be entirely cut with a chisel, although not a recommended method. Generally speaking, chisels are not used on plywood due to the type of glue used to make a standard plywood board. 

Plywood is probably the most challenging type of wood to chisel. As plywood is constructed differently using massive amounts of glue and wooden chips. Using a chisel itself can be a good challenge, and each person has their technique to use. You also must consider the quality of the chisel that is being used. 

Tips for Chiseling Plywood

A good rule of thumb here is to measure your chisel cuts at least twice. This way, you are 100% positive on cutting and how far deep to cut. Practicing this ritual can save time on the overall completion of a project.

Chiseling a piece of wood is considered a cutting practice, and although it may make sense for some projects, it will not work on some projects or wood types, including plywood.  You may need to run a blade along with your cut when dealing with plywood to get through to the center of the project. 

A Hand plane, like this one on Amazon (Link Here), is another hand tool commonly used in conjunction with a standard bench chisel. The hand plane shaves off higher levels or varying wood levels to create an even plane on The planks before becoming project worthy.  A Chisel is sometimes used to lower specific areas of the board to continue using the wood plane. 

Finding the board’s correct depth manually requires much patience and a practiced eye to know the exact center to stop without wasting good board material.  This is incredibly difficult if the entire project board needs factory planning before being sold to you but didn’t get planning before hands.                                            

Building With Hand Tools

In 2013 Reddit user Stanley Covington claims to have built a set of kitchen cabinets from plywood using only hand tools. It was a tough business, Stanley claims, as he remembers the hand tools he used to complete the project. 

Some hand tools are designed for specific purposes on either soft or hardwoods. The plywood itself is a type of wood that comes from various sources. A mix of hard or soft woods glued together in layers or ply’s of wood. 

Most hand tools are used for a specific purpose during a project. The planes, files, and chisels are no exception to the rule. Planes, chisels, and files are generally used to shape the wood into a specific depth. Whether it is a level, plane, or a chiseled joint, these hand tools are more of an art form than a tool. 

How to Use A Chisel in Woodworking

There are several different ways to use a chisel; the most common is the flat down way. This technique is used mainly to clear out a small indent into the wood, such as for a hinge system. You can either use a mallet or your hands to shape the wood into the shape you need slowly. 

Another way to use the chisel is to scrape up a substance adhered to a porous surface. For that, you would face the backing upwards, placing the bevel downwards towards the floor and chip away at it. Using this method, you want to go against the grain. Chiseling with the grain may cause an unwanted split in the wood that you are working with. 

Chisels can also be used for scraping glue off of some freshly glued boards.  For this method, you would stand the chisel straight up and run it over the glued joint. Complete a back and forth motion to scrape off the glue without scraping off the wood. 

Common Mistakes When Chiseling 

One of the most common issues that people run into is not having a sharp enough chisel to cut through the material—sharpening the chisel to the point to where it can shave off about 1mm of material using only your hands.

Taking off too much material at one time can cause slight unseen depth changes in your cuts. Trimming the piece that you are chiseling off in small quantities is an easy fix for this common mistake. You also want to consider the angle you are chiseling to ensure that you are carving the correct angle and depth for your project. 

Use the correct tools for the project can leave unwanted blemishes or blowouts of the right pieces. Taking shortcuts with a chisel is how a piece becomes ruined during the creation process. 

Here is an excellent video on how to use a chisel

What Chisels Can do 

A Sharp wood chisel can carve out attractive designs into a piece of wood or even smooth out the way for some new joints to bring together a masterpiece. You may not need it often, but you will be glad to have a set when you do. 

The chisel is one of the most useful tools you can have in your toolbox or garage at any given time. 

Create numerous things with your chisel set as it is the single most valuable tool in your collection of tools. Some of the more common types of cuts with a chisel:

  • Mortis Cuts
  • Paring
  • Chopping Cuts
  • Dado Cuts

Since the chisel is used to take wood away from a piece rather than add wood to work, you must be incredibly careful not to take away too much wood with each of these techniques. The sharper the bevel, the better it cuts. 

Keeping the Chisel Sharp

Keeping the chisel sharp is key to the performance of a good chisel. Sharpening once a week or more is your excellent idea. Using a good polish and leather to finish the sharpening will lead to a more delicate cut the next time you use one. 

Using a classic sharpening stone and some hot water, you can bring your chisels back from a long-overdue cleaning or keep them extra sharp for when the next project happens.  Just take the bevel side down against the sandpaper and slowly push and pull the chisel back and forth. 

You can then use a sharpening file to wear down any bumps that may have arisen during the cleanup process. This ensures a nice edge on your chisel for smooth operations. 

Check out how this pro sharpens his chisels in this quick YouTube video. 

What You Can Use Instead of a Chisel

Early uses included creating dovetail joints, mortise and tenon joints, and specialty joints. Even with Jigs and routers nowadays, a chisel may still be needed to apply some finishing touches to these joint types.  Having a chisel set in the toolbox is almost a necessity for any woodworker. They are simply irreplaceable as a tool. 

There is a good old hammer and flathead screwdriver trick unless you want to save your screwdriver tips for driving screws. Not to fret; if you do not have access to a chisel, you can use a few things on plywood that may even be a little easier to use.  

Other tools to use in place of a chisel on plywood:

  • Hand router: Lye the Plywood down on a flat surface, mark your router lines and double-check the router bit. It is essential that maintain the same speed across the entire board when using a hand router. 
  • File: You can use a hand file to shave off large shavings from the edges of your plywood; when used in combination with sandpaper, you can get around chiseling any plywood corners
  • Hacksaw: You can use the hacksaw to saw out the area you with to chisel
  • Jig Saw: Great for taking pieces of wood out of the center of the plywood
  • Sandpaper and a rubber block:  used on smoothing out specific areas of the plywood. 
  • Sander: Using a low grit, such as 80, you can remove several Plywood layers with minimal effort. 

Chisel Care and Maintenance 

Never hesitate to have that one chisel that is merely there to better all the other chisels in your collection. It is good to have one go-to chisel for the odd jobs around the house. This will save your quality Chisels for the day that they are needed. 

Your chisels are sharp (or at least they should be) and should be stored in a leather role case to maintain the steel. Keeping your chisels out of reach of Family members looking for a quick chisel to fix something will prolong your chisels’ life.  Let everyone else use the sacrificial chisel, as mentioned above. 

Keeping your chisel sharp and polished will help prolong the life and use you get out of your chisel set. It is recommended to use a polish(Like this one on Amazon Chemical Guys SPI_402_16 – Heavy Metal Polish Restorer and Protectant (16 Ounce)) containing conditioners for your metal and cleaning agents and a sealant that will temporarily keep harmful substances away from the chisel blade. 

You will also need a nice leather strap to help polish the steel blade along with any other damage that could have occurred.  It doesn’t have to be leather; you can use a steel sharpening blade in place of a leather strop. 

Types of Chisels

Chisels will come in a variety of different sizes, shapes, and even colors. This hand tool is one of the most important tools a person can have in collecting hand tools. Chisels fall into the category of hand tools that were first used about 300 years ago

Today, while chisels are no longer forged in the fire by hand entirely, there is much labor and thought that goes into chisels’ production. Chisels are a must-have addition to any tool collection. Steel and Iron Chisels are the main two types of materials used to make chisels. Steel is going to be of a higher quality. 

Chisels are measured in size by the dimensions of the blade. They come in both imperial and metric systems that are not interchangeable. 10 mm, although it is like a ¾ inch is not ¾ inch. Mind your measurements here with a set of chisels. The more accurate the bevel is, the easier the job is. 

Chisels are sold by the diameter of the blade and how wide the cut is. You can get chisels as small as 1/8 inch up to 2 inches. The size difference is all relative to your project. A good starter set of chisels is a combo pack of the ½ inch, ¾ inch, and 1 inch like this one on Amazon: Buck Brothers 1201030 3-Piece Professional Wood Chisel Set With Acetate Handles | 1/2 Inch, 3/4 Inch, 1 Inch Chisels Included | Carve, Cut, and Shape Wood, Install Windows and Doors | Carpentry ToolsOpens in a new tab.

Can you Chisel MDF or Particle Board?

Plywood comes in many different forms and types. These types of plywood vary by the reason for which you want to use the plywood.  You have mostly birch and pine shavings glued together in a thin plastic resin; you have a Medium Density Fiberboard or MDF board. 

MDF makes a terrible board to chisel. The board is ground up fibers of wood from other boards and glue. The board is then compressed into the shape and length that it is cut. MDF is an excellent board to use for a quick job or when sheets are being put onto a house. MDF also usually has a plastic or veneer cover to hold it all into place. 

Particleboard is another type of plywood that is ground-up wood and glue with a veneer or a lacquer to hold the board together.  Although particle board is used mainly in manufacturing, you can use particleboard either with or in place of plywood.  

Chiseling both MDF and Particleboard will only destroy the wood; it will crumble and break apart in an unpredictable pattern, defeating the purpose of chiseling the board. 

Hardwood vs Softwood

Aside from weight and density, you can check a wood hardness level with your fingernail. Softwoods will easily indent using only your fingernail, while Hardwoods will not.  Keeping in mind the project and the different types of woods being used, Hardwoods are surprisingly easier to chisel than softwoods. 

Hardwoods are also less forgiving than softwoods and can easily save time doing minor repairs to the wood if you make a mistake. If you split a piece of softwood, it can take a considerable chunk out of the board, but it can be easy to repair because of the wood’s softness. 

Most plywood sheets are either made of pine or birch, which helps give the plywood its strength.  However, plywood can be made with both or a combination of hard and softwoods. Depending on what type of wood is used to make the plywood your working on will depend on the characteristics you run into when chiseling plywood.  

Here is a quick reference guide to some common wood species: 

HardwoodSoftwood
OakPine
WalnutCedar
CherryRedwood
AshSpruce
BalsaHemlock
HickoryCypress
BirchFir

Types of Wood and How a Chisel can Carve Them 

Although different techniques can be used on hard and softwoods, there are not many techniques for plywood. This effect is mainly caused by the unnatural composing of wood and glue used to make plywood. The fibers are not as consistent between pieces. 

However, there is always an exception to the rule. There are many hand-carved artistic pieces of plywood on sites such as Etsy and eBay. A combination of different tools could be used to create some of these masterpieces, including chisels. 

 These plywood carvings are mostly done using wood carving tools(Like this one on AmazonOpens in a new tab.) and knives. These smaller tools cut into the plywood and veneer with almost razor sharpness.; it is possible to use the carving tools to chisel away at some plywood without cutting too deep by using a slower chiseling method.

Particleboard is often confused with real grain wood or MDF board. These boards are easily identifiable by the repeating grain pattern on top of the board and the lack of a grain pattern on the board’s side. Particleboard is another excellent material to build with but not especially pleasing to the eye. 

Conclusion

There is a lot to take here; the type of wood and the chisel itself are things that can impact your project’s outcome. Not using a sharp enough chisel can lead to injury or product deformation. The key is to get the correct balance between sharpness and stability. 

The plywood is also something to consider, and although chisels are not typically used on plywood, if the chisel is sharp enough and strong enough, anything is possible. Carving appearance boards with thin plywood to be placed on a separate furniture piece may be a good option; if doing this by hand, you would want to use a carving set for the details. 

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