As you marvel at your great grandmother’s heirloom set of furniture, you likely encounter the artisanal handiwork of a skilled woodworker. But, carving particular, functional, and beautiful shapes into your furniture is best done with a set of trusty chisels. How do you replicate this?
Beginning (and skilled) woodworkers should stick to three basic types of woodworking chisels for basic projects, including bench, mortise, and paring chisels. Specialty chisels (corner, dovetail, gouges, woodturning, etc.) can be purchased when necessary but are not as likely to be used frequently.
Of course, you will also want to pay attention to the quality of the wood chisel you choose to purchase. Investing in a high-quality chisel upfront can save you the headache of working with a faulty tool or having to spend more replacing it down the line. Let’s take a closer look at the ins and outs of basic woodworking chisels to get you started on your next woodworking project.
What are the Different Types of Wood Chisels?
As you begin your hunt for the best wood chisels for woodworking, you will likely find various recommendations on well-known brands, specialty models, and wood chisels with different sizes, shapes, and materials. To know what you are looking for in deciding what woodworking chisels you need, it is best to start with the basics.
Basic wood chisels include bench chisels (with normal or beveled edges), mortise chisels (including the pig sticker and sash variations), and paring chisels (made with and without a bevel). Specialty chisels include corners, dovetail, gouges, woodturning chisels, and more.
Knowing what each type of chisel looks like and can be used is important in understanding why each type would be needed on your workbench or your chisel storage rack or shelf. So, let’s take a look at some of the basic types of chisels and a few specialty models that would be used less frequently.
There are three main chisels that every woodworker (new or experienced) should have in their workshop. These include bench chisels, mortise chisels, and paring chisels. Each of these types of basic chisels can be found made from various materials, in different size specifications, with different types of handles, and with different subsets of each basic type of chisel.
In addition to this, it is important to note that each of these types of chisels has been specifically designed for a unique purpose. Not all chisels are the same, and both the design and the functionality of your chisel are essential to understanding and achieving the woodworking project of your dreams.
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Bench chisels are one of the most basic types of woodworking chisels, and you definitely need this type of chisel if you plan on doing any woodworking project. Fortunately, this multi-functional type of chisel can be found in various sizes and specifications to meet your various needs.
Bench chisels are known as bench chisels because your woodworking bench is where they most commonly reside- right next to you, handy and convenient when you are ready to begin. This type of chisel is a bit longer and can be made with a normal or beveled edge. It is suggested that you would have both normal and beveled edge bench chisels in your shop.
In terms of sizing, you should begin with the four most basic bench chisels sizes. Look for blade widths that include ¼”, ½”, ¾”, and 1”. You can vary from this and add larger blade widths, but these basic four are great for getting you started.
You might also find that having a butt chisel (a subset of the bench chisel) can come in handy when working with smaller projects. This type of chisel is designed like a bench chisel (with normal or beveled edges) but is shorter and more easily worked with small woodworking ideas.
When working with a bench chisel, you will find wooden or hard plastic handle options. Either will work fine, but many experienced woodworkers use antique bench chisels that have wooden handles.
Just be sure that you only apply applicable pressure to your socket or tang handle (which defines where the end stub of metal is placed in reference to the handle of your chisel). Importantly, only use a wooden mallet when you are working with chisels with wooden handles. This ensures a decreased likelihood of cracking the handle when you apply pressure to your bench chisel in forming basic woodworking cuts and carvings.
The next set of basic woodworking chisels that you absolutely need in your woodworking shop includes the classic mortise chisels. Mortise chisels are used to carve- you guessed it- the mortise connection that secures two planks of wood. Having a precise angle on these cuts is incredibly important, considering the mortise is the carved joint that will hold your wooden structure together.
Mortise chisels come in two main styles: the pig sticker (which is longer and more durable when used with a striking object) and the sash (which is shorter and to be used with less force when struck). Since the carving of a mortise chisel needs to be precise, you will likely find that this type of chisel is relatively heavy compared to your bench or paring chisels.
However, the material and handle are critical on this type of chisel since you will be striking it with greater force to yield precise mortise carvings. Be sure to pay attention to the feel of this type of chisel in your hand, as you will want something that is comfortable and does not wiggle around.
It is essential to apply force for a smaller cut, clear the cut wood, and repeat it. Instead of striking over and over and hoping that the chisel is going through straight, it is best to make small “incisions” and ensure a clean cut on your wood. Otherwise, you could end up with mortise cuts that do not accurately fit the tenons and result in loose furniture connections.
For sizing your mortise chisels, the most common sizes are ¼” or ⅜” blades, as these can accomplish the best mortise cuts on standard-sized wood like a ¾” wooden board. Of course, you can choose within the range that meets your needs, but this gives you a basic starting range.
Paring chisels are the third on our list of basic chisels, and they are an incredibly important addition. Unlike bench and mortise chisels that will be struck to attain the perfect wood carving, paring chisels are used to trim or “peel” the wood in a delicate fashion. They are not meant to be used with a mallet.
This makes sense when you look at a paring chisel, too. A paring chisel is a longer, thinner blade than the other types of basic chisels. It is to be used with precision and care as it will help you achieve the detailed carvings that will make your woodworking piece come to life.
Also, it comes with a bevel or no bevel edge, so you can choose the option that will work best for your woodworking project. This type of chisel will handle the more finely-detailed cuts on your project, so it is important to find a set that fits well in your hand and that you feel you have control over when working with.
You can slice your wood with a paring chisel in a similar fashion that you might imagine paring your food. Thus, keeping the blade sharp and intact is important.
Sizing specifications can vary in length as you might want a longer blade for precise but long cuts, or you can opt for a shorter blade if you desire more hand control over the chisel. The most common paring chisel widths include ½” or 1” with other sizes often being available.
Once you have your three basic woodworking chisels (bench, mortise, and paring chisels), you can begin your specialty chisel collection. This can include a wide range of chisels made for more unique types of woodworking needs than the basic chisels might work for. Of course, you can use the basic chisels to accomplish most of your tasks, but specialty chisels were designed to make woodworking easier and more accessible for specialty cuts.
A few specialty chisels that you might be interested in down the line include the following: Corner, Dovetail, Drawer Lock, Fishtail, Gouges, Mortise Floats, Skew, Timber framing slicks, and Wood Turning.
Each of these types of chisels can be added to your woodworking shop as you begin to find projects that require them. But, since so much can be accomplished with the basic set of bench, mortise, and paring chisels, it is best to start with the basics and then add in specialty chisels once you are more skilled and comfortable identifying what you are looking for in a quality chisel.
Should You get Woodworking Chisels with Wooden or Plastic Handles?
Now that you know the various types of woodworking chisels, you can look at the basic design that sets unique sets of chisels apart. The handle of a chisel is essential to its overall function. Not only does this change its design but its overall functionality, too.
Chisels with wooden and plastic handles both have their place in woodworking. Wooden handles offer a greater weight balance and are easier to grip as they generally have less movement when used on wood. However, plastic handles can handle more pressure when being struck.
So, it really depends on what you are using your woodworking chisel for. Ideally, you will look at the reviews on various models of chisels. Or, to be safe, find a set of antique, well-made chisels and go from there.
Choose a socket chisel (with the wood sitting on top of the handle) when you are looking to apply more force to your chisel or a tang chisel (with the chisel sitting inside of the handle) when you do not need as much pressure. Either way, you are well on your way to your next woodworking masterpiece.