i’ve recently written a couple of beginner guides to what you need to shift from armchair-consumer of internet-based woodworking-content to actually practicing the craft. you need a saw (well, probably a few), a small stable of planes (jack, jointer, smoother) and … well, there’s one other family of tools you need at least a few representatives of and i’ve been a little silent on the subject for three reasons. the first is that it’s the easiest to get right by accident. the second is that it’s the one with the largest variety of possible answers to choose from. and the third is that i’ve been specifically asked questions about planes and saws so many times lately and far fewer about these — chisels. and i think i know why. it’s because there’s no huge debate about direction of use like in saws and planes. do eastern chisels work on the pull-stroke? no. not even slightly. because that would be stupid. and traditional japanese woodworkers may be a lot of things, not all of them good. but stupid isn’t one of them.
what can go right?
actually, the real question is what can go wrong. there are really only three things you can screw up when making a chisel and they’re pretty basic things and all of them are actually pretty easy to check for, even if you’re just trying to pick one up used. used — i know, right? i don’t normally recommend anyone even contemplate buying a used woodworking tool. this isn’t really an exception. you probably shouldn’t buy used chisels. but, if you’re going to try to save money buying anything used for this craft, this is probably the place to do it. i just don’t think you’re going to save much that way because you can get some pretty functional chisels for almost no money if you want to go cheap and they’re definitely a step-up compared to used ones. but we’ll get to that.
the first thing a chisel needs is a good, sharp blade that will hold an edge without bending, warping, dubbing, etc. it has to be hard and it has to be sharp. most chisels you buy will show up extremely dull but the sharp part is easy to fix. but the hard part is another story. that being said, any modern chisel is going to be plenty hard with a few notable exceptions. you’re going to be buying, with few exceptions, a known brand. thousands or even millions of people will have already used them. if the steel is shit, you’ll be able to see thousands of comments saying “my chisel’s bent!” and “this ain’t no chisel — it’s a banana!” or something slightly less entertaining with the same content.
what about when you’re buying a used chisel? this is an interesting one. if you’re buying chisels privately, ask if you can give the thing a few whacks with a mallet against a piece of wood and if the person says no you’re probably looking at an example of shit construction. but what about a flea-market? i mean, that’s where we normally get really cheap used tools and you don’t exactly want to … oh, wait a second. bring a scrap of wood with you. not a whole tree. just a scrap that’s maybe 10cm wide and 20cm long a few centimeters thick. something that’ll fit in your back pocket or your bag. you’re at a flea market. you’re carrying enough stuff, anyway. just toss a piece of scrap in it and your mallet. unless you’re going to buy a mallet cause you don’t need two in your bag. that’ll just make you look like a psychopath. now when you walk up to a table with a bunch of chisels on it you can chat with the seller and give them your pitch. it’s simple — those $5 chisels they’ve got there on the table? you want six of them and you’re prepared to pay all thirty bucks without question. the catch? you want to try a bunch of them out, just a couple of strokes with each and you’ll do it right there on the ground in front of them because you want to see how they feel. dude’ll definitely agree. ok, maybe not. but it’s likely. i’ve done it. a bunch of times. and i’ve never had anyone say no. some weird looks but i’ve had a few that felt flimsy and just picked some other ones. i’ve never brought home a bendy chisel and the whole process only took ten or fifteen minutes — plus, what’s more fun than getting out a mallet and pounding some almost-mortises outdoors at a flea-market with a bunch of people wondering what the actual fuck you’re doing?
the next thing is that it needs a comfortable handle. again, just hold the thing against a piece of wood — you don’t even have to hit it. just make sure you can balance it with one hand. if you need two hands, the handle is crap and you should try another. it might be too big or poorly-balanced. a chisel isn’t a one-handed tool but the other hand is usually on a mallet so you need to get used to positioning and adjusting it with your non-dominant hand. the dominant hand is usually the one delivering the striking blow from above or beside. if you can do it easily, that’s a good handle. if not, pass — there are plenty of other chisels out there and everyone’s hands are different. just be aware the handles of many entry-level quality chisels are designed for people with body proportions closer to those of a gorilla than a human (narex much?). if you’re at that flea-market, by the way, your strength-testing will answer the question about comfortable handles, too. don’t be afraid to open the package in the store to feel the handles of the chisels, either. you’re a responsible adult. you’ll put them back in the box. if anyone asks you what you’re doing, simply explain you’re making an important decision that will determine your longterm happiness in the pursuit of beauty and perfection in your craft. this is important. a shit chisel will mean a shit experience. every time you pick it up. and that’ll be a few times an hour. don’t rush.
the third thing it needs is actually sort-of a subset of what we just said. the handle doesn’t just have to be comfortable. it has to be strong. like the blade, strength is vital. if the handle is going to crack after a few hundred smacks with a mallet, you don’t want it. because that first few hundred times will be in the first hour you use it. chisels take a beating and the vast majority of that is on the end of the handle. no, don’t be fooled by the fact that it has a metal ring on the end. those are often just for show (sometimes not but certainly the majority of western ones i’ve seen provide absolutely no strength advantage because of how they’re mounted). either way, you want a handle that’s going to last. if you’re buying a new chisel, you’re working a little without a net but, much like the steel, if the handles are breaking on popular models, you’ll see it in the reviews. don’t worry if people say they’re uncomfortable. this is personal choice and you’re feeling the handles (we’ve been through this) so it’ll either be comfortable for you or not. but if they say the wood is splitting … ok, they’re not going to say that. any chisel with a handle that splits that easily is simply not going to be staying on the market at any significant price very long without either being scrapped or replaced. any major brand’s chisels will have strong handles.
just one more caveat about handles, though. they’re made of wood. only wood. nothing but wood. if the chisel has a handle made of something else — plastic, metal, rubber, vinyl, epoxy, some synthetic space-age material (and yes i’ve seen these all for sale) — pick another chisel. you’ll get lots of people recommend cheap chisels with plastic handles saying “the steel is awesome” or “it’s a great deal”. the steel is only one third of the equation and [the reliant robin was also a great deal] but i don’t see people lining up to resurrect that disaster. plastic, rubber and metal handles will all get slimy, sticky and sweaty when used in a woodworking shop. vinyl will warp and epoxy is simply plastic. these are bad materials for handles. plastic-handled tools are for home repair. entry-level home repair. don’t buy them. that doesn’t mean you have to get expensive chisels. but make sure they’re handled with wood — preferably dense hardwood like ash, maple, hickory or beech. and if you’re curious what wood it is it’ll probably tell you. manufacturers are proud of their handles. they want you to know. if it’s vintage, you actually have an advantage on this one. it’s already been pounded for years — if it was going to break, you’d see it. look at the end. are there cracks? if it’s cracked, don’t buy it. if it’s in good shape, you’re probably good to go for another few years.
east and west
there is, however, a huge difference between traditional chisels from the east and the west, though. so let’s take a look at what that difference means in terms of construction, cost, use and result.
two steels for the price of one?
japanese chisels mostly have laminated blades. that means there’s a very-hard steel on the cutting edge backed with a thick layer of softer steel on the back. the harder one will be much harder than standard o1 tool steel used in old western chisels and may even be harder than a2 — actually, it often is. the softer steel is usually quite soft. it almost feels like you could shape it with your fingers. you can’t. but it doesn’t have that hard, cold, rigid feel of high-carbon steel you typically imagine you’ll feel when you touch a tool. it almost gives a sense of warmth like wood. almost.
they also tend to have hollows on the back (ura), usually one but you’ll see two or more on larger chisels — sometimes several in interesting patterns. this is for two reasons, one that doesn’t really matter. it’s to make it faster to flatten and sharpen. this is the one that doesn’t matter. with your modern sharpening equipment, it makes a difference measured in seconds. it’s still done for tradition, not function. whether there’s a hollow makes no practical difference to the use of the tool (no, it doesn’t make it harder to register against a flat reference surface). the other reason is aesthetic. and this isn’t so much something that matters from a tool-use perspective but a tool-appreciation one. they are usually just as precise as anything else on a tool and can add to the beautiful shape and lines, which i believe is important. if you love how your tool looks and feels, the entire shop experience is improved. i may, however, be weirdly aesthetically-obsessed. and i’m ok with that.
some japanese chisels aren’t bimetal. and you’ll see more and more made with high-speed-steel (hss) that can easily be ground even on a high-speed grinder. these are awesome. don’t let anyone tell you they’re silly and untraditional. they are, in fact, untraditional. but it doesn’t matter because they work really well and the traditional technique is just as applicable to them. just remember the steel will be harder to sharpen. on the other side, though, that edge will certainly last.
wow — you want how much?
most modern japanese chisels are either handmade or pretty close to it. it’s not the bulk industrial process you see in the west by the big manufacturers. that means a much, much higher cost of ownership.
in theory, you’re paying for higher-quality steel. and it is. the steel is definitely better. but this doesn’t matter. even the entry-level things you get from narex or two cherries has perfectly-usable steel. so what you’re paying for isn’t the upgrade from bicycle to toyota but toyota to lexus. it’s totally aesthetic. and that’s the thing you have to realize very quickly about japanese chisels. they’re works of art.
when you buy a chisel from veritas or lie nielsen, you get a quality product. but it’s not beautiful. if you go to tasai or ouchi (relatively-affordable japanese chisels that are easily-accessible in the west), you’re not just buying a functional piece of steel with a handle. you’re getting something that feels amazing, looks like the woodworking equivalent of a renaissance masterpiece and still gets the job done for your entire lifetime.
what’s so different about it? well, proportion, shape and finish. let’s look at each. japanese chisels are proportioned differently from western chisels. on a western chisel, you have the blade, which is about 3/5 of the length (yes, this varies but it’s a good approximation) and the handle takes up the other 2/3. sometimes it’s closer to half and half but we’re talking about two pieces joined in the middle. it looks like a knife with a handle except the cutting edge has migrated to the end. a japanese chisel doesn’t look like that, though. it has a blade on the end that’s quite wide, a narrow shaft and a handle that’s meant to be about the size of your palm plus a little extra to allow you to hold it comfortably. this doesn’t really change anything about the functionality except to make it easier to grip. but it makes the whole thing look like a tapered hourglass and that shape is much more visually-pleasing. it feels good, too. it’s easy to pick it up by the shaft. and after a few hours working with japanese chisels western ones will simply feel bulky and cumbersome. because they are. is that worth the price difference? only you can answer that. do you want to cover your walls with movie posters or beautiful oil paintings? one isn’t better than the other. it’s about personal choice. and pocketbook contents. cause they’re not comparable.
you can use chisels from east or west in exactly the same manner. and you should. but there’s a really bad habit in the west of using a chisel like a lever. don’t do that.
the direction of travel of a chisel should always be inline with the blade. pushing forward or back. there is no other functional direction for correct chisel use. don’t pry. don’t lever. don’t try to separate wood with it. it’s not a crowbar. and it’s not the claw on a hammer. it’s meant to go straight in and come straight out. if you keep this in mind, you’ll never damage your chisel. if you start pushing in other directions (for example, if you have joined the silly school of digging mortises the way we dig graves and ditches by sticking the thing in then torquing on it like a gorilla trying to lift a railroad track) you’re going to bend it. quickly. and it will be your fault. so don’t do that.
japanese chisels aren’t inherently weak. but they will not stand this kind of treatment. they’re just as strong in the direction that matters but they have little torsional strength because of the shaft between the handle and the blade. western chisels can resist it a little better and this is how this awful technique has been allowed to flourish — though it will come back to bite your anal cavity when you least expect it, i promise you. if you have good technique, though, the use is interchangeable. do traditional japanese or western joinery and either chisel style will serve you just fine as long as it’s sharp (sharp enough, not as sharp as possible, which is just a waste of time because chisels can get far sharper than is necessary).
what comes out the end?
the wood doesn’t know if the chisel was made in kyushu or kansas. the blade is realistically the same. if you think japanese projects should be made with japanese tools and queen-anne highboys with vintage stanleys, this is a matter of personal preference and you’re welcome to use any tools you like for your furniture. but the furniture doesn’t care. use whatever you like. nobody will ever be able to tell what chisel you used, least of all the tree.
does size matter?
but that’s not really a surprise, is it? in almost all aspects of life, especially woodworking, size is very important. we’ve already talked about the size of the handle but let’s talk about the size of the blade.
before we get into size, though, let’s talk a little about shape. you want bench-chisels. no. don’t buy anything else. a fishtail-chisel will be useful for dovetails but you can simply grind a bench-chisel that way and save the hundred bucks most companies will charge you for one. there are many specialty chisels out there. you don’t need them. i’ll repeat that in case anyone didn’t catch it the first time. you don’t need specialty chisels. they don’t do anything you can’t do with a bench-chisel. one. the only important factor in chisels is their size and everything else is just a gimmick. there are a few neat features but they’re simply not going to be useful unless you’re doing some very, very specialized tasks. and when you get there you’ll know it. if you’re looking to get your first set of chisels, these are not concerns in your life. after all the time i’ve spent at a bench, i can honestly tell you that, other than a couple of fishtails and skews that started their lives as bench-chisels (which i should probably talk about at some point), i have never found any need for other styles of chisel. not even once.
i’m going to assume you’re buying metric chisels. if you live in america and have ended up stuck in arcane measurements, that’s fine and it’s your choice. there are approximate equivalents and here are the most common. these aren’t exactly the same but they’re close and will help you understand my recommendations. the metric versions are usually smaller than the imperial and this difference becomes greater as the chisels get larger but these are standard sizes, not meant to be equivalents.
- 2mm — 3/32”
- 3mm — 1/8”
- 6mm — 1/4”
- 9mm — 3/8”
- 12mm — 1/2”
- 16mm — 5/8”
- 18mm — 3/4”
- 26mm — 1”
- 32mm — 1 1/4”
- 36mm — 1 1/2”
- 42mm — 1 3/4”
- 50mm — 2”
the real guide here is to get what you think you’re going to use but here are a few tips. if you’re cutting dovetails on a regular basis (or you want to be), you need a chisel that’s as wide as the inside measurement of the gap between your tails. preferably slightly smaller. so if you have 3mm gaps between your tails, you definitely need a 3mm or even a 2mm chisel to get in that space. a 6mm or 12mm chisel isn’t going to do it. no, you can’t turn it and get the same effective paring job done. if you only cut massively-spaced dovetails, this may not be an issue. if you don’t cut dovetails at all, it may not even be a consideration.
42/50mm chisels tend to be rather expensive. you probably don’t need one of those unless you’re doing a lot of timberframing. and if you’re doing that you may actually want a larger chisel in length and thickness, too, something that’s less for traditional woodworking and more specifically-designed for timberframing. i use my 42mm quite often but that’s mostly just because i have it.
chisels between 3mm and 36mm are fairly standard and they usually work out to be about the same price. western chisels are usually cheapest between 6mm and 32mm with the ones on the extreme ends being slightly more while japanese chisels usually start cheapest at 2/3mm and get more expensive as they use more steel, which makes more sense but the western ones are more about production-scale than raw-materials-cost.
my general recommendation is that you probably need one or very small chisels (3mm, 6mm), one medium chisel (9/12mm) and one large chisel (32/36mm). with those three you can do any chopping or paring operation and not have to worry about being too far from the ideal size. you can certainly get all the sizes if you want a complete set but these four (3, 6, 9/12, 32/36mm are what i usually suggest to start) will be plenty and there’s no need to spend more money until you play with them for a little while (probably at least a year). once you’ve done that, you’ll know what you use, what you might want to add and what doesn’t ever come out. if you’re going to buy premium chisels at that point, now you know exactly which ones to get. don’t buy a set. just get the ones you actually use. that way you can spend as much as you like on something useful and not waste money on something that will sit in a box and bring you no pleasure.
i feel so used!
so you want a used chisel, eh? cool.
i won’t try to persuade you you shouldn’t get a used chisel. unless you can get a screaming deal and you have a thing for restoring old junk, you shouldn’t buy an old plane or saw. but an old chisel is probably ok. there’s just one thing to keep in mind. it’s an old chisel made with old steel. and it will probably not be very good if it was made in the west. western steel production wasn’t standardized until about the middle of the twentieth century. it was a function of all the steel production and research during the second-world-war. before that, steel is generally pretty bad.
japanese chisels are the exception to that rule. if you get a vintage japanese chisel, it will probably have steel just as good as a modern one. the process hasn’t changed in centuries. it’s improved gradually with time but even a hundred-year-old chisel will be made with excellent-quality steel — unless it’s garbage. and if you hit it and it flexes or bends you’ll know that very quckly.
that being said, you can probably pick up used chisels in the west for less than $5 each. so if you want to use this as a way to save some money you’ll probably be totally ok. i’ve really found very few unusable vintage chisels and i refuse to spend more than five bucks on one so i’m sampling the bottom of the barrel.
there are many brands that provide excellent chisels in the west. i’m not going to get into eastern brands but i’ll point out a few places western audiences can acquire quality japanese chisels. anything you buy from these places will serve you well.
- [iida tool]
- [hida tool]
- [tools from japan]
- [osaka tools]
- [covington and sons]
this isn’t a comprehensive list. but it’s a good place to start if you want some beautiful, functional japanese chisels. don’t say i didn’t warn you about the price you pay for aesthetic perfection, though. if you think you’re going to get a set of quality japanese chisels for a hundred bucks, save yourself the aggravation and get some western chisels.
on the western side of the equation, i won’t recommend dealers but brands. my usual suggestion for all western tools is veritas. they make excellent tools and you’ll never regret buying them. they really are the standard. here’s the other thing to remember. many tools come with an option of harder or softer steel. you can take your pick (and sometimes there are complex, modern steels on offer) — my simple recommendation is to get the hardest option, take the extra time to sharpen and benefit from the longer-lasting edge. this means most will be sold as a2. avoid o1. it’s much softer and will dull far more quickly. if you see steel labeled pmv11, that’s a newer steel from powder. it’s excellent but i don’t think you’ll find it more useful when you’re actually using the tool than a2 and it’s more expensive. buy it if you like but remember you might be throwing extra money at a problem that doesn’t need to be solved.
- [veritas] (awesomeness in a small box)
- [lie nielsen] (beautiful quality tools)
- [narex] (excellently crafted but handles big enough for an orangutan)
- [two cherries] (not quite as precise as veritas and lie nielsen but definitely in the ballpark)
- [pfeil] (swiss quality but sometimes a little awkward in the hand)
- woodriver (relatively inexpensive and functional with surprisingly-comfortable handles — you can pick these up in many places but as far as i know they don’t actually have a company site to link to — if you work for woodriver, though, and there’s actually a site, send me a message and i’ll go back and add the links in this and all my other posts recommending them because they’re sweet and affordable tools i recommend almost every day)
paring is such sweet mortise?
that’s it. the hat-trick of woodworking tools. saws, planes and chisels. of course, you need a few other things to get started. a bench, mallet, mechanical pencil (no, not a knife — go away), clamps and, most likely, at least a cheap vise. with this gear, though, you’ll be well on your way to making some beautiful furniture.
of course, you need some wood, too.
with those entry guides done, though, i’ll turn my attention to some actual projects and workbenches. if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on any of the forums or contact me by email. i’m always happy to answer any questions you have about anything i’ve discussed in this or any of my other articles, whether woodworking or something else. thanks so much for taking the time to explore chisels with me today. may you find calm and peace in your shop.