Chisels are a tool you’ll be using in woodworking a lot. And there are several different kinds of chisels depending on the project you want to work on.
But when you’re a beginner-level woodworker, you might be confused by the variety of chisels out there.
Not only that, you’re scratching your head over which type of chisel you should use for which job.
This article will cover different kinds of chisels. You’ll learn:
- What kinds of chisels there are
- Which chisels are used for which purposes
- The difference between tang chisels and socket chisels
- Western chisels vs. Japanese chisels
- Which chisels you should buy first
Are you ready to get down and dirty with chisels? Okay, let’s go!
What are the different kinds of chisels?
There are several different kinds of chisels. Some of the most common ones include:
- Firmer chisels
- Bevel edge chisels
- Mortise chisels
- Paring chisels
- Butt chisels
- Framing chisels
- Skew chisels
- Dovetail chisels
- Corner chisels
- Carving chisels
All of these chisels serve a different purpose for different kinds of woodworking. Let’s dive in deeper and see what all of these chisels do.
A firmer chisel features a blade with a rectangular cross-section and is used for heavy-duty work.
Firmer chisels can be used to shape a piece of wood into a rough form before it is crafted in finer detail. These are durable hand tools and strong enough to withstand the force of being struck with a mallet. A firmer chisel in good condition is capable of removing big pieces of wood in a single stroke.
This is one of the oldest known types of chisel. Its prototype dates back to the Stone Age when our ancestors fashioned sharp pieces of rock to cut animal hides and make various other tools. Later on, wooden handles were added and metal chisels were developed.
In addition to standard firmer chisels, there are also registered firmer chisels. A registered firmer chisel is more tapered towards the handle to allow for greater strength for chopping more waste wood.
Bevel edge chisel
Bevel edge chisels can reach corners and tight spaces easily. This makes it a great tool for joinery and paring.
When chopping wood, strike the bevel edge chisel with a mallet to force it through the wood. To use it for fine paring work, hold the chisel with your dominant hand and use your other hand to guide it along the wood’s surface.
A mortise chisel is a common variation of a firming chisel. It is used to cut mortises into which joints will be fitted. Its blade is thicker than the typical firmer chisel. This allows it to cut deep mortises quickly and efficiently for ideal joining.
Mortise chisels are struck with a mallet to remove the waste wood where the mortise will go. They are also used to clean the side walls of a mortise once the wood is removed.
Mortise chisels come in a variety of widths, which enables you to cut mortises in whatever size you need. Start with a chisel that is the same width as the mortise you are cutting. Once the mortise is started, use smaller ones to neaten up the rest of the mortise.
There also a couple of variations on mortise chisels. These variations are:
- Sash mortise chisels
Sash mortise chisels are lightweight and easy to handle. They work well when making shallow mortises but can also be used for deeper ones.
- Pigsticker mortise chisels
Pigsticker chisels are a shorter version of the mortise chisel. Small but sturdy, they stand up to heavy mallet blows exceptionally well. They feature steep bevel edges and are excellent for cutting deep mortises fast.
A paring chisel is used for shaving small bits or “parings” of wood around joints. This makes joints smoother so that they fit better into their intended sockets.
Paring chisels have blades that are long, thin, and almost flexible. The long blade also enables them to reach tight angles and clear grooves in the wood more easily. The handle of a paring chisel is rounded, which makes it very comfortable to hold in your hand.
A paring chisel is not struck with a mallet, as the thin blade is not strong enough the stand up to the force of mallet blows. Instead, you will hold the chisel with one hand and guide the chisel across the wood with the other hand. This allows you to control the chisel so you can get your joints as smooth as possible.
Paring chisels need to be kept extremely sharp for best results. They are usually sharpened at a low bevel angle (about 25 degrees) compared to heavier chisels with steeper angles to withstand heavier use.
There is a similar tool to a paring chisel called a slick. A slick is generally used in boat construction and is not to be confused with a paring knife.
Butt chisels have short edges and are used for creating and cleaning joints. It is another variant of the firmer chisel.
Butt chisels are typically less than 4 inches in length. They usually come in lengths of 2-3.5 inches. Their shape makes them useful for cutting into tight corners and small edges. For this reason, they work best on complicated furniture projects such as cabinets and desks.
Framing chisels are similar to butt chisels, except they have longer, more flexible blades. It is primarily used in timber construction and for making wooden frames. They can also be used to cut notches, gouge wood, and carve mortises and tenons.
Skew chisels are used for trimming and finishing wood across the grain. It is used in combination with a lathe for smoothing out workpieces. It is most commonly used for turning spindles as well as carving and small details.
A skew chisel has a long, flat blade with an angled tip called a toe. The shorter point of the cutting edge is called a heel. The cutting edge of a skew chisel gives your wooden piece a fine, smooth finish with almost no sanding required.
The toe of a skew chisel makes it one of the most difficult tools for beginning woodworkers. It’s also one of the most dangerous. A common mistake involving a skew chisel is catching a corner of the wood and nicking the surface, ruining the smooth finish you’re going for.
To practice with a skew chisel, try it with the lathe turned off to get the hang of it. Remember to use the middle of the blade and not the corners. Also, make sure the chisel has your undivided attention. This will take practice, but once you’ve mastered it, a skew chisel is highly useful.
A dovetail is a type of joint frequently used in joining furniture pieces. It is shaped into pins and tails that fit into corresponding joints before being secured with glue.
Dovetail chisels are used for creating dovetail joints. The blades have a shallow angle optimal for chopping away waste wood and making deep cuts. They also have a triangular cross section for reaching into tight places and cleaning out corners and walls, making your dovetails nice and smooth for neat joinery.
Dovetails are a beautiful joinery technique but can be a nightmare to cut if you’re just starting out. With time and practice, though, cutting dovetails can be a rewarding experience.
Corner chisels feature an L-shaped cutting edge. This allows it to cut into 90-degree angles, so it can be used to clean mortises and square holes.
A corner chisel has two cutting faces that meet at a 90-degree angle with the bevel on the inside. This gives it a good angle for clearing away waste wood to make perfectly square corners.
Corner chisels are one of the toughest woodworking tools to sharpen due to its unique shape. A slip stone or a file can be used as well as pieces of sandpaper stuck to a piece of wood.
Carving chisels are used for carving fine, intricate designs and sculpting into the wood. This type of work requires excellent free-hand carving skills and excellent grip control. Carving chisels also need to be kept razor-sharp so that you can get the delicate look and feel you’re looking for.
There are other types of woodworking tools you can use for carving as well. These include carving knives and gouges. It’s also important to consider the type of wood you’ll be using for your project as well as its grain.
What’s the difference between tang chisels and socket chisels?
There are a couple of ways in which chisels are attached to their handles. These are
- Tang chisels
- Socket chisels
Each of these two types of chisel has its pros and cons. Let’s take a closer look at these.
However, because they are so fine, they do not stand up well to heavy mallet use. As the pointed end of the tang is driven into the handle by pounding the mallet, it splits the handle and causes it to fly apart. This sends sharp splinters of wood into the air, setting the scene for serious injuries.
In contrast to tang chisels, socket chisels have cone-shaped handles that fit into the metal socket of the chisel. This makes them more suitable for heavy use than tang chisels.
If you’re just starting out, look for a set of socket chisels. They’re more durable than tang chisels, so they’re better able to stand up to heavy mallet strikes. Replacing the handle on a socket chisel is easy as well. In fact, if you have a lathe, you can use it to turn your own socket chisel handle!
Western chisels vs. Japanese chisels
As you start to consider which chisels to buy, you’ll likely run across “Western” chisels and “Japanese” chisels. You’ll also probably hear quite a bit of controversy as to which ones are better. Some woodworkers use Western chisels exclusively. Others swear by Japanese chisels.
Woodworkers have debated the merits of Western chisels and Japanese chisels for ages. While there are significant differences between the two, both have their distinct merits. Let’s examine them more closely.
Generally speaking, a Western chisel is most useful as an all-purpose tool. On the other hand, a Japanese chisel is more durable.
The extra durability of Japanese chisels is due mainly to the carbon content and treatment of the steel. The two main types of steel used in Japanese chisels are “blue steel” and “white steel.” Both have hard, sturdy edges, but white steel is easier to sharpen because of the differences in alloys.
That being said, the hardened steel and sharp edges of Japanese chisels make them more brittle than Western ones, so they can break more easily.
It’s up to you to choose which chisel you prefer to work with. You might start out with Western chisels before moving up to Japanese ones. This is a pretty subjective matter, so pick whichever one works best for you.
One last difference: Japanese chisels are sized in the metric system. When in doubt, do a quick conversion on your smartphone or other mobile devices.
Which chisels should you buy first?
Like all hand tools, chisels come in all shapes and sizes. You can purchase them separately, or buy one of the many starter sets out there for beginners. As you get more practice using chisels, you can start to branch out into different kinds to see which ones you like.
So that’s your basic guide to the different kinds of chisels. It sounds daunting at first, but hopefully, by now you’ve got a good idea of where to start. So grab some chisels and have fun!