Monday, April 6, 2009

A Note on Chisels

I got a letter today from a fellow wood worker asking my thoughts on Chisels.
Thought I'd share my long-winded reply with you.

Learning more every day. Question. I need a quality set of bevel
chisels that will be passed down to grand kids. I like the Lie-Nielsen
but they seem pretty high priced. They will be used for pretty much
general purpose and some dovetailing.


Hi Ted,
Nice to hear from you again.
To answer your question:
For all around quality-you're spot on, the Lie-Nielsen chisels are top notch and will surely be around for the grand kids...maybe even more! A little pricey yes, but remember, when it comes to quality hand tools you really get what you pay for.
Lee Valley sells a couple of options you may consider; first off are their Hirsch Firmer Bench chisels. For a set of six you're looking at $129.00 Canadian. That's a pretty fair price for a middle of the road chisel. I purchased this exact set about four years ago and have been bashing them and sharpening them all along...they don't seem to mind one-bit. They certainly won't hold an edge like the Lie-Nielsen ones, but for what they are I'll recommend this set my first alternate pick.
Another option may be some Japanese style chisels...again you can find them at reasonable prices. You mentioned dovetails...these due to their shape would make them better suited for cleaning out tails and pins when working with dovetails.
Again, I have a nice little assortment and really enjoy using them. The rings usually need to be smacked about and stepped on....they tend to come from the 'manufacturers' loose. Not a big deal to fix. The 'canted' shaft from the iron up the handle is a nice touch as well; you'll see this makes allot of sense once you start using them. Better sight lines while you work and a more natural hand held grip because of the overall shape- really helps the wrists and forearms. Something to think about.
Here are a couple of links to Lee Valley Tools...

the Hirtsch Firmer style:,41504

and the Japanese Bench style:,41504,43500&ap=1

Have a look at the Japanese dovetail chisels as well:,41504

Now, with all of that said and hind-sight being 20/20....
If I was just starting out I'd say to Hell with the 'sets' of chisels and buy one or two of my mostly used.
O.k. lets say today I'm cutting dovetails in 4/4 stock...To chop them out I may splurge and get a 1/4 or 1/2" Lie-Nielsen socket chisel... For cleaning out the waste, maybe a 1/8 and 3/8" dedicated Japanese style 'dovetail' chisel...
Now we have four really nice chisels. Not a fortune spent and we're content... At least until next week when we're doing really fine dovetails on a small cabinet door...The Veritas detail chisels are my choice hands down for small scale work. They were designed by Yeung Chan, a California cabinetmaker and I use at least two of these every day...seriously. Here is the link to them...Get the 1/4" and the 1/2". When you first hold them you'll think they're too small or light or fragile.....something you'd use building ships in bottles...well at least that's what I thought. A few days after getting them-they'll be like extensions of your fingers. Cleaning out the corners in dovetails- paring the waste on small tenons....chamfers...really, these are amazing.

Veritas Detail chisels:,41504

Maybe a couple of more nice wide Japanese bench chisels-? 3/4" and 1".

That would be a really nice set indeed...a little pricey but you don't need to get them all at once. One or two, here and there...spread it out a little. Lord knows in the economic times we live who can afford to pay a small fortune for anything?
That said, this Christmas when Santa brings you my new book, Made by Hand, Furniture Projects from the Unplugged Woodshop, and you want to build a few of the projects in there; you'll need one or two mortising chisels....go back to Lie-Nielsen and buy a 1/4" and 3/8". I have the full set of them and can honestly say you won't ever be disappointed. And......I didn't but them all at once!! Over a span of a year or two.

So there you have it....
spend the $275.00 on the Lie-Nielsen set of five Bevel Edge Socket Chisels:

or 129.00 on the knock-about Hirtcsh Firmers...or ~ better yet...
build a custom set for about $600.00
buying one or two every couple of months or so....A year or two goes by- you have exactly the set of chisels you want and use. Gotta have some patience on this one...
the set of Lie-Nielsens are sounding better and better eh.?

That's my two cents...good luck and let me know how it turns out.

( sorry for the shameless book plug!! )