13th in a series by Barb Siddiqui
When it comes to brands of hand tools, every woodworker seems to have an individual preference. Setting up a shop for the first time, you may be more concerned about what make of table saw to buy than which brand of chisels, but for the uninitiated, some guidance is in order. I've no experience with Japanese bench chisels, which can be some of the finest laminated tool steel made, and their cost usually reflects that, so I'll limit my comments to Western and European style chisels.
Bevel-edged chisels are the basic, all-around user set of bench chisels. Avoid buying the cheaper "chrome vanadium" steel, which is nearly impossible to sharpen. A large boxed set is unnecessary; you can work with the basic increments of 1/4", 1/2", 3/4" and 1" for ninety percent of what you need to do at the bench.
Consider the shape of the handle. You'll need a comfortable, fully-controlled grip, and a handle that is flat on top rather than rounded, in case you need to persuade a workpiece with light mallet blows. Heavy-duty chisels have metal hoops around the upper end of a wooden handle, and leather washers where the blade meets the handle to absorb the shock of rough mallet blows. Chisels are also available with composite plastic handles that are virtually indestructible. Palm-handled chisels are another option, and offer great control on detailed work, but are for light duty, and not for use with a mallet.
Another light-duty chisel is a paring chisel, with a long, slender blade tapered from the handle to the cutting edge. These are specialty chisels used for light paring cuts in adjusting the fit of fine joinery pieces, such as slicing a bit off the inner wall of an ill-fitting mortise or trimming the cheeks of a tenon. They are used with two hands in light, controlled cuts, and never with a mallet.
Mortise chisels are another type, with thickened blades and heavy duty handles reinforced to take a beating. A mortise chisel lends powerful leverage to digging and prying out a deep mortise by hand, and its straight sides reference the tool against the workpiece to keep it accurately aligned.
Another specialty chisel that is very useful is a crank-neck, or dogleg, chisel, which has an L-shaped bend between the handle and the blade. Used for leveling the bottom of dadoes and grooves, it can slide along in a deep socket, keeping the handle clear of a workpiece. Several catalogs sell small versions of these in sets of three, with 3/8" cutting edges in straight and skew-tipped blades.
Skew chisels are useful for tight corners and for working end grain. Swan-neck chisels have a 'cupped' crook on the end, suitable for scraping out the bottom of deep mortises.
A squared corner chisel may seem like a pricey addition to your chisel collection, but if you rout out mortises by machine and have to square up the corner cuts by hand for joinery, a 3/8" corner chisel is the most efficient tool to do it. If you buy one, don't abuse it; they are difficult to sharpen.
With all these choices of sizes and special uses, I'd advise you to forget about buying full sets of any brand of chisels. Consider a comfortable tool grip and what kind of woodworking you will be doing. The basic four bevel-edge chisels, 1/4", 1/2", 3/4" and 1", will do for most bench work. If you add the set of three small crank-neck chisels, which include skew blades, at least one heavy duty mortise chisel and a corner chisel, you'll have a fair collection to accomplish nearly any cutting task at the workbench. And by the time you learn to use those effectively, you will know exactly what else you want to buy. Avoid overheating your chisels on a grinder, hone them often and keep them clean, with the edges protected, and they'll serve you well for many years.