Using ChiselsComments (0)
The mastery is all in the basics.
By Paul Anthony and Geoff Noden
A chisel is a simply remarkable tool. Basically just a piece of steel with one sharpened end and a handle, it can perform the coarsest work to the most refined. You can use it to rough out shaped parts, fine-tune joints, pare plugs, and chop out mortises, among myriad other things. It’s all in how you wield the tool. Mastering the chisel is all about learning a handful of basic maneuvers, but learning them well. Here, we’ll show you how to grip, power, and guide this invaluable tool to ensure the kind of clean, accurate paring and chopping that leads to tight joinery and precise detailing.
Powering and guiding
When maneuvering a chisel, use your right hand to power it, either by grasping the tool handle or by tapping it with a mallet. Use your left hand to register the blade against the work and to provide fine control. The left hand generally leads the dance. That is, you use it to locate the chisel tip on target before driving the blade into the work using your right hand. Your left hand serves as an anchor, as it contacts both the chisel and the work or adjacent workbench surface. It also provides a fulcrum for fine directional control and braking at the business end of the chisel while your right hand provides general steering. When possible, establish the direction of travel by using the surface to be cut as a reference, as shown in Photos A through C. Learn to guide a chisel as much by feel as by sight. For example, practice orienting the tool vertically (or horizontally), just as you practice keeping a handsaw properly oriented during sawing. And pay attention to the nuance of a particular cut. For instance, if the wood starts to tear, or the tip of the chisel digs into the surface, you may need to try a different angle of attack.
Establishing cut direction
When chopping with a mallet, rest your left hand on the workpiece while pinching the blade between your fingers (Photo D). A short chisel works best for this, as a longer tool tends to sway due to its top-heaviness. When your angle of attack needs to be absolutely precise, there’s no shame in using a guide block. This is particularly helpful when paring miters, as shown in Photo E. To clean up squared notches, use a guide block with a squared end.
Bevel Up Or Bevel Down?
A chisel can be used bevel up or bevel down. It’s usually best to work with the bevel up because the back, or face, is self-referencing. That is, when the face is contacting the work, it helps guide the blade parallel to the work surface, somewhat like the sole of a plane. Conversely, when the bevel is oriented downward, it has minimal contact with the surface, requiring a steady guiding hand to hold the tool at a consistent cutting angle while preventing the tip from digging in too far.
Working to scribed lines
A neatly scribed line–whether made with a knife or marking gauge–creates one of the best guides for a chisel. The scribed line severs the wood fibers at the surface, eliminating tear-out at the joint edge while creating a tiny trough for registering the chisel tip. In a sense, this is the first cut in making the joint. After scribing the joint layout, the next step is to chop or saw away the bulk of the waste. Ideally, you want to leave just enough waste so that it can be pared away in a single slice afterward. If there’s more than that, pare back to the scribed line taking a series of slices. (Avoid taking too big a bite at once, or the chisel bevel will act like a wedge, forcing the tool backwards and possibly past the scribed line.) To make the final cut, place the edge of the chisel in the scribed line (Photo F), and then drive it with a series of light mallet taps. Instead of tapping, you can pare by hand, as shown in (Photo E). Keep the blade firmly pinched in your left hand, pressing the hand against the workpiece to serve as a brake to keep the chisel from lurching forward. Again, when making the final slice, locate the chisel tip in the scribed line. When hand-paring to a scribed line, don’t just push the chisel straight forward. Instead, wiggle the tool side to side as you apply pressure. At first, wiggle it only slightly to prevent pulling it out of the scribed line. As the depth of cut increases, apply more side-toside motion while increasing forward pressure, the whole time pinching the blade firmly with your left hand pressed against the work to prevent the chisel from lurching forward. In addition to locating the chisel tip, scribed lines can also provide a visual bead for aiming your chisel. For example, when paring the shoulder on the edge of a tailboard, mount the work in a vise, and sight down the side of the blade to align it with the scribed line made at the base of the tails (Photo G).
• To prevent slicing the hand that grasps the blade, ease
the sides of a chisel with 400-grit sandpaper, beginning about an inch from the
• Always secure work in a bench vise or with clamps to prevent it from slipping during cutting.
• Don’t work with a dull chisel, which requires more force and tends to slip in use.
• Never place your hand or other body part in the path of a chisel, in case it lurches forward.
As mentioned, scribing a layout minimizes tear-out at the wood surface. There are also a few other techniques you can use to ensure that you’re cutting as cleanly as possible. First of all, when paring, cut with the slope of the grain whenever possible, as shown in Photo H. If the grain rises in your favor on one tenon cheek, it won’t on the opposite cheek, where you’ll have to cut across the grain, as shown in Photos A-C. Using a slicing motion can also prevent grain tear-out. For example, when chamfering the end of a tenon for easier insertion in its mortise, don’t just push the chisel straight forward, which will tend to lift the wood fibers. Instead, slice forward and outward toward the end of the tenon (Photo I). This will shear the fibers clean because they’re supported in the direction of the cut. There are times when slicing with just the corner of the chisel is the way to go. For instance, you may need to remove a ridge caused by a cut made a hair too shy, like that shown in Photo J. By pushing and dragging one corner of the chisel tip through the ridge, you meet less cutting resistance and tear-out than by simply forcing the entire edge forward.
Sharp and Flat
Of course it’s important that a chisel be sharp to work properly, and the sharper the better. But it’s also crucial that the face is flat. If it’s rounded over at the cutting edge, you’ve lost your reference surface. No matter how you sharpen your chisels, make sure the cutting edge is finely honed and that the bevel meets a flat face.
Fine-tuning a hand-cut tenon
Having sawn proud of your scribed shoulder lines, first pare
away the waste on the narrow edge of the workpiece. To stay square, sight down
the edge of the chisel, aligning it with the shoulder scribed line that runs
across the wide workpiece face. Remove any initial heavy waste in a series of
paring cuts; then register the chisel tip in the scribed line to make the final
Hold the chisel blade with your left hand resting solidly on
the work. Begin the cut by resting the face of the chisel against the
previously pared shoulder surface and rocking it into the wide shoulder scribed
line. With each subsequent cut, register the face of the chisel against the
previously pared surface. Finish up by paring the tenon cheeks as previously
Cutting a hinge mortise
After scribing the perimeter and depth of the mortise, chop up the waste for easy removal. Work shy of the scribed lines, leaving a bit to pare afterward for a perfect fit.
Working inward from the open end of the mortise, pare away the
chopped waste. Start the final cuts by registering the tip of the chisel in the
depth scribed line.
Registering the chisel tip in the scribed lines, pare the
ends. Then pare the long edge using delicate cuts to prevent breaking away the
thin wall at the rear of the mortise.
Chopping a tenon mortise
After scribing the mortise perimeter and drilling out the majority of the waste, use a wide chisel to pare away the protrusions, staying a bit inside your scribed lines. Anchor your left hand against the bench, grasping the chisel blade to keep it perpendicular as you push downward.
Chop the ends of the mortise, working toward your scribed line in a series of shallow cuts with your left hand anchored on the bench. Make the final cut on each end a light one, beginning with the chisel tip resting in the scribed line.
Finish up by paring the long edges back to their scribed lines. Again, anchor your left hand on the bench with a finger wrapped around the chisel blade to help keep the chisel perpendicular to the surface as you push it downward.
Squaring a routed frame rabbet
For your final cuts into the corner, begin with the cross-grain cut, extending it no further than the layout line. Follow up with an adjacent long-grain cut that perfectly intersects the end of the cross-grain cut.
With its bevel down, slide the chisel into the corner to flatten the surface and remove any residual wood fibers. With your left hand anchored against the benchtop, hold the chisel firmly at the cutting angle while pushing it with your right hand.
To pare splines flush, take a series of slices in the direction of the grain, holding the chisel level with your left hand anchored against the workpiece and your right hand providing the power. Pinching the chisel with your left hand controls forward motion to prevent lurching.
Whenever possible, pare plugs flush with the chisel bevel up
so that its face can register against the adjacent work surface. Pare in small
slices, as taking too big a bite at once risks tearing out grain or lifting the
When forced to pare bevel down, as near the center of a
board, use your left hand to anchor the chisel and to maintain an effective cutting
angle. Cut in the direction of the plug grain to prevent tear-out.
After sawing or chopping out the majority of the waste, pare to the baseline. Place the chisel tip in the scribed line and push forward while wiggling the tool slightly side to side. Pinch the blade with your left hand anchored against the workpiece to control the speed and amount of forward motion.
When necessary to fine-tune a pin cheek, use the same basic
hand position as when paring to the baseline, but in a perpendicular orientation.
To aim the chisel, register its face across the cheek, and then draw it back in
the same manner as shown in Photos A-C on page 49.
Prepare to pare the shoulders on a tailboard by inserting
the chisel tip in the scribed line and sighting down the length of the chisel
to align it with the baseline at the foot of the tails. Then press the chisel
downward while maintaining that angle.
Wood Carving Chisels
Item 05E71Model D 1S/12
Item 05A09Model 1S/5
Item 05A10Model 1S/8
Item 05R09Model L1S/8
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