Specialty Chisels

15 sharp problem-solvers for all sorts of tricky cuts

Many of us remember the set of basic bevel-edged chisels that started our pursuit of fine woodworking. Likewise, we may recall encountering the first chores that required the touch of a different kind of chisel.

But selecting these newcomer specialists for our chisel arsenals can be tricky. Although a chisel is fundamentally a simple tool, over the years it has morphed into myriad configurations to suit specific tasks. The choices can be overwhelming, and selecting the wrong ones can be expensive.

Here, I've turned the focus on function. Seeing what each tool is used for can help you appreciate certain attributes and shine a light on the ones that you need to make quicker, cleaner cuts on your projects.

Toolbox/Jobsite Companions

A sharp chisel is essential for a variety of chores, such as mortising hinges, adjusting trim, and cleaning up cuts. In addition, "jobber" chisels help ensure that your good set stays safe at your bench.

Short butt chisels are easy to control and to stash in a pocket or pouch. If you prefer a longer blade, FastCap’s folding handle shields the edge from receiving (and causing) damage, but is sturdy enough to withstand metal hammer blows. For quicker mortises, a corner chisel registers against the lip of routed mortises and finishes the corner with a tap.

Medium-Duty Mortisers

Mortising chisels were designed to handle the abuse of being malleted into the wood and then levered to remove waste. Modern machinery has eliminated the need to own a full set, but having a few can help you tackle chores that would blow out your bench chisels, or require a pricey jig.

Sash chisels rank as middleweights in the mortising chisel arena, but these former windowmakers are nicely suited for most furniture-scale joinery. With thick blades (typically ground with 30° bevels) and unbreakable handles, sash chisels can easily handle shallow mortises with just a mallet. For deep mortises, this is the chisel you'd reach for to remove the materal that's typically left after hogging out the waste with a drill press.

Consider adding a swan-neck chisel to complement your mortiser. This oddly shaped scraping tool can help clean the bottoms of blind mortises, such as those used for locksets or small tenons.

Heavy-Duty Mortisers

Referred to as "framing" or "registered" chisels (depending on the size and shape of the blade), these hefty blades are designed to take a serious pounding. This type of chisel is essential when tackling largescale projects such as timber frames and wooden boats. It is also handy for less ambitious projects, such as shaving the walls of larger mortises after removing the waste at the drill press, or for cleaning up joints on outdoor projects after using a circular saw. In addition to mortising, a freshly-honed framing chisel can also be enlisted for delicate paring cuts.

When selecting a chisel, look for a socket handle (as on the larger chisel shown). Socket handles are more durable than tang handles and are easier to replace.

A corner chisel makes quick, clean work of squaring up the corners of both deep and shallow mortises. The only downside is that the tool can be tricky to sharpen.

Detail Chisels

Japanese tool-makers produce a wide array of specialty chisels. Cherry-picking a few blades can flesh out any bench chisel set.

For fitting joints and getting into otherwise inaccessible corners, treat yourself to this trio of push chisels. As the name suggests, these tools should be hand driven, like the paring chisels below. The long handles offer a comfortable grip for one- or two-handed cuts. The blades are short (for better cutting control) but the long necks extend the reach of the blades so that they're comparable to Western bench chisels.

The angled blades of the takahashi, or skew, chisels make them a great addition to any workshop. Use them for paring end grain, trimming tenon shoulders, or cleaning inside corners. Similarly, the flared end of the bachi-nomi, or fishtail chisel, is handy for getting into tight spots in mortises and blind dovetails, without damaging the side walls.

Paring Chisels

Despite obvious physical differences, paring chisels have one thing in common: they are designed to be driven with hand pressure. These tools can be used for a variety of shaving chores, such as fitting joints, trimming plugs, and removing glue. Selecting the right parer(s) involves balancing convenience and control. For example, the chisel plane and bent paring chisel can be used for similar chores, but while the smaller plane can sneak into tighter spots, the longer chisel is easier to control (and easier to sharpen). The 91⁄2"-long Narex offers a reach and registration not found when using shorter-bladed bench chisels.

The long handles on some paring chisels enhance control when nestled below the user's shoulder, which allows steering the edge while simultaneously powering through wide shavings.

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