Chisels are one of those essential hand tools that ought to find a home in everyone’s toolkit but in common with much other equipment, there’s a huge range from which to choose. There are a couple of simple questions that the prospective buyer should ask.
What will they be used for and how much should I pay?
The answer to those two questions will go a very long way to determine what type of chisel(s) are bought and just how much of a dent they’ll leave in your credit card!
There are a number of different categories of chisel, each designed for a particular range of applications and within each category there may be several different variations to choose from at widely differing cost, so the would be purchaser might be forgiven for being slightly puzzled and also a little confused.
Bevel Edge Chisels
This type of chisel is probably the most popular and as the name suggests refers to the tapered grinding along both the long sides of the blade. Many within this range have a shatterproof plastic handle and are intended more for site use, where they can be struck continually with a hammer. A slightly different, even stronger option is a chisel with through tang where the blade continues through the handle and is welded to the striking button.
Some users find that with sustained use, a plastic handle becomes slippery and uncomfortable, in which case, bevel edge chisels with a more pleasant wooden handle are an alternative. Kirschen chisels have hornbeam handles with a metal striking hoop which allows them to be struck without ‘mushrooming’ the end. Chisels with plastic handles are likely to be used for general purpose carpentry, joinery, DIY and site work where they might be expected to perform reasonably well under fairly arduous conditions.
Bevel edge chisels required for cabinet work and good quality hardwood joinery applications may warrant tools with a little more finesse, such as those provided by Lie-Nielsen and Veritas. The blades are ground with an almost knife edge bevel along each side and are thus suitable for access into awkward spots such as when making a set of dovetails. LN chisels have very tough, socketed hornbeam handles which will absorb sustained mallet blows whilst Veritas use kiln-baked hard maple, sealing it against changes in humidity. Whichever is chosen, both of these chisel brands are superlative examples of the tool maker’s art and as such the purchaser should expect to pay a premium price.
This type of chisel is in many respects a shortened, more compact version of a standard bevel edge tool, which many may find more controllable. In addition, the reduction in the overall length means that they may be able to reach into difficult areas where a full sized chisel can’t be used. View Butt Chisel range
Another form of bevel edge chisel, but this time the blade has been lengthened rather than shortened. These are specialist, quite delicate chisels intended for use in an application such as paring the side of a housing joint and the extra length means that they should never be struck with a mallet. View Paring Chisels range
Conversely, the mortice chisel is built solely to be struck repeatedly with a mallet. The blades are often thicker than the width and reinforced with a steel hoop at the end of the handle and a leather washer on the ferrule to absorb the impacts from the mallet. Lie-Nielsen also produce an excellent mortice chisel with their traditional socketed hornbeam handle. The very thick blades of this type of chisel makes them especially suitable to lever out the waste when chopping a mortice.
Solid Steel Chisels
These tools are made from a one piece, solid steel forging and are the most rugged of all the different types of chisel, having far greater strength compared to the handled variety. Solid steel chisels should be used for all those really heavy duty jobs such as roofing and large framing joints. They are specifically designed to be struck with a hammer and are finding more varied uses on site where they can be used for lifting old ceramic tiles as well as cutting channels into brickwork and plaster.
Over several decades, Japanese chisels have become increasingly popular, being distinctly unique in several aspects when compared to their Western counterparts. Firstly, the blades are very thick and a little shorter being composed of two different materials; a very hard, high carbon steel which is then laminated by hammer forging to a softer, low carbon backing. This has the effect of lending support to the all important, but very brittle cutting steel. Once the blade has been hardened and tempered, often to over RC65, the cutting steel is so hard that it becomes very difficult to flatten and hone. It’s for this reason that much of the area of the underside of the blade is very carefully ground away. This is called the ‘ura’ and is designed to reduce the surface area so that it becomes easier to flatten and hone. One of the benefits of hot forging is that the steel will take and hold an incredibly sharp edge. However, as the steel is so brittle, a chipped and damaged edge will result if the chisel is levered to remove waste. It’s also advisable to maintain a straight bevel at all times as hollow grinding on a Tormek grinder or similar removes the softer backing steel and reduces the support offered to the cutting edge. Japanese chisels also have a unique, very robust handle construction with a hoop at the end, which ensures that when struck with a hammer (a ‘geno’) the red oak handles are protected from becoming too bruised. Owing to the method of construction, the very thick blades and the degree to which they can be honed, Japanese chisels are suitable for all types of woodwork, though fine dovetailing can’t be produced unless specialist chisels are bought.
More than any other hand tool, the effectiveness of the blade depends on the quality of the steel. Questions such as the ease of sharpening and the edge obtained are crucial to the way a chisel performs, but unfortunately many of the lower priced chisels are made from steel which is perhaps not quite as reliable as traditional Sheffield steel. There are exceptions so it’s well worth reading our unbiased customer reviews before purchase. As a customer, it’s also advisable call into a local branch (if there is one nearby) to have a look at the chisels (and other tools) in the ‘metal’.
In some cases, the hardening and tempering process has the effect of making the first 0.5mm of the cutting edge quite soft and liable to crumble, which gives a false indication of the quality of the steel. If this phenomenon occurs, the chisel should be reground to remove the soft portion and then rehoned. It’s very likely that you’ll then find the much harder steel which will take and keep a useable edge. Alternatively, a faulty chisel can be returned to Axminster for a replacement.
Buying chisels can be a leap of faith, particularly if an unfamiliar brand is considered. In common with most tools, it usually pays to buy the best that your pocket can afford, notwithstanding that “the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”.