And Now for the Chisel

Working on this little block has been an interesting experience, and I hope you’ll give it a try. Explaining it on the blog has made me think about a lot of basic things that have become habit over the years. The Gottshall block is a hand tool education, and one of the lessons is that what works going with the grain will need to be adapted when going across the grain. Slicing off the edges of long wood fibers is different that cutting across them.

One assumption I’m making is that the chisel has a sharp edge and a flat back. What we’re looking at is the notch marked “dado” in the drawing. The saw has cut across the grain, so I can quickly split out most of the waste with the chisel. I’m not worried about the ends, but I don’t want the wood to split past the edge line. I put the end of the chisel about 1/4″ in from the edge of the wood and smack it with a mallet.

That’s  much like splitting firewood, and the back edge may not run straight up and down. I may need to flip the piece over if the grain runs back toward the bottom of the cut. After a few splitting cuts, I put down the mallet and grip the chisel with two hands as shown. This gives me good leverage with both hands, and my shoulder is directly above the end of the chisel. I can bear down with my body weight to remove a thick slice.

As I get closer to the line, I make a trade-off-more control for less leverage. My right hand moves closer to the edge of the chisel, and I’m holding it like a pencil. My left hand rests on the wood, and my bent finger provides a reference to keep the back of the chisel vertical. At this point I’m taking off a thin slice to finish up.

So far so good. The notch on the end is similar, but the cut is turned 90 degrees to this one. Removing the bulk of the material by splitting isn’t going to work. It is possible to chop one’s way through the grain, but there is a lot of risk of leaving raggedy end grain inside the cut.

I still have saw cuts at the left and right sides, but the amount of wood I can cleanly slice off the end grain is limited. Compare these thin slices with the big hunks I was able to remove in the other direction. So, I cheated (in a manner of speaking) by removing most of the waste with a coping saw. We’ll talk about the coping saw soon, as well as additional chisel techniques for working on the curves. For these cuts, I’m holding the chisel vertically, close to the line and pushing straight down.

In Gottshall’s text about making this block, he never mentions other tools beyond the chisel. A router plane, a float or rasp, or a plastic laminate file are tools I often reach for to make the finishing cuts on things like this. Perfection with just a chisel isn’t easy. I’m doing OK, but I’m creeping past my layout line on the right, and you can see a bit of light between the square and the wood in the upper right hand corner. I may not get a grade of A on this after all.

The chisel work for the rabbet on the end is similar, but once again the work is rotated 90 degrees. Now I want to remove as much of the waste as I can by splitting; this time horizontally. It doesn’t take much effort with the mallet to split the wood. I can only bring the mallet back a couple of inches because my hip is in the way. That’s OK, because it only takes a tap.

I still have a way to go to reach the line. My left hand is holding down, and my right hand is pushing in. I can lever out a thick slice, with a good degree of control. Now is a good time for a reminder from the safety police; never, ever hold down the wood with your left hand while pushing the chisel with your right. Clamp the wood down and keep all the parts of both hands behind the sharp edge.

As I get closer to the line, I take finer and more controlled slices. Here I’m working across the grain, using the flat back of the chisel as a guide in slicing off the high spots. I will also slice in from the end if I need to. The vertical cut is from the saw. If you look close, you can see that I left some material beyond the pencil line when I made my saw cut. I will pare down across that end grain to correct that. I’m pretty good with a chisel because I’m not so good with the saw.


One of the last cuts dislodged a small chunk of wood at the far corner on the inside of the rabbet. Lucky for me I was able to find it and glue it back in place. If nothing else goes wrong, I may be able to salvage a B+ on this.

–Robert W. Lang

This series of posts began, innocently enough with this.

Then Mike Wenzloff suggested this exercise.

It seemed like a good idea, so I began to lay it out.

I ran out of room, and needed to continue about marking knives.

Then I felt a little guilty about not mentioning marking gauges.

Finally, I picked up the saw and started to work.

 

2 thoughts on “And Now for the Chisel

  1. Bob Lang

    I was trying to follow Gottshall’s instructions, and the second cut to make the rabbet is no where near as easy to do as the initial cross cut. It’s a long rip cut in the end grain, not impossible, but the chisel is significantly faster.

  2. scott stahl

    Is there a reason, beyond "I’m pretty good with a chisel because I’m not so good with the saw", you used the chisel for the rabbet instead of a saw?

    The saw is an obvious choice to my inexperienced eye.

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