The Chisel-Hatchet and Scalpel In One

Here’s my theory: if you get good using one tool, learning the next tool you pick up will be easier. Good woodworkers connect a piece of wood on the bench and their brain through their hands and the tools in their hands. Learn how to make that connection and you will easily pick up new tools and techniques. The Gottshall block I’ve been working on will get you connected to using a chisel. Learning how to make a variety of cuts both with and across the grain  with this simple tool will make it easier to move up to more sophisticated ones.

Here’s the first chisel cut on the mortise. The mortise goes all the way through, so I’m working from both sides into the middle. That makes it easier to keep the walls straight, and prevents exit wounds on the block. Following Gottshall’s advice, I drilled out most of the waste with a 5/8″-diameter bit. That’s pretty close to the finished walls, so I laid out a centerline and used our drill press. You can use a smaller bit in a hand drill, or in a brace. The idea here is to remove most of the waste so you won’t have to work so hard. If you like you can remove all the waste with the chisel.

In any case, my first step is to go around the layout lines and turn them into chisel cuts. With knife lines, or with lines from a marking gauge, I stick the sharp end of the chisel in the line, and give the chisel a few light taps with the mallet. This gives me finished edges about 1/16″ deep to work to. As long as I stay inside the lines, I can take some big cuts to remove most of the waste. The wood behaves differently whether I’m working with or across the grain. When I cut with the grain, I need to be careful not to create a split. Across the grain, the going is slower, but the wood fibers are severed so there isn’t much danger of splitting. In either case, the first cuts help to keep any damage from spreading.
The gain is similar to the mortise, but it is open on one edge of the block and doesn’t go all the way through. Here I’m whacking away, cutting across the grain about 1/8″ deep. After I get a feel for how the wood behaves (or misbehaves) I can take deeper cuts the next time around. I’ve scored around the perimeter with the chisel, and these rough cuts are well within the layout lines. The goal is to remove most of the waste quickly, then make fine, precise cuts to finish.

The waste is removed by laying the back of the chisel down flat, and pushing it in from the outer edge. You can see all the little short pieces that come up. The chisel can be pushed in by hand, or it can be motivated with some light taps of the mallet. It doesn’t take much effort to get rid of the junk.

If you look close at the edges, you can see the defining cuts at the surface, and the rough cuts just inside them. When I get close to my layout lines I change tactics to make the final cuts. If my chisel wasn’t really sharp to begin with, or if this were a harder piece of wood, this would be a good time to touch up the edge of the chisel.

From here on in, the extents of the cut are refined with paring cuts. There is a ledge on the surface from the defining cuts made at the beginning. The edge of the chisel can rest on that and I can concentrate on keeping the tool vertical as I push gently. When you first look at the exercise, it seems repetitious. The subtle genius of this, however, is that you are making different cuts is different directions. As you work, pay attention to the differences in grain direction, what goes right for you, and most important, what goes wrong. In the end, you can throw this little block of wood in the fireplace. What it teaches you, you’ll hang on to forever.

- Robert W. Lang

4 thoughts on “The Chisel-Hatchet and Scalpel In One

  1. Bob Lang

    I just put a dab of Gorilla Glue on the metal pad, spritzed a scrap of leather with water, stuck the leather to the metal and smacked the holdfast down to the benchtop. It’s been working for a couple years now. Maybe I should send this in as a "Trick" to some magazine?

  2. Steve

    I agree with the approach (rough out then pare to finish), but it does highlight a frustration that beginners have: You’ll often read tutorials on joining (dovetails and M&T joints, especially) that say to cut to the line; leaving a bit and paring it off is a waste of time.

    So which is it? Typically missing from the tutorials is the rationale; it’s nearly always just, "do it like this." Chris’s "coarse, medium, fine" helps, but it’s still rare to see anyone explain why they’re doing it a certain way; e.g., "The reasons I’m being careful here, roughing out the mortise and then paring to size, is that this is a show face–the edges of this mortise will be exposed for all to see. If this mortise were part of an ordinary mortise-and-tenon joint, my main concern would be a snug fit, so if it ends up a little banged up around the edges, no one will see or care."

    So, this is my long-winded way of asking that, whenever you explain a joining process, you make sure to say why the particular characteristics of _this_ joint lead to you use _this_ technique, and how _that_ joint over there, while it may look similar, may be better off done with _that_ technique.

  3. victor

    My two cents on chopping a through mortise: I discovered that pushing the chisel against the mortise edge to pry out the waste tends to ruin the said edge. With blind mortises this is ok, since the edges are going to be hidden by the tenon shoulders. With through mortises, though, one side of the mortise is going to show, so this is what I do: I start chopping on the hidden side, and instead of going half way through, I go three quarters or even more of the way, leaving about 3/16" left to chop from the other side. Then I flip the piece around and chop right through the waste; the chips are going to fall through the mortise, which makes prying stuff out unnecessary.

COMMENT