Get a Handle on Mortise Chisels

ChiselJHandlesPeriod tools provide an opportunity for study – and for rehandling.

by Willard Anderson with Peter Ross
pages 48-54

Mortise chisels get a lot of heavy use – and sometimes abuse. Over the years, I’ve collected a number of chisels without handles and with seriously damaged handles. These chisels are so well designed for their job, but not so readily available, that it behooves us to bring them back to full functional status.

I’ve made detailed measurements on about 50 chisels (including a modern tool by Ray Iles), looking primarily at the amount of taper in the handle, how regular the handle taper is, how long the handles are and how many of the chisels have significant relief front to back in the shaft.

A Bit of Background
Historically, mortise chisels were offered in two grades. The less expensive, called “Mortise Chisels,” came with octagonal bolsters, while a better grade, called “Best Joiner’s Mortise Chisels,” were made with oval bolsters.

Early pattern books such as Smith’s Key (circa 1816) show these and their associated prices with the Best grade at almost twice the cost. Modern users tend to call these tools “Oval-Bolstered Mortise Chisels,” or OBMC for short.

The chisels are characterized by a shaft that is thicker than it is wide, that is often relieved along the sides so that the chisel has a slight trapezoidal cross-section. This helps keep the chisel sides from binding as a mortise is deepened.

Blog: Read Derek Cohen’s technique for rehandling an oval-bolstered chisel.
Blog: Read about Ray Iles’ chisels, on Joel Moskowitz’s blog.
Article: “Workbench Clamping Jig” by Willard Anderson, from Woodwork magazine. (Coming soon)
In our store: Read Anderson’s step-by-step instructions for making a fixed-width panel-raising plane. in the November 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.
Web site: Visit Anderson’s web site.
Web Site: Visit Peter Ross’s web site.

From the June 2014 issue, #211

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