Chris Schwarz's Blog

The 2014 Anarchist’s Gift Guide: Day 7

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You do not need a complete set of 11 chisels from the 1/8” up to the monster 2”-wide chisel. Sure, the part of you that also collects Hummel figurines really wants a complete set, but most of the chisel sizes will go unused – even if you are an active woodworker.

Your work and your hands will eventually tell you which chisel sizes you really need at hand.

That’s the problem with chisels. Beginners don’t know which sizes they need, so they buy a complete set of tools. And because they are beginners, they don’t want to shell out $500 or more for a complete set of premium chisels.

I stumbled into this problem myself when I was a beginner after my first woodworking class. I bought a complete set of plastic-handled chisels in 1993. After a few years of work, I discovered this was an error. The plastic-handled tools were top-heavy. The blades were poorly ground and were too soft for even light chopping.

So when beginning woodworkers ask me to recommend a set of bargain chisels, I give them this answer: Buy a single premium 1/2” chisel, such as a Veritas, Lie-Nielsen, Blue Spruce or a Japanese tool. Something that costs just over $50. Set that tool up and use it until you are backed into a corner where you absolutely need another size. You’ll be surprised how long that will take because the 1/2” tool is the most versatile in my experience.

Your work will tell you the next size to buy. Chopping London-pattern dovetails? You’ll buy a 1/8” or 3/16”. Find yourself using your chisel to deepen knife lines for tenons? You’ll want something wider, such as 1-1/4” or 1-1/2”.

Then keep working until you absolutely need another size. The bonus to this approach is that you will spend less time futzing around with tools – setting them, taking care of them, finding a place to store them – and more time woodworking.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. All of the gift guide entries (including last year’s) are here.

14 thoughts on “The 2014 Anarchist’s Gift Guide: Day 7

  1. drsmith

    I have a solution to heavy handled chisels. I typically spend quite a bit of time holding chisels by their blades and I don’t really use the handle portion much. Consequently I bought some of the Irwin Marples chisels and cut the handles very short – maybe 1 inch long. You will run into the tang with a hacksaw, but the steel at that point isn’t very hard. When my fingers are getting tired, it doesn’t really matter to me a whole lot if I have to sharpen them afterwards. At that point, I’d much rather have the lighter chisel even if it’s not the best chisel I have.

  2. Nick Santoyo

    Thank you for the great advice! I was interested in the Barr Quarton chisels. I was wondering if you have personally used them?

  3. m67ski

    I don’t think the blue spruce firmer chisels have ever been available. The day I received the popwood issue with Chris’ review of them, I checked the site. No dice. I have checked back periodically and have never seen them available. It’s a shame because I think they are outstanding!

  4. metalworkingdude

    This is good advice. I’m drawn to having lots of tools a last year upgraded my chisels to a LN “full set”. As I needed a specific size I flattened the back and sharpened just that one — because I didn’t want to take the time to prep the whole set. I was eager to get on with whatever project I was making.

    Fast forward a year, and four chisels were sharp and ready to work, the rest were untouched. It’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you don’t prep (or have) a specific size chisel you will probably find a way to get by without it. But it’s certainly true that most folks don’t need every chisel in a big set.

    PS: I have since tuned up the entire set.

  5. bbrown

    Mario Rodriguez recommended the Blue Chip chisels to me about 15 years ago. One can purchase a set, on sale, for under $50. I have used them since and remain happy with these chisels. I have since bought more and will grind them for specialty uses, such as making 1/16 inch size and even smaller for fine inlay work. Because of the price, I have not had any qualms about just picking up a replacement as needed. I like having 2 sets around.
    I touch up the edge frequently with a few strokes on a leather strop, which maintains a razor sharp edge. If I sense dullness, I’ll spend less than a minute on my 4000 then 8000 stone. Simple and cheap.

  6. Sawduster

    Advise please, for working 3/4″ hard wood material which size mortise is correct 3/8 or 1/4 and which size chisel should I select as a top quality single chisel to start. I’ve seen and felt Narex, the heft and hubris feels super. I’m sure there are others of equal utility.

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      Either a 5/16″ or a 1/4″.

      I know a lot of people have love for the Narex mortisers. The two I bought aren’t properly hardened. I can only get one mortise out of them before the edge is destroyed.

      I have had excellent luck with the Ray Iles mortisers from Tools for Working Wood. Expensive, yes. But outstanding.

  7. dbusack

    Thank you for this one! I have wanted to get a good set of chisels, but I was thinking the way of a beginner. I would have fell into the exact trap you wrote about!

      1. REFFI

        Back when I first began to undergo woodworking instruction, the instructor said: “Buy a 1/8″ chisel, you’ll need it someday.” I already had a 40 year old set of Craftsman chisels (hexagonal steel shanks with no handles) so I opted to “make do” with them. Four years later, working on a project (with my Veritas chisels), I finally needed a 1/8″ chisel. It took a while but the instructor was proven correct.

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