Chris Schwarz's Blog

Talking Chisel Handles: One Small Detail

The writers’ strike hasn’t quite reached Cincinnati, so the blogging will continue unabated. Today’s topic: The dimensions of shopmade chisel handles.

One of my favorite chisels is the Ray Iles mortising chisel. Not only is it the most manly chisel in my kit, but it also is the one that speaks to me more than some of my other tools. This chisel speaks through its handle. Its shape is oval in section, instead of round. The wide part of the oval is in line with the flanks of the blade; the narrow parts of the oval are in line with the chisel’s cutting bevel. As a result, I can always tell exactly where the bevel is, even when I’m not focusing on the bevel.

Last night I was reading an early 19th-century book about workshop practice and I came across a section that discussed how apprentices should make the handles for their bench chisels. After detailing how to make the proper hole to receive the chisel’s tang, the author discussed how to make the handle’s octagonal shape.

The author advised to make the handle wider on the face that was in line with the bevel and narrower on the edges in line with the flanks. Hmmm. I’ve never read that before.

So this morning I came into the shop and took a look at two early-style chisels I have in my kit. One is a 3/8″ Butcher chisel with a handle on it that was made by Adam Cherubini, our Arts & Mysteries columnist at Popular Woodworking. And indeed, the handle is wider (1-3/8″) in line with the bevel than it is in line with the flanks (1-1/8″).

Adam’s chisel: The handle is 1-3/8″ wide on the surface in line with the tool’s bevel.

Adam’s chisel: The handle is 1-1/8″ wide on the surface in line with the tool’s flanks.

The other chisel (the one on the right in the photo at the top) has a handle that I made years ago for an 11/16″ fishtail chisel made for me by blacksmith Tom Latane. My handle is 1-1/8″ square.

Now I know why I prefer Adam’s handle. That chisel always seems to end up in my hand and responds quite well as I work. And I don’t think it has anything to do with the steel (I have lots of Butcher chisels). It’s the handle. It always tells me exactly where the bevel is, and that’s good information when chopping and paring.

– Christopher Schwarz