Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Theory of Chisel Monogamy

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When I teach woodworking, I talk a lot about monogamy. Not to your spouse (that’s your problem) but to your tools. I think it’s easier to learn to saw, sharpen and plane boards if you don’t jump around and use different handsaws, sharpening systems and bench planes.

And when it comes to chisels, I’m super-monogamous (whatever that is).

I pretty much use one single bench chisel for almost everything – except mortising. It’s a 1/2” chisel, and it chops every dovetail (both tails and pins), it does all the paring and (with rare exception) all of the hardware installations.

After years of dealing with complete sets of chisels in 1/8” increments, I called it quits and sold those big sets. I am down to four bench chisels and one mortising chisel. Having fewer tools makes it easier to take care of them, they take up less space, and they leave you more money to buy nice wood and hardware.

In fact, during the last couple years, my passion for one chisel has radically influenced my recommendation on buying chisels.

The typical question I get about chisels goes something like this: I really want to buy nice chisels, but I cannot afford them yet. Until that day, should I buy used chisels or one of the good bargain brands, such as Narex?

My answer used to be: Buy used. But buy used with caution.

Now, it’s: Buy a premium 1/2” chisel from Lie-Nielsen, Lee Valley or one of the fantastic Japanese makers. Learn to tune and love that one tool. Then, when you have enough money, buy one of the other sizes that you think you might need for an upcoming project.

You might like a 3/8”, a 1/4” or a 3/4”. And after you get those four, you might not need any more. Heck, I rarely use the 3/8” or the 3/4”.

I wish I could say that this attitude crosses over into everything in my woodworking. I still have a hammer monkey on my back. I am down to four hammers that I use. I know, I know. If hammers were wives I would be a lawbreaker in all 50 states.

— Christopher Schwarz

Want to cull your tool collection down to the tools you really need? I wrote a book about it in 2011 called “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which was named one of the 12 “must-have” woodworking books by Furniture & Cabinet Making magazine. You can get a copy at ShopWoodworking here.

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46 thoughts on “The Theory of Chisel Monogamy

  1. rwlasita

    Nice post but I never gave it much thought, I don’t personify my tools, basically a piece of steel with wooden handles…. But that’s just me. One could draw an analogy with the 14 clubs ( or more) in a golf bag when you can play an entire 18 holes round with a driver, 5 iron, and putter. Besides, I think all those chisels I have hanging on my tool cabinet door loos cool :)

  2. REFFI

    When I took my first woodworking class, there was a lot of discussion about what tools to buy. What were necessities and what would be “nice to have.” The instructor told us that “someday, you will need a 1/8″ chisel.” I filed that comment away somewhere in my gray matter. I was, at the time, using a set of all vanadium steel bench chisels I bought at Sears nearly forty years prior to taking the class. I later bought a set from Lee Valley that had real handles so I could use them for paring. Three years down the road, I don’t recall on just what project I was working, I needed a 1/8″ chisel. Fortunately, I was able to borrow one, but I wasted very little time in purchasing one of my own.

  3. thomhoward1

    Interesting to read the opinions of several people, all of whom apparently enjoy woodworking, vary from the “I do everything with two chisels” to the chisel “whore” who enjoys using different chisels for different tasks. While a thought-provoking post or blog can be valuable, why would you care about how many chisels someone else uses as long as you are enjoying the woodworking that you do? As for me, I am a chisel junkie myself and I can’t see how you can pare tenons without a chisel of at least 1″ in width. My favorite chisel to use (not most often used) is a two inch chisel from sets of chisels that some friends and I made a few years ago. If the past masters were correct (take a look at Seaton’s Chest) there was room in their tool chests for paring, firmer and mortise chisels, all of which had different uses. Seaton’s chest had 16 or 18 paring chisels alone, from 1/16 inch to 2 inches wide and that collection of chisels was designed for a journeyman who made his living working wood. But, if you enjoy making small boxes of fruit wood and like using a small number of Japanese chisels, good for you. I’m in the same camp as Curtis Buchanan – I love my tools and love using them be they many or few.

  4. Albert Rasch

    Four hammers?

    Man, I have at least fifty, and another dozen awaiting refurbishment! Of course, most of those are smithing hammers, with a fair smattering of framers running 19 to 28 ozs, plus sledges…

    Chisels, well, I just received a beautiful set of them from friends… and I love them all!

    Best regards!
    Albert A Rasch

  5. cstanford

    On its face not necessarily bad advice but I think others have raised important questions about earlier ‘absolutes’ committed to videos. It also leaves one wondering when the about-face from the about-face will take place. Or are we three layers deep in about-faces? I’m not sure.

    Maybe Chris would be willing to produce a scorecard that could be used to track the retractions.

    Anyway, owning only a few bench chisels, say two to four, is advice that’s been around from more or less ‘classical’ sources seemingly forever – Hayward, Jones, Joyce, Hasluck, Peters, et al. The list could literally go on and on. Brits worth paying attention to tend not to hoard, certainly those who were adults or nearly so during WWII. So, this isn’t new news to the English speaking world at least. At all. Only Chris’s reversal from previously recommended strategies is new. While we’re always ready to welcome sinners back into the fold, Chris ought to consider having a Come to Jesus meeting with himself to get all of this over and done with and in One Swell Foop too.

        1. Bill Lattanzio

          I think every blog post with a comment section is open to debate, criticism, praise, agreements, and disagreements; that comes with the territory. But I think we are running into dangerous territory when somebody cannot disagree with an opinion without being attacked, and on the same token, some that do disagree cannot do so without insults. I’ve said before that if you want to have a strong opinion, it should be kept to your own blog/forum and not an internet comment board. This is one of the reasons I don’t read this blog very often, and I actually did check it out because I thought it was a tool review. You hit the nail on the head when you said that some in the “woodworking community” aren’t very community friendly; nobody knows that more than I do. In fact, I’ve probably said way more than I should have on this thread and in doing so broke a few of my own rules, but I feel that open debate is important and needs to be protected somehow. Thanks.

  6. Larry Rice

    As a recovering “gadget adict” it’s interesting that Chris has just encouraged me to purchase the tools that I really need and ONLY the tools that I really need when every time I log in to Popular Woodworking, I am bombarded with ads trying to sell me the latest and greatest new tool, video or book for my woodworking.
    Go figure.

  7. Dinger

    OR how about we let the man with the blog have an opinion and if you don’t like it, go start your own blog with your own opinions? Or just…stop reading it? Despite his best Gouldian efforts to corner the chisel market, I’m sure the woodworking tool economy will not collapse. What a ridiculous commentary this has degenerated into. Quit whining and get back in the shop with as many or few chisels as you see fit. Not that you need me to say it as you are also probably laughing at this but keep blogging, Chris. Most of us enjoy your thoughts and good-natured, slightly sarcastic humor.

  8. Stuart Hough

    I believe that Chris has accomplished his goal! He got you to think about it and question your own motives. If you truly feel that you need or want 1/5/10/200 chisels…that’s perfectly okay. If, on the other hand, you come to the realization that having more than “xxx” chisels (or other tools for that matter) is weighing you down, or cluttering your thoughts and work, then that is fine also. In any case, you THOUGHT ABOUT IT! The true anarchist provocatuer causes you to think and decide, which helps you realize your own best path!
    JMHO
    Happy woodworking!

  9. elithian

    That is a fine plan for the gentlemen woodworker; one chisel! The reason there are many to choose from is because they need to be sharp, efficient, and right for the job. It’s kind of like saying I got a wife so I don’t need children, a job, a car, a house, friends, etc. If all you make is kindling you only need an ax. If you make other projects you will need more tools. Real woodworkers use lots of tools that are not in your chest as I am sure you know. I think you are trying to produce a blog and have run out of good material. You are finally becoming an anarchist ( lacking any real plan). Perhaps you should be less prolific and more profound.

    1. nmederich

      Let the person who has done more for craft and blogged for more years about the craft be the first to cast a stone. Year after year Chris creates informative and entertaining content that keeps me coming back for more. Oh and the comment ” I got a wife so I don’t need children, a job, a car, a house…” is not even the same analogy, that’s like saying “I got a chisel so i don’t need a hammer, a saw, and a drill”, not what Chris was saying at all. I wish the ‘haters’ with sloped forehead would go somewhere else.

      1. Dan Sherman

        Do you have nothing better to do than smart off?

        I’m a big supporter of Chris’s, but I have to say I agree in theory with elithian. To many people follow Chris’s blog posts like Lemmings, and it will eventually get regurgitated on forums all over the internet.

        Thus I think Chris should have qualified his statement, because it has a lot conditions. If you start working in projects of different scales (a small box vs. a chest of drawers) you are going to need different size chisels. You can’t clean out a 1/4″ wide pin socket with a 1/2″ wide chisel for example. Cleaning up a 2″ long mortise face isn’t much fun with 1/2′ chisel either.

        So start with one or 2 chisels, but you are going to need more as you branch out.

      2. Bill Lattanzio

        I agree with Christopher Schwarz in the sense that for general woodworking you really only need around 5 or 6 chisels. I agree with Elithian when he says that there are a lot of woodworking tools for a good reason, even if you want to discount all of the gizmos floating around. If I had a “problem” with this post it wouldn’t be the post itself, or the line of thinking, but the long line of sycophants who will spout out the information like it came out of their own heads, and then proceed to tell any woodworker who uses more than 2 chisels that he is ruining the craft, whatever that means. Like another commenter pointed out, in a day or two you are going to see around two hundred blog entries detailing the purging of chisels from countless hobbyist woodworkers tool sets.
        Everybody is entitled to an informed opinion. To point out that Elithian has no validity because he doesn’t blog or hasn’t “done anything for the craft” isn’t really fair. I don’t know Elithian but maybe he doesn’t have enough time to blog or become woodworking’s savior because that isn’t what he does for a living. The stone you threw was much bigger than his.

        1. nmederich

          Bill, i appreciate your comment, it made me realize my hastily made comment was out of line. I still do not agree with Elithian’s view but acknowledge a persons entitlement to express opinion whether favorable toward the author or not. I had never visited your blog before today, but i enjoyed your July 8th post, and i kinda like the ‘i take no sh1t from anyone” flavor that permeates throughout your blog posts. I don’t agree with all your ideas or views but it does make for interesting reading. Regarding your comment “woodworking’s savior”, are you saying woodworking has a savior or that someone out there thinks of themselves as woodworking’s savior?

          1. Bill Lattanzio

            Thank you, and please don’t think this was some sort of personal attack, that is never my motive. When I first clicked on this entry I thought it was going to be a chisel review to be honest. I just feel that if hobbyists like me/us really want to make a contribution to the state of woodworking, that contribution should be in accepting all opinions and all methods of woodworking, whether or not we necessarily agree with the person and his or her methods. If woodworking does in fact need some type of help, which I’m not sure if it really does or not, I’m not really qualified to answer that, then the amateur can help by keeping an open mind. While part of me admires the fascist-like loyalty that some commenters bring to the forums, the other part of me would like them all to keep an open mind rather than a narrow one. As far as woodworking saviors go, I think every woodworker who ever started a blog and got a few followers thinks he is the savior of woodworking. Maybe that comes with the territory. Thanks.

    2. IrritableBadger

      I’m a professional cabinetmaker, I use my chisels almost every day and I have to agree with Chris. I’ve got a set of five bench chisels from 1/8″ to 1″ and one 1/4″ mortise chisel. The only bench chisels that see any use are the 3/8″ and 1/8″. The other three look brand new, in fact I’m pretty sure the only time I’ve ever used the 1″ chisel is for scraping off glue squeeze out.

    3. rdeviney

      Strawman arguments. Read the article again: it says buy one well made chisel, learn to use and sharpen it, and then buy others as you can afford them and projects dictate.

      1. Bill Lattanzio

        I think you could take the author’s assertion that because a 1/2″ chisel will pare wood then no other chisels are necessary as a strawman argument as well. For the record, I agree that most woodworkers don’t really need more than a handful of chisels, but I also agree that there are many different types of chisels for a reason, and while limiting yourself to just a few may be utilitarian, it may not always be the best choice.

  10. gumpbelly

    The more sharp chisels I start with, the longer I can go without having to stop to sharpen. 200 isn`t too many, Schwarz just wants a chisel glut on the market, so he can buy your used to be favorite chisels fer peanutz. Gotta watch this guy, he`s of late been swaying in the breeze on almost all he has in the past held dear. You know he can influence markets. If those chisels all worked for you don`t make his collecting your castoffs too easy. A case of seller beware.

    1. nmederich

      Really? You have 200 sharp chisels so you can go longer without having to stop to sharpen? Please post a picture of that as proof, as they say put up or shut up. Oh by the way, peanuts is not spelled with a “z” :)

  11. cebuchan

    The fewer chisels I have the more likely the one I need is sharp when I need it. Might seem counter-intuitive, but that’s been my experience.

  12. mrogen

    Chris,

    Well said, well said. This may just be the best tool advice ever!!! I wish I took this advice a few years ago, but better late than never.

    Michael

    1. Gregory of Sherwood Forest

      Apparently I’m a chisel whore. I like different lengths and a different feel depending on the task. I also like to use vintage occasionally. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like honing in the middle of a cut.

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