Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Theory of Chisel Monogamy

12_chisel_handle_IMG_6426

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.

12_chisel_IMG_6424

47 thoughts on “The Theory of Chisel Monogamy

  1. pecktecksiong

    Guys, get ready to bid on some gorgeous sets of steel on ebay. Because of what Chris just wrote, nobody wants sets now. Beware though, singles, esp. 1/2″ ones can be very expensive now.

  2. firelands

    To me old tools are like old Bibles… there is nothing like using something that someone else has gotten something out of …esp if they were your ancestor!

  3. Noel

    Could not agree with you more regarding your comments on 1/2” chisels, however in my case you could say I am a bigamist because I use two 1cm EA Berg bevel edged chisels most the time all bought on E-Bay here in Sweden. When one gets blunt I use the other and then sharpen both together. One has been rehandled slightly oversize (1 3/8” dia) and this is my favourite. It is so comfortable to hold and great for paring.

  4. jbrooks_il

    Ha! I have a small set of 5 that I bought a several years ago, and I bought a 1/2″ LN a couple years later and the others just sit so I guess I agree with Chris. I do use my widest chisel to deepen lines before I use my saw sometimes so I’d have to keep that. I may sell a some of my others and buy or make something to help clean the bottoms of some of the mortises and cavaties I’ve been cutting lately for guitar projects.

  5. obieturner

    Yeah the feeling of freedom and empowerment from learning to do more with less is great! Although I haven’t sold any tools yet it’s been years since I cut a dovetail with a router, and I do have chisels I haven’t used in a long time.Here’s to you Chris. Let’s get that “Old Dead Guy Joinery” class started.

  6. scottg

    I had a favorite chisel for almost 20 years. Another 1/2″. Its a very useful size to me too.
    Then I found another. Then another. Definitely no particle of a “set”.
    I have no idea in advance what is going to be a favorite chisel. Can’t tell by looking. The name means nothing.
    If there is a logical way to tell in advance, I can’t find it.
    Just have to get them and try them for a while and see for myself if I am going to like them well enough to design/make a custom handle. And then maybe end up making a couple/3 different handles until everything is right.

    Like an idiot I gave up one of my favorites a few years ago. A 1/4″ Pexto.
    Nobody likes Pexto much, but this one was a winner. I gave it up in favor of, first a 1/4″ Keen Kutter with a slightly longer blade. Everybody loves Keen Kutter right? Elegant, desirable, hot property? ……………. Just never fell in love.
    So I traded that off for a 1/4″ Swan. Jas Swan best ever made in history, right?
    Behhhhh… we’re sorry. Not this time. Nobody bats 1000.
    I want my Pexto back.
    When you get yourself a favorite chisel, take my advise. Hang on for dear life!
    yours Scott

  7. stephan.wintner

    This seems fairly obvious to me, at least it is the approach I have always used for tools – be they for cars, toy trains, wood, or what have you.

    I buy what I need when I need them. I do not skimp on quality – my time is worth too much to me to be spent futzing about trying to make a bad tool, or a tool shaped object, do the job.

    I have 8 chisels right now. I bought each having a specific use in mind. Of course sometimes a task turns out to be easier with a different tool than expected, or a different technique. So some of my chisels get used less than expected. And someday I might need an 1/8th chisel. If I do I will buy one – hopefully without delaying the project.

    I already have plenty of tools. I am quite happy to use the ones I have, and learn and master them. Once I find a task which really does go better with a different tool will I buy that tool.

    Stephan

  8. seawolfe

    I have a “chisel monkey” and love my chisels. I have big ones, little ones, cheap ones, and expensive ones. I have a hard time not growing the collection. I’m ok with that. My wife is ok with that because its better than a collection of wives or cars or skunks or …. but I digress. Having just one chisel works because if you are skilled you can just use a sharpened screw driver or whatever. The point is, get what works for you and get to work. Get what you can afford and grow your collection as you r needs and desire evolve. A 1/2″ lie Nielsen chisel s a good starting poin, but get their 0-1 steel chisel sharpened at a lower angle of 25*. I prefer a 3/8″ but each to their own. There is no wrong or right way. Some folks have dozens of planes and some folks do with just a low angled jack and a few extra blades (plus a regular block plane, low angle block plane, smoother, jointer, chisel plane (oops), mortise plane, bullnose whatever …. But again I digress). Bottom line, I have never met a woodworker who does not love tools. How many work benches has Christopher have?

  9. corgicoupe

    It seems to me that changing one’s mind over time [and experience] can be a sign of growth. Refusing to learn and change one’s mind can result in stagnation.
    Bob Newman

  10. FatherKind

    I appreciate Chris’s advice and don’t think folks should be so rough on him for changing his mind. We all grow in our woodworking, and sometimes in different directions. Myself, I do a lot of carving, so I have probably 60 different chisels, not just carving, but bench, mortise, and paring too. But I have a carver’s penchant for having different sizes that fit as precisely as possible the job I’m doing. For example, I almost never use my router (and I have a very nice one collecting the wrong kind of dust), so I do a lot of “setting in” and “grounding” with various sized bench chisels on projects where others would use a router. What I’m getting at is that there are many different styles of woodworking. For some a single 1/2″ chisel will work fine because they don’t use their chisels the same way others might. For me, I prefer the entire complement.

COMMENT