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Back when I started as an apprentice cabinetmaker, a chisel was something to be beaten with a large hammer. That was before I learned how to properly sharpen and use these tools. Since then it’s become apparent there are three distinct chisel operations that every woodworker should know: paring, light chopping and heavy mortise chopping.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to make these cuts. This article will show you how to use your chisel with the least amount of effort, damage to the chisel and damage to your work.

Before I begin, there are a couple things to mention about safety. One nice thing about chisels is you don’t have to wear hearing protection. But there are safety issues. Wear safety glasses when chopping or mortising, and I mean that. A chisel breaking can send pieces of metal flying, possibly causing an eye injury.

Second, if you have any reservations about using the sharp end of a chisel while paring, consider using a Kevlar protective glove, which is routinely used by carvers. The glove will dull the impact of a slipped chisel and reduce your chance of injury. Finally, never use a chisel that’s pointing toward your body. Always be mindful of the direction a chisel is going and where your hands are. This is the first thing to check before making a cut of any kind. The last thing you want to do on a Sunday afternoon is explain to an emergency room physician how you almost gave yourself a DIY appendectomy while working on Aunt Betty’s blanket chest.

The one thing that amazes most beginning woodworkers is how seldom you really need to hit the chisel to get it to work right (the exception to this is, of course, mortising). Paring is a process of using the knife edge of a sharp chisel to slice small amounts of wood off. With a little technique and a sharp chisel, you can get into places inaccessible to a plane or knife.

Paring is basically the finest work you can do with a chisel. Some examples of paring include:

  • Trimming the cheeks of a mortise to fit a tenon that’s too large.
  • In the absence of a shoulder plane, paring the tenon to fit the mortise.
  • When you lay out a hinge mortise, after chopping the mortise sides, you basically have to pare the waste out to the edges of the hinge layout.
  • If the space between dovetails is large enough (i.e. the pins) for a chisel, they can be pared, on their sides, to fit.

Before beginning, make sure your work is secured on your bench or in your vise. This will impart more of the force of your pushing into the work, thereby giving you more control of the cut. Paring requires pushing a chisel while it lies flat on a surface, slicing into the wood grain. This can be either with or across the grain. When you pare, you’re generally not taking off large amounts of wood. Just gently slicing little shavings off.

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