In End Grain

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Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking

I’ve got router planes and shoulder planes, cabinet scrapers, drawknives and shaves to tackle most any task, but chisels are my particular kink. It’s something about their deceptive simplicity. In one sense they’re just pieces of steel with handles attached; but they are also endlessly complex tools that must be engineered to gracefully marry the size, shape and weight of the blade – and of course the quality of the steel – with a handle that lends the tool balance and also fits your particular hand in just the right way. I’m a sucker for them, and I can’t seem to get enough.

I amassed the bulk of my chisels in the previous century, before the advent of high-end modern models and when you could still pick up a solid Sweetheart-era Stanley 750 for 10 bucks or an Everlasting for twice that. As such, my collection is a ramshackle lot of well over 100 chisels. I’ve got my go-to favorites, all of which live within easy reach of my workbench, but others are tucked away in drawers and I haven’t  used them in years. There are a few I never even bothered to tune up, and loose blades and handles seem to pop up whenever I scour the nooks and crannies of my shop in search of a misplaced tool.

But in truth, I got along pretty well with only the workmanlike five-piece set of blue-handled chisels that my college roommate left in the laundry room when he moved out years ago. And a few years later I did just fine with the basic four-piece set of 750s that Lonnie Bird was kind enough to pass down to me. Adding the 18” T. H. Witherby for tight spots and the crisp, long-handled  112” Charles Buck for paring only made work easier and more enjoyable. I guess I could have stopped there. And gotten rid of the outliers. But with chisels as with beers, buying more always seems like a good idea.

Finally, 10 years ago, when building furniture became the primary means by which I fed my children and my mortgage broker, I realized that owning yet another chisel was a luxury I could do without. There was brief backsliding over a pair of Japanese fishtail chisels that are great for dovetailing (when I remember that I have them), but for the most part I stayed clean.

I even tested out some of the modern chisels that began to surface with the boutique toolmaking boom that came along shortly after the Internet. I fell in love with a few of them. But I refrained; I and my checkbook were wooed by the well-worn handles and patinated blades of vintage tools.

But when it came time to pack up for Woodworking in America last October, I found myself sorting through well over a dozen chisels trying to decide on the right combination to take on the road. And as much as I love them all, I’ll admit to longing for a clean, full set of modern chisels.

In the coming months I’ll take a closer look at some of the modern chisels that have caught my eye. And I’m sure I’ll soon buy a set. But I can’t pretend that new chisels will make me a better woodworker. They’re a luxury, like a good micro-brew or a high-end guitar. But you know as well as I do: Keith Richards would sound better on a dime-store ukulele than Sonny Bono would sound on a 1959 Gibson Les Paul. It’s what you bring to the tool, not what the tool brings to you.  

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