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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 the link in the book title.

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Showing 47 comments
  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Eric R

    I have been slowly paring down my tool collection and find it freeing.
    Good article Chris.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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?

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • damien

    Great, now I feel like a hoarder.

  • Mel Morris

    Chris,

    What happened to the two chisel approach as discussed in the Mastering Hand Tools video?

    Thank you,
    Mel

  • 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.

  • owenpt

    Hey Chris, do you use a skew or fishtail chisel for half blind dovetails?

  • kdtirrell

    What size mortising chisel do you use?

  • Mel Morris

    Chris! What happened to the two chisel statement? 1/4 and 3/4?

  • markhawkins

    I second Michael on this…some of the best advice that could be given.

    Mark

  • Marlon1

    I think a person would have to be hammered to have 4 wives!

  • B Jackson

    Is it as proper to say “I’m as monogamous to my tools as I am to my wife?”

  • 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

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