As a beginning dovetailer, I had a crappy set of plastic-handled chisels, a newspaperman’s salary and a copy of the Japan Woodworker catalog.
All three things conspired to make me miserable.
I wanted to cut dovetails with bold angles, but my crappy chisels had side bevels that were as big as Cheddar Mountain at Bonanza. So every time I went to clean out the waste between my tails, the side bevels would tear a bite out of my tails.
I wanted to buy a sweet dovetail chisel from Japan Woodworker that didn’t have side bevels. That would allow me to sneak into the corners with ease. But I had a newspaperman’s salary, which made me want to sell drugs to the local Junior Leaguers.
Luckily, I met some clever people in my travels. Dovetailing demon Rob Cosman showed me his hot-rodded chisel on which he ground the side bevels down to nothing (and he shaped the chisel with a fishtail sweep , something I’ll share another day). Woodworker Lonnie Bird showed me how he lopped the end off a plastic-handled chisel and reshaped it so that it was easy to strike.
And what did I bring to the equation? I figured out chisel geometry (like most woodworkers eventually do), which allowed me to make the tool take a beating like a rented mule.
Here’s What You Do
So if you have a nice four-figure salary and can spring for one of the nice $1 chisels at the flea market, here’s how you can make it into a sweet worker in about 30 minutes.
Step one: File the side bevels. The side flats below the side bevels on cheap chisels are way too big for dovetail work. You need to file the bevels so that there is absolutely zero flat area on the long sides of your chisel’s blade. When you are done, the chisel’s blade should look like a decapitated pyramid in cross-section.
You can do this with a grinder, a stationery belt sander or a disk sander. Or you can take the cheap (and safer) way out and use a multicut file. This file, which is generally used for shaping metal, can shape the side bevels of a typical chisel in about 10 minutes.
Secure the chisel in a vise and work the side bevels with the file. Hold the file with two hands: one on the tang and one at the tip. Cut only on the push stroke. And stroke the file so your hand is never (ever) right over the cutting edge of the chisel. One slip and you are (blood-soaked) toast.
After filing the side bevels so they extend to the flat face of the chisel, clean up your work with light stokes of the multicut file. Then clean up your work (if you like) with a fine file or sandpaper.
Step two: Adjust the handle. If the striking end of the handle is rounded and plastic, it is likely too top-heavy to wield comfortably (the chisel should feel like a pencil), and the rounded end is probably tough to strike without your mallet glancing off the end oddly.
Take a hacksaw and cut off the top 3/4″ of the handle. Try the balance. Still feel top-heavy? Lop off a little more. Make sure you leave enough handle so you can grasp the handle in your hand to strike it without striking yourself.
Once you get the balance right, file the top of the handle flat and dress the sharp corners to remove any odd burrs.
Step three: Sharpen it correctly. Grind the primary bevel of the tool at 25Ã?Â°. Then grind a 35Ã?Â° secondary bevel on the very tip. It will be a very small secondary bevel, which is a good thing. The advantage of this steep bevel is that your tool will be durable through a lot of chopping. A steeper honing angle increases edge life. And the steep angle isn’t a detriment to chopping out waste , it scarcely feels different than a 25Ã?Â° chisel.
Then you are off to the races.
Try this with an inexpensive 1/4″ or 3/8″ chisel and I think you’ll be pleased with the results , especially the lack of damaged tail boards.
– Christopher Schwarz
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