You do not need a complete set of 11 chisels from the 1/8” up to the monster 2”-wide chisel. Sure, the part of you that also collects Hummel figurines really wants a complete set, but most of the chisel sizes will go unused – even if you are an active woodworker.
Your work and your hands will eventually tell you which chisel sizes you really need at hand.
That’s the problem with chisels. Beginners don’t know which sizes they need, so they buy a complete set of tools. And because they are beginners, they don’t want to shell out $500 or more for a complete set of premium chisels.
I stumbled into this problem myself when I was a beginner after my first woodworking class. I bought a complete set of plastic-handled chisels in 1993. After a few years of work, I discovered this was an error. The plastic-handled tools were top-heavy. The blades were poorly ground and were too soft for even light chopping.
So when beginning woodworkers ask me to recommend a set of bargain chisels, I give them this answer: Buy a single premium 1/2” chisel, such as a Veritas, Lie-Nielsen, Blue Spruce or a Japanese tool. Something that costs just over $50. Set that tool up and use it until you are backed into a corner where you absolutely need another size. You’ll be surprised how long that will take because the 1/2” tool is the most versatile in my experience.
Your work will tell you the next size to buy. Chopping London-pattern dovetails? You’ll buy a 1/8” or 3/16”. Find yourself using your chisel to deepen knife lines for tenons? You’ll want something wider, such as 1-1/4” or 1-1/2”.
Then keep working until you absolutely need another size. The bonus to this approach is that you will spend less time futzing around with tools – setting them, taking care of them, finding a place to store them – and more time woodworking.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. All of the gift guide entries (including last year’s) are here.