The Theory of Chisel Monogamy
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.