In the short video posted last Thursday (1/30/2014), Christopher Schwarz talks about chisels. At the tail end of the clip, he talks about butt chisels where he mentions that these chisels are shorter and have great balance when knocking out dovetail waste, but you use a bench chisel for that, too.
So why do we have butt chisels? The term is said to originate from the carpenter trade where short chisels have a specific purpose. Before I divulge that purpose, I’ll share another story.
A little girl asked her mother why she cuts the ends off her holiday hams. Mom told the little girl to ask her grandmother. When asked, grandmother told the girl to ask great-grandmother. (Obviously this was passed down through generations.) Great-grandmother’s answer was simple: She cut the ends off the ham so it could fit into the only pan she had available.
With that story in mind, butt chisels, such as those shown in the above photo from Lee Valley, are often used in the carpentry to cut the gain for door hinges or butt hinges (hinges that are on the side of the door that abuts the frame). With the door jambs (the frame to which the door attaches and swings) in place in the wall, regular-length chisels could not fit between the floor and lowest hinge or between the upper hinge and the top of the door frame. At the right, you can see the difference in lengths with a comparison of Veritas chisels. If you could wedge a regular-length chisel into position, there would be no room to swing a mallet or hammer. As a result, shorter chisels came to be used by carpenters for the specific purpose of installing butt hinges. Hence the name butt chisels.
With that same reasoning, we have butt mortise planes (Lie-Nielsen’s example is shown in the left-hand photo). This plane was designed so the distance from the front edge of the blade to the rear edge of the plane is short enough to fit above the top hinge or below the bottom hinge. And the open throat allows the user to look through the plane directly at the area of work; it’s way easy to see the start/stop points as you work. Notice there are knobs on both ends of the plane. This is for better control, and it’s possible to push or pull the tool depending on how the tool is used.
Is this how butt chisels and planes got named, or are we simply cutting the ends off of the ham?
If you want to stay away from hinge mortises altogether, think wooden hinges. Rob Cosman’s “The Wooden-Hinge” is just the ticket. Rob works through building a nice dovetailed box, but far and away, the best technique shown is the wooden hinge. He demonstrates the process to turn any lumber into a dowel that is then transformed into a hinge. This alone is worth any funds spent on the DVD.