Let’s Talk Chisels And Sizes 6 Things Explained

Six things to know about woodworking chisels and sizes before you buy. What’s a decent set of chisels such as bench chisels, mortise chisels and paring chisels. Why buy quality chisels over cheap ones and what the differences are between the cheap ones and the quality ones. Determining what sizes of chisels to buy if you’re a beginner. every woodshop should have at least one type of chisel.


Decent Set Of Beginner Chisels And Sizes

Instead of buying a whole set of wood chisels, why not build your own versatile chisel set? What I mean by that is in the beginning only buying what you need. It’ll save you a lot of money in the long run.

First of all you’ll need a bench chisel or two. Another type of chisel that you may need is a mortise chisel. It just depends on whether you’re going to be doing some mortising work right away, if not then don’t buy it until you really need it. 

The paring chisel could also be another type to add to your beginner chisel set. Like before if you don’t need it for a particular project then don’t get it. The end goal is to only buy wood chisels that you know you will get a ton of use out of.

Which Bench Chisels To Buy?

Woodworking chisels are one of most used hand tools that you’ll ever use. The problem for beginners is which ones do you need to get started? My advice is don’t spend a lot of money on a chisel set that you’re probably only going to use 2 or 3 sizes. If you’re on a budget, just get the ½” bench chisel and later on get maybe a ¼” and a 1” but only if you need them. A good quality chisel will be a bit expensive but will last a very long time.

Bench Chisels should always be the first ones to buy. They have so many uses and are very durable. They’re called bench chisels because well, they sit on the bench most of the time and are always the one that woodworkers reach for first.

You can use these for cutting dovetails with the use of a mallet. They work well when you need to cut dowels flush with a surface. They can also be used for cleaning out tear out in a dado and squaring up a corner of a rabbit joint. I mean, these are the basics of what a beginner woodworker would want to use a bench chisel for.

Which Mortise Chisels To Buy?

Most of the time you can get away with only buying one or two sizes of these chisels. Most mortise and tenon joints are made with ¼” chisel and maybe a 5/16” from time to time. Mortise and tenon joints are some of the strongest that you can make and they’re used to join two pieces of wood at a ninety degree angle. If you plan on doing a lot of mortise and tenon work, get the ¼” mortise chisel first and try it out. I think in the beginning you’ll find this will be the only one you need for awhile.

Mortise Chisels are a must have tool if you plan on doing projects that are made from nothing but hand tools. Woodworkers that make furniture and wood boxes use these a lot. These are only a few examples but there are many more. 

The mortise chisel is a very stout chisel that can withstand the heavy blows from a mallet. Also due to its strength and design it’s the only chisel that can withstand the levering out of wood which a bench chisel can’t do as efficiently or as cleanly. When done correctly the mortise is a nice rectangular hole that can receive the tenon. 

This particular chisel is square in shape with a sharp bevel that excels in the squaring up corners and removal of wood and it does the job very efficiently. They work very well when doing end grain work on types of hardwood and they’re great for getting into those hard to reach places.  

Which Paring Chisel To Buy?

A ½” paring chisel is a nice well rounded size for tenon work. You don’t want to go too wide because the wider the chisel the more energy you ‘ll have to exert to push the chisel through the wood.

If your mortise is ¼” and you need to clean up the ends of the mortise you’ll need a ¼” paring chisel. The half inch one will be too wide to go down the end of the mortise. These are valuable if you do a lot of cabinet and or furniture work.

Paring Chisels are chisels that are never used with a mallet or a hammer. The main function of these is to shave very thin layers of wood. They’re long, thin and lightweight with a twenty degree beveled edge. Due to the slender design they’re almost flexible. 

They’re mainly used to shave small amounts of wood off the face and end of tenon joints to get a nice tight fit. Basically all it does is smooths the walls and the bottom of a mortise. All of the smoothing is done by hand. One hand pushes on the butt of the handle while the other guides it along. With both hands working together you have a lot more control to give your joints that final smooth touch.

Are Cheap Chisels Ok?

Cheap wood chisels are ok if you don’t have the money at the time to invest on good quality chisels. You can get a pretty good edge on them but the sharpness won’t last as long especially if you’re beating on them constantly with a mallet. They’re made from nothing but soft steel They will get the job done if you don’t mind sharpening more often.

Wood chisels almost always need to be sharpened straight away, even decent quality chisels. The cheap ones especially need a lot more attention in the beginning. 

Some of the problems that need to be resolved are the backs of chisels. Sometimes they aren’t perfectly flat, some come with a slight hump in them preventing them from cutting properly. They can also come with a concave on the back. They’re not smooth across the back either like they’re supposed to be. They just look rough and all of these things need to be resolved before you can get good results. 

The only way to remedy these problems is to buy sharpening stones or some other sharpening tool. I’m going to assume that most of you don’t have the money to invest in some of these things. The good news is you can achieve a sharp edge at the bevel while at the same time get all of the backs of your chisels flat and polished.

We can do this with sandpaper by sharpening each chisel through various grits. The problem is that it can take a lot of time in the beginning but once the back of the chisel is flat and polished you shouldn’t have to spend as much time in the future. Watch the video below to learn how to do this.

Differences Between Cheap Chisels & Good Chisels

The difference between cheap chisels and good chisels boils down to what they’re made of. A good quality chisel is made of tool steel or as some people call, carbon steel. When carbon is added to ordinary steel it makes it much harder. Most steel that’s been hardened has anywhere between 0.60 to 0.75% of carbon. The material that makes up the handle is normally made out of a hardwood like ash or maybe even beechwood. These handles can withstand many blows from a mallet and will last for years. 

A quality chisel also means less time sharpening and more time cutting.  They hold a sharp edge longer and won’t break or bend under pressure.

Chisel Sizes

Which chisel sizes do you actually use should always be based on what the project calls for. For example if you need to make quarter inch mortises then you’ll need a quarter inch mortise chisel. It doesn’t mean that you have to go buy an entire set of chisels and only use one or two out of a pack of five chisels.

By only buying what you need at the time and you’ll save yourself a lot of money up front. If you need it down the road then that’s when to purchase a new chisel but not before.


This person shows how to sharpen and polish chisels