Mastering the Art of Woodworking Chisels: Types, Techniques, and History

Posted by Mark Newton on

Bevel edge chisel set by Two Cherries

The Art of Woodworking Chisels: Types, Techniques, and History

Woodworking has been an integral part of human craftsmanship for centuries, and one of the most essential tools in a woodworker's arsenal is the chisel. Chisels are versatile tools used for shaping, carving, and removing wood material with precision and finesse. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the world of woodworking chisels, including the various types, their intended uses, how to use them effectively, and the history behind these indispensable tools.

Understanding Woodworking Chisels

Types of Woodworking Chisels

There are several types of woodworking chisels, each designed for specific tasks. Here are some common varieties:


Bench chisel set


1. Bench Chisels: Bench chisels are the workhorses of woodworking. They come in various sizes, typically with beveled edges, and are used for general purpose work like cutting, shaping, and paring wood.


Mortise chisel set


2. Mortise Chisels: Mortise chisels are robust and sturdy, designed for making mortise joints. They have thicker blades and can withstand heavy mallet blows.

3. Paring Chisels: Paring chisels are long and slender, ideal for fine and delicate work where precision is crucial. They are often used for trimming and fitting joints.


Skew chisels


4. Skew Chisels: Skew chisels have a skewed edge, which allows for more controlled cuts and cleaner finishes, making them suitable for intricate work like dovetail joints.


Carving gouges


5. Gouges: Gouges have curved blades and are primarily used for carving, creating contours, and hollowing out wood. There are various gouge shapes, such as straight, spoon, and fishtail gouges.


Fishtail chisel


6. Fishtail Chisels: Fishtail chisels have a unique fishtail-shaped blade, designed to access tight spaces and corners.


Japanese chisels

7. Japanese Chisels: Japanese chisels, or "Nomi," have a different design and often come with laminated blades for extra durability.

Chisel Blade Materials

Chisel blades can be made from various materials, with the most common being:

  • High Carbon Steel: Known for its sharpness and ease of sharpening, high carbon steel is a popular choice for chisel blades.

  • Tool Steel: Tool steel is durable and holds an edge well. It's often used in premium chisels.

  • Alloy Steel: Alloy steel chisels are a good balance between sharpness and durability.

  • HSS (High-Speed Steel): HSS chisels are incredibly hard and can maintain sharpness for a long time, making them suitable for heavy-duty work.

Chisel Handles

Replacement chisel handles

Chisel handles come in various materials, including wood and synthetic materials like composite or plastic. A well-designed handle should fit comfortably in your hand and provide a secure grip. Wooden handles can be customized for comfort, while synthetic handles are more durable and resistant to wear and tear.

Using Woodworking Chisels

Safety First

Before you start using a chisel, ensure you're wearing appropriate safety gear, including gloves for extra grip and safety glasses. Always keep your hands and body clear of the chisel's path.

Basic Chiseling Techniques

  1. Mark Your Work: Start by marking your wood to indicate where you want to make cuts or create joints. For this you'll find items like t-bevel's, marking gauges or cutting gauges useful to help you accurately position your marks for laying out your cuts.

  2. Secure Your Workpiece: Use clamps or a vise to secure your wood firmly in place. This prevents it from moving while you work.

  3. Positioning: Hold the chisel with your dominant hand, while your other hand supports and guides it. Place the bevel side down and ensure the chisel is at a slight angle to the wood surface.

  4. For striking force: Use a Carpenters wooden mallet, a Rubber Mallet, or a Bronze head mallet to strike the chisel. A carpenters wooden mallet is a traditional choice and a great all rounder. For tasks requiring significant force, a bronze head mallet is the way to go. A rubber mallet is your friend however if you're going to be chiseling for a few hours because it dissipates the shock to minimize fatigue. Ensure you hit the chisel perpendicular to the wood grain to avoid splitting.

  5. Controlled Paring: When using a paring chisel, use hand pressure and make controlled, shallow cuts for precision work.

Sharpening Your Chisel

Honing guide for chisel sharpening

Regular sharpening is essential to maintain a chisel's cutting edge. You can use sharpening stones, honing guides, and honing compounds to keep your chisel blade sharp.

Chisels and Hammers: A Perfect Partnership

The type of hammer or mallet you choose can significantly impact the effectiveness of your chisel work:

Wooden mallet

  • Wooden Mallet: Wooden mallets are ideal for delicate chiseling work, as they transmit less shock to the chisel, reducing the risk of splitting wood fibers.

Rubber mallet

  • Rubber Mallet: A rubber mallet is the way to go for extended use. It won't harm your chisel or hurt your hand after prolonged use.

Bronze head mallet

  • Bronze head mallet: Really, the gold standard for controlled force where it counts and available in a range of weights for adaptable use and application.

A Glimpse into Chisel History

The history of chisels dates back to ancient times when early humans used stone and bone tools for woodworking. As civilization advanced, chisels evolved with the development of metalworking skills. The iron age brought about the use of iron and steel, making chisels more durable and versatile.

In the modern era, chisels have become integral to various woodworking traditions worldwide, with craftsmen and hobbyists alike continuing to refine their techniques and create exquisite woodwork.


Woodworking chisels are timeless tools that bridge the gap between craftsmanship and artistry. With the right knowledge, techniques, and a keen eye for detail, you can unlock the full potential of these versatile tools. Whether you're shaping intricate details or creating robust joinery, woodworking chisels remain an essential part of the woodworker's toolkit, allowing you to transform your creative visions into tangible masterpieces.


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