Canadian Woodworking

Doing bad things with good chisels

Blog by Rob Brown
a good chisel turned bad

I’m pretty much done with the basement reno, but there are always bits and pieces that get left until the very end. 

To be clear (more like honest), I guess I’m not quite at the “very end” of this trip just yet, but maybe in the home stretch, even if the home stretch might turn out to be a 100 km long road that seems to go on and on.

This is the time when corners are cut. This is the time when I don’t have it in me to be too picky. This is the time when I start to use tools for jobs they aren’t meant for. A great example is when I was trimming the stairway that leads to the basement and needed to remove some old paint, caulking and other miscellaneous junk from above the existing stringer to make way for a piece of 1/4 cove I was using to cover up the gap. I could have searched for a scraper. I could have also looked for an oscillating multitool.

The problem was I had a fairly sharp 3/4″ chisel right beside me. I couldn’t help myself. It’s the same chisel I’d normally use in the shop to do everything from cut dovetails in a drawer to pare a hard maple tenon. In short, this is my good chisel that I try to baby and protect until its razor-sharp edge is needed.

As I reached for it I felt surprisingly guilty, though I never once hesitated. I knew it would get the job done better than any other tool I had nearby, even if that meant I’d have to grind and hone it to be able to use it again in a proper shop setting to make fine furniture. And getting this portion of the job completed was all I cared about right then.

Not surprisingly, this sharp chisel of mine did a fantastic job of cleaning the joint. The new piece of 1/4 cove fit nicely in place, both ends were carefully cut to mate with either the other piece of 1/4 cove or the wall, and it was pinned in place for eternity and awaited some filler and a few coats of paint.

There’s a generally held rule in woodworking and home improvement that you should use a tool only for its intended use, but in the real world that rule isn’t always followed. To be clear, there are certainly times when not following this rule is surprisingly dangerous. But often it’s just a matter of getting the best tool for the job that’s closest to your reach, rather than truly the best tool for the job. That tool may sometimes get worn or slightly damaged, but if it’s repairable it’s usually not a huge deal. Woodworking and home improvement projects are sometimes like life itself: Imperfect, yet satisfying, especially when things turn out well in the end.

A Good Chisel, Turned Bad

With a quick decision to use a carefully honed chisel on some paint, construction adhesive and a potential pin nail, I transformed my once-gleaming fine furniture chisel into a rough and tumble DIY chisel. I will eventually bring it back to the furniture side, but it could be a while before I get to that job.

a good chisel turned bad
Last modified: September 8, 2022

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


  1. I took the time once I got one of those platter sharpeners to sharpen all chisels to the same perfection…and restore them that way…good or “cheap” stanley chisels. That way, the chisel suits the job.

  2. When I left home for university (actually home left me: my father was promoted and the family move to another city) I moved into an apartment and my father put together a small tool kit from his extra tools, including a large flat-head screwdriver which, he said, “Is not ever for screws, but for all the jobs that people use to ruin screwdrivers.” 60 years later, I still have it, and it’s never seen a screw.

  3. Ha, ha,ha. I know you are not the only person that has ever done that. I have some nice vintage chisels and every once in a while I use one to be expedient. At least that is the thought that flies through my brain when I do it! However, I have a collection of various beater chisels, most acquired at estate & garage sales. I worked remodeling for quite a few years and sometimes to be “proficient”, you have to abuse a tool or two. I always had 4 or 5 of these chisels in my tool box.

  4. That is why one has an inexpensive set of three chisels in one’s toolbox. Generally sharpened only with the grinder. Therefore the bench chisels are always ready for joinery

  5. I have one or two chisels that are meant for “bad things”. I remember one time I did a post on Instagram using a chisel to work a bit of MDF. You could hear the gasps echoing digitally…my response is that it can always be resharpened.

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