Bevel-edge chisels are just like any hand tool in that you should have them in your hand to make a decision about which ones to purchase. Bevel-edge chisels come in some different configurations that can be confusing when trying to decide which ones to purchase. In the end, it will boil down to the type of woodworking that you do and the way that you work. They come in various shapes and sizes, different types of steel and from different countries of the world. However, no wood shop should be without a good set of basic chisels for general work so let’s take a closer look at the world of bevel-edge chisels to find out which ones are right for you.
This type of chisel is quite common and available at almost any tool store. The handle can be made of wood or plastic and in almost every shape imaginable. The blade of the chisel is secured into the handle by the blade’s tang. There is generally a leather bolster that is installed between the metal of the blade and handle material to reduce the shock of mallet strikes. Most of these chisels also have ferrules where the blade’s tang enters the handle to prevent it from splitting.
As the name suggests, the blade edges are bevelled to allow the chisel to work in more cramped spaces. Even though they are bevelled, they generally still have a small vertical surface that makes them great for general chisel work but not so good for dovetails. I think that every woodworker, regardless of the work they do, should have a set of bevel-edge chisels.
Butt chisels are easily identified by their short length. These types of chisels were generally used by finish carpenters because the short blade and handle would allow a craftsman to get into tight spaces like in between stair balusters or built-in cabinets during installation. This is not to say that they can’t be used in the shop. In fact, the chisels that I reach for the most are my bubinga-handled Ashley Isles butt chisels. I feel that their reduced length allows me to control the chisel more effectively because the majority of the chisel is in my hand. For any general chisel work the butt chisel is my choice.
The main difference with a socket chisel is the manner in which the blade connects to the handle. Instead of the metal blade going into the handle, a small tapered tenon is shaped on the end of the wood handle and then inserted into a socket on the end of the metal blade. The fit of the handle is generally a friction fit. This type of handle works well but you should know that in the cooler months when the humidity is down, the tapered wooden tenon will shrink and become loose or even fall out of the metal socket. If this happens to you, understand that it is not a defective chisel but just the way it is made. Many of my peers use them and simply place a wrap of masking tape where the handle meets the blade to prevent the handle from falling out.
These bevel-edge chisels are definitely the ones that look and are put together with the most difference than the others mentioned above. The largest difference is in the blade. Japanese chisels have hard steel that is laminated to softer steel. This lamination gives you good strength (soft steel) combined with keen, tough edges (hard steel). Be warned – the hard chisel edge found on Japanese chisels are hard but brittle in comparison to other chisel steels. Any prying with a Japanese chisel will almost certainly end with a chipped edge. Also, because these chisels were intended for working in softer woods, some exotic hard woods could lead to chipping the edge. I once tried to dovetail ebony and maple together with a Japanese chisel and it didn’t end well.
Another big difference is that the back of the chisel is hollow. This is done on purpose to make flattening the back of the blade easier. This is similar in principle to using the Charlesworth ruler technique for sharpening plane irons. It is to reduce the amount of work it takes to hone the back of the chisel.
The handles of Japanese chisels are normally made from wood and have a hoop to prevent splitting. On most Japanese chisels, you are required to set the hoop by driving it down the handle about 1/8″ and then peen the protruding wood creating a suitable striking surface for steel chisel hammers that are common in Japan.
Choosing the right chisel really boils down to how you work and what feels good to your hand. I have strong feelings about plastic handles on any type of hand tool, so it’s wood for me. I like the control you can get from a short butt chisel while some of my peers insist that the long chisel makes it easier to judge if you are holding it straight. If you work primarily with hard exotic woods like bubinga or rosewood, you shouldn’t be looking at Japanese chisels because their harder edges will fracture.
Some other considerations are the type of steel from which they are made. Generally A2 steel holds an edge longer than O1 or high carbon but I feel O1 can be honed to a keener edge than A2. I would prefer to sharpen more often to have the added sharpness than to use a duller chisel for longer (I can hear the letters arriving already). The Japanese chisels have very hard steel but the lamination to a softer metal and the hollow backs make sharpening these chisels quite effortless.
In the end, regardless of which bevel-edge chisel you choose, ensure that you keep them sharp and you will have a versatile tool at your disposal.