Monday, December 17, 2012

Essential Tools for Newbies: Part V - Proper Bench Chisels

I am going to declare two Truths of Acquiring Tools, as determined by me, Brian Eve:
  • There should be no reason whatsoever that you should go broke getting enough decent tools to learn to build furniture. 
  • You don't have to settle for anything less than premium grade tools when starting out.
These two statements at first glance may seem to be in conflict.  How can you get enough premium grade tools to do woodwork without spending a gazillion dollars?

The answer:  Simplify.  Don't get so many.

If you have been keeping up with this series, you may have caught on to my philosophy which is that there are a few critical types of tools.  When starting out you can get by with fewer of these tools than you might think.  The trick is to make sure those are the right ones, and that they are of the highest quality.

For several years, I bought tools that could do tricks.  For example, I found a great deal on a vintage dovetail plane early on in my tool collecting career.  I have yet to use it.  (It's for sale if anyone wants it.)  Don't tell me you haven't thought, "Just think what I could do if I only had that new double-ended side rabbit plane!"

Don't fall into this trap.

In retrospect, that might be a bit much to ask.  Let me rephrase that:  Don't fall into this trap often.

Instead, buy tools that you need for basic skills and go from there.  The tools that I am recommending for you are basic tools that you probably will use on most of your woodworking projects from now on.  Skimping here could lead to having to upgrade your tools at best, and massive frustration at worst.

How do you get premium chisels without spending more than you have (because you spent most of your tool allowance on that double-ended side rabbit plane, for instance)?  Easy.  Don't buy so many.

One really needs (especially at first) only two chisels:  one kinda big one and one kinda small one.  Before we go there, however, we have to think ahead a little bit.  How's that for a teaser?

We have to think ahead to some intermediate level tools you might get someday:  a plow plane and a mortice chisel.  You should learn to make plows and mortices first with your basic tool kit, but at some point you may want to upgrade.  These tools make some common tasks easier.

The question you need to ask now, is:  "In my future, will these two tools come into my possession tooled in inches or millimeters?"

Depending on your location, one or the other is available.  If you are like me and have access to both, then you should decide one or the other and stick with it.  Here's why:

If you make a frame and panel door, for instance, you might use a plow plane to groove the rails and stiles, a mortice chisel to cut the mortice the same width as the groove, and you will need a bench chisel to clean things up and make fine adjustments.  If every tool in that process is 5/16 of an inch, things are easy.  If you use a 5/16" plow and an 8 mm mortice chisel, things may become a bit more complex.

I decided to go mostly in inches in my shop.

Once again, you can go either new or vintage.  If you want new chisels, I recommend Lie-Nielsen.  For years I used chisels I bought at the Borg, spent an awful lot of time sharpeing and lapping, only to have the chisel flex or the edge disintegrate under hard use.  I tried a Lie-Nielsen and knew I had to have them.

My 1/2" Lie-Nielsen chisel sitting on my bench.
For starters, get a 3/8" and a 3/4" chisel.  Only buy a set if you are independently wealthy and don't mind buying a lot of tools you don't use.  Don't get me wrong, five chisels are better than two, and 11 are better than five.  How far do you need to go?  You'll get by at first with just two.  Getting 11 chisels for the price of 10 is false economy, because you aren't ready for all of them yet.  You may find that someday all you really use are four chisels from that set.  If you would have only purchased those four, you would have saved three hundred bucks.

I bought one chisel every month with my tool allowance until I had the five chisels I thought I needed.

These Lie-Nielsen chisels are fantastic.  They required no real lapping, just a polish on the back that took a minute or two.  They are easy to keep sharp.  They feel nice in your hand - the balance, fit and finish are superb, and they have a nice heft.  Start with these chisels and you will keep them your whole life.

You also can get fantastic vintage chisels.  However, there is a lot of junk out there.  I mean, a LOT of junk.  So rather than collect every 50 cent flea market bargain you run across, go to an established re-seller.  Tell them you are starting and need a couple good, premium users, but don't know exactly what to look for.  These guys will really take the time to match you up with what you need.  As a general rule, the less time it will require to make them useable, the more they will cost.  With any chisel a slight hollow on the non-bevel side is OK, but if you get one with a hump you should send it back.

Here is a list of vintage tool sellers (in the US) that I have worked with and highly recommend:

Joshua Clark at
Patrick Leach of Blood and Gore fame:
Sanford Moss of

All of these guys give outstanding customer service, know what they are talking about, and will stand behind what they recommend you.  Tell them what you are looking for, and if they don't have it, they will keep an eye out for you.

If your tools will be in millimeters, you may want to consider some good, Japanese chisels.  There are some wonderful tools out there, but unfortunately I don't have enough information to make a recommendation.  All I know is that Lie-Nielsens are not available in metric.  My suggestion is to do some internet research, talk to some knowledgeable people, and try some out.  If you are in Germany, Dictum is a great place to go, as you can look and try out many different kinds, and the staff is highly knowledgable.

The chisel/saw/carving tool wall at Dictum in Munich.
Don't rely on the choices at the home center to be good enough for what you want to do.  Eventually, you will need to upgrade to premium tools, anyway.  Save these junkers for when your spouse needs something to open a paint can.

That is almost it!  The next installment will be about marking and measuring tools, then we can start building things!

If you haven't read the earlier posts in this series, check them out:
  1. Introduction
  2. Sharpening
  3. Jack Plane 
  4. Hand Saws


  1. I got the left handed, metric version, of the double ended rabbeting thingie. Waiting for that special project to use it on.

    1. Haha, perfect, Ralph. You expressed in two lines what I had a hard time explaining in half my essay.

  2. I have a dovetail plane. and a special saw for making the dovetail in the tabletop. I just have to build a table that will need a dovetailed batten to keep the top flat.

    I agree completely on the advice of getting as good tools as one can afford.

  3. To me the price has to be right AND the quality has to be right. With that in mind, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Narex Chisels (like the ones at Lee Valley). Great price and very good quality. Lie Nielsen? I’m guessing excellent to possibly outstanding quality. Is very good quality good enough? I’m hearing that it is from a large number of people.


    1. Hey, Dean. I almost mentioned Narex chisels here, but didn't as I think this post is long enough.

      I, too have heard wonderful things about their bench chisels. The price is hard to beat, but I stand by my recommendation. If you need to upgrade in a couple years, you might as well get one or two Lie-Nielsen's to start. You probably won't need a whole set to start, save up for the LNs. You won't regret it.

      However, I do have to admit that I was impressed with a 1/2" Narex mortice chisel I bought for a single project. It was less than fifteen bucks, and worked nice for what it was. If I thought I might have used a 1/2" mortice chisel for a lot of projects, I would have started with the real deal.

    2. No argument on the Lie Nielsen’s Brian. However (to state the obvious), if I were to get the 3/8” and 3/4” chisel sizes that you recommended, it would cost me $110 for the Lie Nielsen’s and $22.80 for the Narex. As a budget challenged neophyte woodworker, who also needs to learn how to sharpen, I would think that these would “hold me over” for quite awhile in anticipation of saving for a pair of Lie Nielsen’s.

      However, if the Narex chisels served me well, it would seem a bit redundant and costly to replace them with the same size Lie Nielsen’s, but that in no way takes away from your statements regarding Lie Nielsen chisels. Would love to afford them.

      Thanks Brian,


    3. Hey Dean,

      Absolutely. If you have an opportunity to try them before buying, great. If not, like you say, you are out less than $25. After all, the point of these posts is to do things on a budget without wasting money.

      To clarify my earlier point, if you find yourself upgrading, the total cost is $132.80, plus you have to wait a couple years to get the LNs. Remember, these two chisels will probably be used on almost every project you do from now on.

      Ultimately, the choice is yours, and the most important thing is that you get in the shop to use them, whichever the choice. My first woodworking handtools were a set of six chisels purchased at the Borg, that I eventually gave away. I learned a lot with those chisels, but it was amazing how much easier the LNs were to use.

  4. Your blog is becoming one of my favorites. " kinda big one and one kinda small one" made me laugh. A lot of good pointers in this post.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I am amazed that people are reading my blog. I am having a lot of fun writing it.

  5. "until I had the five chisels I thought I needed"
    What sizes/types were these? What would you now consider the five-or-six most frequently used sizes?

    1. At the time I thought I needed a 1/4, 3/8, 1/2, 5/8, and a 3/4. I thought these were needed because this is what many pre-packaged chisel sets have.

      Now I think the five or six most frequently used sizes are the five or six that you personally need most in your work.

      I know that that's not much help - probably not the answer you were looking for.

      My point is, that 90% of the time it doesn't matter what the size of the chisel actually is. I used to find myself going for whichever chisel in the roll happened to be sharpest. Very rarely do I find myself in need of a chisel that is an exact measurement in width, usually I need a "kinda big one," or a "kinda small one."