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Chisels - Essential Woodworking Tools

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Bevel-Edged Chisel

Bevel-Edged Chisel

(c) 2007 Chris Baylor licensed to About.com, Inc.
No matter how many power tools you have at your disposal, one hand tool you'll always want to keep around (in varying shapes and sizes) is the chisel. It can likely trace its origins back to the sharp rocks used to carve wood in prehistoric times, yet the chisel still remains one of the most versatile tools in the wood shop today.

While there are literally hundreds of different types, shapes and uses for chisels, they all operate on the same basic premise: a sharp cutting edge that can be guided through the stock with a handle that is built specifically to aid the chisel's intended cutting task.

Types of Chisels:

Different types of chisels include gouges designed to be used with a lathe, as hooks, and with square, round-nosed or curved cutting edges. However, for this article, we're going to stick to the most commonly used type of chisel, the bevel-edged chisel. These chisels have a blade that is typically 4 to 7 inches in length, with about a 20-25 degree bevel on three edges, but only on the top side of the chisel (the bottom side of the chisel is flat).

Chisel Construction:

The blade of a bevel-edged chisel narrows at the top to connect to the handle, which is typically made of either hardwood or plastic. Chisel handles come in various shapes and sizes, but in the case of the bevel-edged chisel, the choice of handle is a matter of preference rather than function. The butt, or back end of the chisel is sometimes reinforced for strength, as certain circumstances call for the chisel to be tapped with a mallet to guide the blade through the stock.

Using a Chisel:

The term for cutting with a chisel is "paring". To pare with a chisel horizontally, you should place the flat side of the chisel against the stock. Hold the handle of the chisel firmly with one hand with your index finger steadying the blade. Use your off hand to steady the chisel by holding the blade between your thumb and index finger.

Stand in front of the work piece with your weight evenly distributed and the chisel parallel to the floor. Use your body weight to ease the chisel through the stock. If extra force is needed, use the heel of your main hand to strike the butt of the chisel.
When paring vertically, hold the handle of the chisel with your thumb on the butt, steadying the blade with your off hand. As before, use your body weight to ease the chisel through the stock, this time in a downward manner.

Should extra force be needed, you can always use a wooden mallet to tap the butt of the chisel. However, avoid using a steel-head hammer, as it can damage the chisel.

Taking Care of Your Chisels:

Avoid storing your chisels loosely in a drawer, where they can bang into one another, thus dulling the cutting edge(s). A better option is to hang your chisels on a rack or in a drawer with individual dividers (for each chisel) where you lessen the chance of the tip getting banged up.

Proper use of a chisel requires that the cutting edge remain sharp. To properly sharpen a chisel, use sharpening stones of progressive grades. You may need to touch up your chisels regularly by honing the flat side to keep them at their best.

Using Your Chisels Safely:

The number one rule of chisel safety is to keep them sharp. A dull chisel is a dangerous chisel, as it will require more effort to push the chisel through the stock.

However, if keeping the chisel sharp is safety rule #1, then rule #1a is to always pare away from your body and keep your hands behind the cutting edge.

And of course, as with all woodworking tasks, never use a chisel without your safety glasses.

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