Bench chisels are the go-to chisels you’ll use for countless tasks in woodworking — joinery, chopping, trimming, paring and so forth. They’ll be in your hands often and you’ll rely on them.
How to choose a set of bench chisels
Handles and construction
There are two basic ways to construct a bench chisel. Socket chisels are made by fitting the tapered end of the wooden handle into a corresponding conical hollow at the top end of the blade. In tang construction, the blade has a long, pointed top end that fits into a hole in the bottom of the handle, similar to the familiar construction of a file. The handle of a tang chisel is usually reinforced with a band of metal at the lower end called a ferrule. When made well, both designs are strong enough to withstand any reasonable use.
Japanese chisels are made with a combination of these two designs. The blade has a tang but also connects to a socket. These are cleverly sized to make the handle automatically stay tight in even severe use. Interestingly, Veritas’ newest and best chisels, though basically Western in overall design, use the Japanese socket-tang construction.
In the photo above, a disassembled Japanese handle reveals the socket-tang construction. A Western chisel with tang-ferrule construction is at the bottom of the photo.
Plastic handles also work and are nearly indestructible, but as a matter of opinion: yuck. You will spend many hours with these tools in your hands, and it is hard to match the feel and look of wood.
In fact, the ergonomic feel of chisels is a key factor in choosing them. Consider the balance, weight, length, and contours of the tool, keeping in mind that you will most often hold a chisel by the blade and handle such as when paring, or the blade alone such as when chopping, rather than by the handle alone.
I prefer the length and balance of Japanese chisels, which are generally 8 1/2″ – 9″ long with a blade about 2 1/4″ long. Lie-Nielsen socket chisels and Ashley Iles’ “American Pattern” chisels have a similar hand-friendly balance. Many woodworkers prefer the feel of longer chisels in the range of 10″ – 13″ such as those by Two Cherries, Pfeil, Veritas and others, which also offer an advantage for paring work, though not to the degree of dedicated paring chisels.
Chiseling is often done in tight quarters, such as in the acute angle at the base of the tails in dovetail joinery, so the profile of the blade is important. There should be a very narrow land where the sides of the blade meet the flat back, at least for the first inch up from the cutting edge. In Japanese chisels, the sides usually meet the back at a slightly acute angle, as shown below, to similarly facilitate such work.
Chisels generally do not come from the manufacturer with a fully sharpened edge – that’s your job. However, a good quality chisel will have a very flat back that requires little further refinement, and an accurately formed primary bevel.
Steel is, of course, an enormous topic but it comes down to this: you want steel that is reasonably easy to sharpen, takes a very sharp edge, and holds that edge well without prematurely dulling or chipping.
Unfortunately, the steel cannot be assessed by its appearance but only by its performance, and even then in various situations over time. Therefore, the reputation of the maker is the determinant for your choice in purchasing chisel steel. Fortunately, there are many good makers. Among them are Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Two Cherries, Pfeil, and Ashley Isles.
Special mention should be made of Japanese chisels but not just because they happen to be my favorite! These are made by forge welding a back layer of very hard steel onto a thick body of much softer steel. The hard steel of a high quality Japanese chisel produces a cutting edge that is unmatched in sharpness and durability by any Western chisels. As shown below, the back of these chisels also has a shallow hollow to facilitate sharpening.
Highly skilled craftsmen working on a small scale make the best Japanese chisels. Price is somewhat a guide to quality but the advice of a reputable, experienced dealer of Japanese tools should be sought when selecting chisels to meet the needs of your woodworking.
A guide for buying your set of bench chisels
A set of five bench chisels in the following widths will meet the needs of most furniture making: 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″. If eliminated, the 3/8″ size will be missed when dovetailing. You may want to add a 1/8″ size for detail work.
I generally advocate getting the best quality tools you can afford — buy right and buy once — and that advice applies here as well. However, assembling even a basic woodworking tool kit can get very expensive, so here is a range of options.
A set of the five sizes of top-of-the-line Lie-Nielsen or Veritas chisels will cost about $300, more for Veritas” PM-V11 steel. In the mid-range, a set of Two Cherries, Ashley Isles, or Pfeil will run in the mid-$100s to $200. Expect to pay at least $200 – $300 for very good quality Japanese chisels, and more for those from the very top makers.
I think it’s fair to say that among those ranges, price is commensurate with quality. However, here’s an exception that may also work for you. A set of five Narex chisels in the sizes listed above costs $57. While I would not expect these to be the equal of the others, in tests they are quite good, which is consistent with my casual hands-on assessment. If you want to save money while assembling your tool kit, this is a reasonable place to do so. You will be able to do good work with them. If you upgrade later, the initial outlay will have been small and you could still use the Narex chisels as a good second set or even for DIY work.
Above all, get your tools and start making things! Bluprint is here to help you learn and provide guidance.
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