My All-Time Favorite Chisel

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Blog entry by RogerBean posted 07-06-2011 11:34 PM 6921 reads 1 time favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Let me begin by saying I am not a chisel geek. Not that much of a chisel expert at all, actually.

Bless the hearts of those who stolidly believe that their hair will fall out and they become two inches shorter and grow warts if they were to use anything but a chisel crafted of A2 cryogenically treated steel, formed from a meteorite which fell on Stonehenge on the eve of the summer solstice. If it works for them, that’s fine, but I guess I’m of a different ilk. Now, I do have about fifty chisels, a fair number of which are Henry Taylor’s and Heinkels, etc. I also have a prized set of five lovingly cared for old Stanley socket chisels my father used for making gunstocks. I’ve also been known to sharpen the end of a screwdriver to make a little lathe chisel for some special project. (Works fine, by the way.)

But, my favorite close at hand chisel is really cheap; unbelievably cheap, actually.

Don’t get me wrong. I love finely crafted, expensive tools. I drool over Phillip Mercou and Holtey planes like anyone else. I love fine things, and am not shy about buying more. But, my favorite chisel has, as it happens come from another place entirely. It began in China, as part of a Harbor Freight “Carving Tool” assortment that I believe cost about $12.95 somewhere around ten years ago. That’s right, $12.95 for 12 chisels.

So, it cost about a buck. It began as part of this set (some have been reground for various purposes over the years. But, back to the story.

Three years ago I came across a book on boxes by Andrew Crawford and I began trying to make a box …like his. He mentioned he had this cut off chisel that he used all the time. It was a 1/4” wide chisel with the shank ground off so it became, in effect, a palm chisel. Somewhere along the way, I decided to make one of my own, and lo and behold, it has become my constant companion.

Out of the package it probably would have worked to stab a woodchuck or something, but it certainly would not cut wood. Truth is, I had not used any of these motley Chinese chisels, and they drifted off to the bottom of the drawer unused. They occurred to me when I was looking for something to make my “Andrew chisel” from. So, I dug them out, pulled the handle off, ground the shank off, and sharpened it up. Goodness only knows what the steel is; for a buck it might be cold rolled for all I know. But, contrary to some opinion, properly sharpened, it will cut wood like a scalpel, thank you …junk steel or not.

Back then, I made up two of these, one 1/4” and another 1/2” wide. The larger one has never been used at all, but the smaller has become my constant companion. Now, I mostly make boxes, and a little period furniture, so if you want to cut three inch mortises, this little chisel is not for you. But for me, it’s the one I reach for first.

I hollow ground the edge, and sharpened it to razor sharp. I frequently hone it on the iron table of my belt/disc sander on a little 1000 grit sandpaper. A few passes, and It stays scalpel sharp. (I also have several pricy ceramic gagillion grit water stones, but don’t find them necessary either.) There are those who would say: “That piece of junk won’t stay sharp as long as XXX!” Perhaps, but I’ve not noticed that to be a concern. And, I’m pretty picky about really sharp tools.

My second favorite chisel, should anyone be interested is a 3/4” Pfeil chisel that came from WoodCraft and fits my hand as well. This chisel also really feels good. It seems like I’m always grabbing one of these two when working on boxes. Probably also ought to mention that I also always have a couple Swann-Morton scalpels on the bench. Here’s the Pfeil and the unused 1/2” version.

As for the 49 other chisels, I do use them from time to time for carving shells, cutting mortises, and the like (see the shell on the walnut veneer man box project on LJ). But that’s not all that often.

A parenthetical note: When I was in Shropshire visiting Andrew Crawford (see my review of the visit on LJ) I noticed, right there in the middle of his bench, that same little ground off 1/4” home made palm chisel that he mentioned in his book twenty years earlier. I guess it’s still his favorite too.

So, for all the fans of A2 cryogenically treated chisel fans, or exotic Japanese Damascus steel chisels, I say, go for it. I love fine tools too, and certainly would enjoy owning these wonderful tools as well. But this little guy, made out of mystery steel and bought for a buck, is the one I grab every day.

Have more fun. Make more boxes.

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

5 comments so far

View racerglen's profile


3112 posts in 2805 days

#1 posted 07-07-2011 01:23 AM

Love it Roger.. I have a similar collection of weird and wonderfull…dare I say..CRUD,,by anyone elses standards. Best yet, a chunk of bed rail, turned into a rather oversized corner chizel..80 plus year old friend
made it with a power hacksaw, and an angle grinder. I added walnut inside the never 90 degree inside, epoxied and brass rod to hold the wood..
It holds an edge and the part that matters , the outside angle, done free hand wiith the angle grinder, IS 90 degrees.. And I also have a set of those Chinese chisles..some modified some not..crummy at first blush..
but boy can they hold an edge..

-- Glen, B.C. Canada

View larryw's profile


335 posts in 2687 days

#2 posted 07-07-2011 05:31 AM

Hey Roger, I agree with you about having the right chisel ( or any tool for that matter) that “just feels right” , and the one you always turn to, no matter how expensive or cheap. Yes I believe one would be sharpening a “cheaper” tool more often than an expensive high quality one, but who cares? right , if it works for you and does the job, then use it. I’ll be the first to say, that I love high quality tools, but I’m increasingly amazed at the beautiful works of art that a true craftsman can create using the most minimal of tools. In the book “PEARL INAY” by James E. Patterson, the author relates a story about visiting China many years ago and seeing many wonderfully crafted works of art produced by craftmen using very crude tools by our standards, ginding down old files to use as chisels, and what ever they had available to use as tools, to that end, here’s a couple of youtube videos I found of burmese craftsmen and their works of art….amazing.

-- "everything is beautiful, but not everyone sees it" ~confucius-551-449 b.c.~

View JoeyG's profile


1275 posts in 2650 days

#3 posted 07-07-2011 04:53 PM

Thanks Roger, now I know what to do with that cheap set of chisels I have.

-- JoeyG ~~~

View Bertha's profile


13529 posts in 2718 days

#4 posted 07-07-2011 04:57 PM

Thanks Roger! I have a lot of expensive chisels; but I’ve got even more cheap ones. The best chisel is the one you like the best. It’s that simple.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View Kent Shepherd's profile

Kent Shepherd

2718 posts in 3311 days

#5 posted 07-07-2011 10:29 PM

Loved the blog Roger. Well written with a lot of great information worth remembering.



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