mortising with hand tools

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Forum topic by Carpintero posted 05-18-2012 11:11 PM 2052 views 0 times favorited 10 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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16 posts in 2168 days

05-18-2012 11:11 PM

I’m interested in building traditional New Mexican furniture, and have started on a chair and the steep learning curve. In 1700s and early 1800s all they used were traditional Spanish saw, adze, plane, chisels, knife, awl, ax, auger. By the 1820s, better saws and planes became available.

While I don’t need to use tools as primitive as they used, I would like my building to be almost entirely by hand.I want to stay in “the spirit” of the originals, which I realize will be a somewhat arbitrary call on my part. I will use a bandsaw for rough shaping of parts, and I will use a cordless hand drill for now, until I acquire an egg beater. Eventually I’d like to eliminate them though.

One of the characteristics of the earlier stages of this furniture is through-mortises, and that’s where I need help. I’ve cut all my mortises now for my first piece and certainly I will improve, but hopefully some of you can help speed that up. I’m using pine, which is what they used, and consequently the dimensions are rather large as they were originally-2 inches is about average for the uprights. I made my mortises (after some practicing) by drilling through with a 5/8” forstner bit, and cleaning up with a chisel. BUt I still would not call them real “clean”, to say the least lol, and would like to improve my technique and results, while not deviating any farther from tradition than I already have. Cleaning the sides of the mortises was simple; trying to square off the round holes in the end grain was much more challenging and I’d especially like to improve that aspect. It may just be a technique or sharpness issue.

Ideas? If these were blind mortises I would forego the drill and just use the chisel, and then I wouldn’t have those round corners to square off. I could do that but it would take a mighty long time to score and chip, score and chip, through 2 inches of wood many times over. I have never used or seen a mortise chisel, and I’m not sure how I feel about using one. I’m not sure if it would pass my fickle, internal “in the spirit” test.

10 replies so far

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 3084 days

#1 posted 05-18-2012 11:35 PM

I wuold ceep on drilling the holes and then flip the workpiece half way through
when you clean up with the benchchisel
or you can use a chisel only working half way through then flip the workpiece around and then finish

I would use a handbrace with augerbits when making mortising holes

but if its realy deep mortising holes you may considering using sash mortising chisels
since they are a bit haevyer than mortising chisels
or using the english style pigstickers both the sashchisel and pigstickers can realy take some
good beats from a big mallet :-)

there is some good blogs about it here on L J
and I think the name is Claus something show how to use them on youtube
search under woodworking how to use a chisel or pigsticker , mortisingchisel

if you will continue making this type of mortising
by drilling then consider a corner chisel they are great when you need them
frome time to time but only a good thing to have since they are a pain in the A.. to sharpen and hone

last thing to say is read read , see vidios and practise practise pratice and then practise :-)

good luck

View woodworker59's profile


560 posts in 2170 days

#2 posted 05-18-2012 11:39 PM

Carpintero- chopping mortises by hand is an learned experience and you will get better with every one you chop.
Sharpness is a vital issue when chopping mortises in softwood or hard. I find that pine is more prone to shred and tear than hardwoods, remember that when they made these way back when, they were not in a hurry and niether should you be. Take your time, try to check for square often, and swing a big mallet. (lol) As far as mortise chisels go, they have been around for a long time, there is evidence of the Egyptians using chisels to make furniture before Jesus walked the earth. they are just a big beefy brother of your standard chisel. they need to be sharp, but are built to handle the rigors of continual hard pounding needed to cut deep mortises.
I also do reproduction work and like you want to move in the spirit of the time for each piece. I am working on a treadle powered band saw and plan for a spring pole lathe later in the year. I am to old to rip my boards by hand, but otherwise I do all my cuts and joinery by hand. Gonna include a pic of my latest reproduction, a 1750’s Chippendale stool in solid cherry. all the pieces were carved and shaped by hand.. keep up the spirit and keep the chisels sharp and you will do just fine..

-- Papa...

View Loren's profile


10278 posts in 3617 days

#3 posted 05-18-2012 11:45 PM

Mortising with a mortise chisel goes pretty quick in soft woods.

You’ll get some exercise to be sure, but cutting mortises
is what they are for and they do a good job. I can take out
1/4” thickness each pass with the 5/8” Sorby I have and
each pass takes maybe 2 minutes in a 3” long mortise, so
figure about 8 minutes to go through an inch of pine. It
might go faster, but in the scope of building a whole
piece mortising by hand is really not that tedious. It does
require and/or build endurance and arm strength.

View AKSteve's profile


475 posts in 2272 days

#4 posted 05-18-2012 11:45 PM

like woodworker59 says “Take your time” you should not be in a hurry. I found one of the things I am actually good at is making mortises. I love to make them. I am working on a bench right now with thru mortises, the Chairs to my dining room were doweled when I rebuilt them, so I changed them to blind mortise and tenon, and they turned out much stronger. Just practice alot! I use regular chisels, but one day I will own a set of mortise chisels.

-- Steve - Wasilla, Alaska

View paratrooper34's profile


915 posts in 2921 days

#5 posted 05-19-2012 01:00 AM

Carpintero, if you are going to do mortise and tenon joinery on more than just an occasional piece, I highly suggest investing in a mortise chisel or two. They make morticing by hand sooo much easier. They need to be sharp just like your other chisels. Once you use them, you will wonder how you ever got along without them. Shope around, there are plenty of them to be had for good deals. If you have the money, there are some very good new ones being made by different tool makers.

Mortice chisels have been around an awful long time. You would not be violating the spirit of hand tool craftsmanship by using them.

Good Luck!

-- Mike

View bondogaposis's profile


4688 posts in 2320 days

#6 posted 05-19-2012 01:05 AM

Get a quality mortising chisel and learn to sharpen it.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Derek Cohen's profile

Derek Cohen

369 posts in 3937 days

#7 posted 05-19-2012 03:37 PM

Here is a pictorial on my website:

Regards from Perth


-- Buildiing furniture, and reviewing and building tools at

View Carpintero's profile


16 posts in 2168 days

#8 posted 05-19-2012 04:08 PM

Thanks for the many and quick responses. I can see I’ve come to the right place!

Much of this is new to me so I’m sure I’ll get better. Before this I had barely used a chisel, other than for opening paint cans. ;-) I had certainly never sharpened a chisel or made a through mortise. I can stand to improve on both-fortunately the thing I like about old New Mexican furniture is that it is often imperfect, sometimes even rough. Mistakes don’t matter that much.

I don’t have the money for a mortise chisel now, but I will consider one when money comes around if I still think I need one. I don’t have money for much of anything for a few more weeks. All I have for sharpening is a soft Arkansas stone. I could afford one of those combination fine/coarse aluminum oxide stones they sell for $4 at hardware warehouses, but are they better than what I have? I’ve looked at them a couple times and was tempted, but I was also wary- I didn’t want to do more harm than good to my chisels.

I said I was using pine, but it’s actually white spruce that I had laying around in rough sawn 2” boards. I wonder if I should try using red pine next time, which might be a better choice as far as working properties and durability, and is also available in thicker boards from local sawmills. Ponderosa isn’t available locally, except in 3/4”.

I have definitely been taking my time. I’ve been working on this chair for weeks and there is no end in sight lol.

View Carpintero's profile


16 posts in 2168 days

#9 posted 05-20-2012 10:43 PM

Thanks for that link Derek, I didn’t notice that when I replied last. Did you ever do that through mortise tutorial?

I’ve improved just since yesterday-I started a) marking out the mortise with chisel, and b) drilling halfway then drilling from the other side. I don’t know why this makes a difference, maybe just because I’m paying more attention to going at it from both sides. BUt the last two mortises I made were MUCH improved over my first two.

Its still going to look like a child made it when it’s done, if its ever done, but I’ve always been a bit immature.

View John's profile


341 posts in 3767 days

#10 posted 05-21-2012 12:52 AM

Derek, that mortise/tenon primer is great, thank you!

-- John - Central PA -

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