Wood Chisel Type Survey for Beginners
Okay, here I go yet again — but I just have to ask:
Butt chisel vs. bevel edge chisel — how are they defined and what’s the difference?
Mortise chisel vs. sash (?) chisel — again, how are they defined and what’s the difference?
That’s OK…some of it still confuses me these days as there is some overlap between types. This is just my take on it as terminology by trade, country and era varies a bit:
Bevel edge doesn’t mean much per se, as even some firmer and framing chisels have them….it merely allows getting into a tighter corner. Neither does socket or tang handles, although the larger chisels are generally socket chisels, as are many high-grade chisels, as sockets are considered a better design as handles are easier to replace, but cost significantly more to manufacture. To call a chisel a “socket” chisel with no other descriptor is a common mistake today, often by people who should know better.
Butt Chisel: Any short chisel, usually with bevel edge and design suitable for paring and striking with 30-degree bevels. A finish carpenter or shipwright’s pocket chisel easy to store with a major role in hanging doors and all around trimming. Usually tang handles.
Bench Chisel: Longer chisel for workbench use. Paring and light chopping, usually with 30-degree bevels and beveled edges.
Paring Chisel: Long, thinner chisels not designed for any striking, only paring with 20-25 degree bevels. Some have “cranked” handles for clearance and were primarily used by pattern makers making negative patterns in soft pine. Others are skew cut to reach into corners, and a “dovetail” chisel is diamond-shaped to clean female sliding dovetail sockets. Usually with tang handles.
Firmer Chisel: Usually the same length as bench chisels but of thicker, heavier steel, usually straight sided. For paring and striking with 30-degree bevels. Usually with socket handles.
Framing Chisel: Larger, longer chisels usually an inch or larger wide. Some were designed for paring with beveled edges and 20-25 degree bevels and some for striking with square edges and 30-degree bevels. Usually with hooped, socket handles.
Corner Chisel: A framer forged into a 90-degree angle to clean out corners. Generally 30-degree bevels. Usually with hooped, socket handles.
English “Pigsticker” Mortice Chisel: Ward and other makers. A short, stubby, fit-in-the-tool-chest, tang-handled mortise chisel with unhooped handle designed for striking. All mortise chisels are generally straight sided…some have some taper for ease in popping out chips. All with 35-40 degree bevels.
Sash Mortise Chisel: Medium length mortise chisel for bench use, generally with unhooped handles. “Sash” comes from window factories, and there is some confusion describing medium length and long length mortise chisels as factories generally used the longer chisels but the medium ones are often called “sash” chisels.
German Pattern Mortise Chisel: This is simply my term for them as they don’t exactly fit other descriptors. Heavy, untapered blades and hooped, tang handles.
Millwright or Factory Mortise Chisel: Very long, very heavy mortise chisel designed for heavy striking with heavy, hooped handles. Many were 16” long and often made by manufacturers like New Haven Edge Tool who specialized in large chisels. Always with hooped, socket handles.
Slick: A large, very heavy 2-4” framing chisel with long handle up to 24” designed for paring large timbers with 20-25 degree bevels. Never struck. Always with socket handles. These and the heavier framing chisels are dangerous and should have their handles epoxied on and protective edge covers made.
Buying old chisels, you can expect to see many combinations, as handles are interchangeable and chisels are often converted to other uses as they wear. The butt socket chisel in the top left picture was originally a well-worn DR Barton firmer I converted, and the skew parers below were originally socket bench chisels of many flavors:
From my observations in buying up lots of cast-off chisels to make up sets for my tradesmen friends, anything marked “Stanley”, “Witherby”, “Winchester”, “Chas Buck” or “White” is going to a collector for too high a price….along with some Swan’s. Older Greenlee, older (not newer) Buck, New Haven Edge, Ohio Tool, DR Barton, Underhill, Union Hardware, GI Mix, Shapleigh Hardware, Eric Anton Berg, Dickerson, Gillespie, Fulton, Dixon, PS&W or PEXTO, Robt Duke, Merrill, Butcher, Hibbard OVB, Simmons Keen Kutter, Lakeside and several other old makers are every bit as good as the collector prizes and are much less expensive. Most unmarked chisels of that era were usually made by one of the above makers and are also generally excellent.
The only really poor socket chisels I’ve observed buying are newer Craftsman (older socket Craftsman were made by Greenlee) of too-thick, modern, gummy, shiny chrome-vandalium steel…and some “Eclipse” brand and the occasional Stanley Defiance that won’t take as good of an edge as the others.
The bad news in making up sets for yourself is that used tool dealers rarely understand any of the above and you have to look at each and every listing in detail. The good news is because of that ignorance, and the minimum number of name brands collected, all of the others, including many of the rarer types are dirt cheap.
Pictures other than mine are from Harry Miller and Lee Valley, used with permission.
“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think…that a time is to come when those (heirlooms) will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our father did for us.’ “ –John Ruskin.