How to use a wood chisel safely (with pictures)

Posted in Home Improvement on June 18, 2018

I learned what chisels shouldn’t be used for long before I learned what they should be used for. My father informed me, during one memorable tirade, that chisels (especially his) were not to be used as screwdrivers, paint can openers, or stakes for my camping tent.

Well then, what is the purpose of these simple little tools? Are they only for the hands of the skilled cabinet maker and woodcarver? Or do they have some honest, down-to-earth uses for honest, down-to-earth DIYers?

Surely, Chisels have lost a lot of ground to power tools: Routers now cut dovetails where Chisels once carved, and belt sanders can fine-tune a curve faster than most of us can wield a chisel. Yet, for making a hinge recess, squaring up a corner or working in places where a power tool might be too big and awkward, there’s still no equal to the good old-fashioned chisel.

Basic tips on using a chisel

  1. Make a series of vertical plunge cuts that are as deep as the hinge is thick. Outline the shape of the recess with plunge cuts first.
  2. Remove the small wood chips, cutting at a low angle. Keep bevel side down and raise and lower the handle to control the depth of cut.
  3. Pare the surface smooth using the chisel bevel side up. Hold the chisel flat and use a circular or angular motion to prevent tearing.

  1. Chisel with the grain. The blade will have a tendency to follow the grain and dig too deep when worked against the grain.
  2. Sharpen your chisel. with a belt sander and fine grit paper. Make certain belt is moving away from, rather than into, the chisel.
  3. Use a beater chisel. for rough work. Relegate your badly nicked chisels to these chores so your good ones stay sharp.

Choosing a chisel

A good all-purpose chisel for the DIYer is the type with an impact-resistant plastic handle, capped with a metal button. These can be driven either by hand or with a hammer, they’re compact enough to fit in a tool pouch, and they don’t cost much. A 1/2-in. and a 1-in. chisel make a good starter pair. Chisels with wood handles are available, too, but should be struck only with a wooden mallet or pushed by hand.

Chisels must be made of steel that’s hard enough so they won’t dull easily during use, yet soft enough so they can be easily sharpened when dull or nicked. Good ones find a balance between these two extremes. Avoid El Cheapo models. The blades dull quickly and the handles shatter easily.

Always keep a nicked-up old “beater” chisel in the toolbox next to your sharp ones (Photo 6). The beater comes in handy for removing moldings, packing insulation into skinny crevices, scraping old caulk out of joints, and demolition work. In my everyday puttering, I probably use my beater chisel as much as I do the sharp one.

What chisels do best

Chisels excel at three tasks: making sharp plunge cuts, removing stock and smoothing. All three techniques — shown in these photos — are used to cut the recess for a door hinge.

Plunge cuts are made with the blade’s beveled edge facing the waste side of the cut. These cuts are used first to outline the hinge shape, then to score the area to a consistent depth (Photo 1) so wood can be removed in small manageable chips rather than one large chunk.

Remove the chips with the bevel side down (Photo 2). so you can control the depth of cut by slightly lowering and raising the handle as you work.

Smooth the area with the chisel bevel facing up (Photo 3). Use angled or circular motions to prevent tearing the grain.

Some other chisel tips:

  • Think safety. Wear safety glasses when striking with a hammer. Never push or drive a chisel toward you. Keep them out of the reach of children.
  • Chisel with the grain (Photo 4). You'll have better control and there’s less chance of taking too deep a chunk.
  • Always use two hands: one to guide the chisel, the other to push the chisel or to swing a hammer or mallet.
  • Keep your project firmly clamped to the workbench. When working on large objects, such as doors, place them on a solid surface.
  • Make several shallow passes rather than one huge bite.

Tips for sharpening chisels

A dull chisel is a dangerous chisel — it will lunge and skip. It’s difficult to control and requires more effort to use.

Sharp Chisels go where you guide them and leave a smoother surface.

Sharpening is a two-step process. Shaping, with a file or grinding wheel, forms the correct tip angle. This needs to be done only when the tool has been badly nicked or damaged. Honing, on a sharpening stone, forms the razor-sharp cutting edge.

Keep these sharpening tips in mind:

  • Chisels cut best with a 25- to 30-degree blade bevel. One rough rule of thumb says the bevel face should be about twice as long as the chisel blade is thick.
  • Remove major nicks (tsk, tsk — where was that beater chisel?) by first pushing the tool straight into a grinding wheel to resquare the tip, then sharpening to the proper angle.
  • Hone the edge razor sharp on a sharpening stone. Hold the tip at a constant angle as you sharpen in a circular or figure-eight motion, Remove the burr that forms on the back of the blade tip by stroking that side flat against the stone.
  • You can also use a belt sander (Photo 5) to quickly shape and sharpen chisels. Use a fine-grit paper, hold tight and work in three-second spurts to avoid overheating.