Paring Down | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking

II have router planes and shoulder planes, furniture scrapers, drawing knives and shavers to tackle almost any task, but chisels are my particular knot. It is something in their deceptive simplicity. In a sense they are just pieces of steel with handles attached; but they are also infinitely complex tools that must be designed to gracefully marry the size, shape and weight of the blade – and of course the quality of the steel – with a handle that gives the tool balance and also fits your own particular hand in the right way. I’m a fanatic for them, and I can’t get enough of them.

I amassed most of my chisels in the previous century, before the advent of modern high-end models and when you could still get a solid Sweetheart-era Stanley 750 for $ 10 or an Everlasting for double. As such, my collection is a ramshackle batch of over 100 chisels. I have my favorite favorites, all within easy reach of my workbench, but others are tucked away in the drawers and I don’t have he had been using them for years. There are a few that I haven’t even bothered to fine-tune, and loose blades and handles seem to pop up every time I traverse the nooks and crannies of my shop looking for a misplaced tool.

But in truth, I was quite happy with just the set of five, blue-handled, state-of-the-art chisels that my college roommate left in the laundry room when he left years ago. And a few years later I did well with the basic four-piece set of 750 that Lonnie Bird was kind enough to pass me on. By adding the 1/8“TH Witherby for the tight spots and the crisp, long handle 11/2“Charles Buck for paring just made the job easier and more fun. I guess I could have stopped there. And they got rid of the outliers. But with chisels as with beers, buying more always seems like a good idea.

Finally, 10 years ago, when building furniture became the primary means by which I fed my children and my mortgage broker, I realized that owning yet another chisel was a luxury I could do without. There was a brief setback on a couple of Japanese fishtail chisels that are great for dovetail jointing (when I remember I have them), but for the most part they stayed clean.

I also tested some of the modern chisels that started to emerge with the boom in boutique tool making that came shortly after the internet. I fell in love with some of them. But I held back; My checkbook and I were courted by the worn handles and patinated blades of vintage instruments.

But when it came time to pack up for woodworking in America last October, I found myself sorting out over a dozen chisels trying to decide on the right combination to take on the road. And as much as I love them all, I admit I want a complete and clean set of modern chisels.

Over the next few months, I’ll take a closer look at some of the modern chisels that have caught my eye. And I’m sure I’ll buy a set soon. But I can’t pretend that the new chisels will make me a better carpenter. They are a luxury, like a good micro-brew or a high-end guitar. But you know it as well as I do: Keith Richards would sound better on a cheap ukulele than Sonny Bono would sound on a 1959 Gibson Les Paul. It’s what you bring to the instrument, not what the instrument brings to you.


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