Wood Chisel Buying Guide
As a woodworker with ten years of chiseling experience, I’ll tell you firsthand that not all wood chisels are created equal. Whether I’m using a bench chisel or a corner chisel, my palm and the woodwork in concert with the chisel to make my vision into reality—and a good chisel makes things a lot easier.
Why is wood chiseling worth getting in to? If you’re a far better chiseler than I am, you’ll eventually be able to do something cool like carve a wooden rose. Wood chiseling is a great hobby because it lets you turn cheap and abundant wood into unique creations that make for excellent gifts.
Wood Chisel Reviews
In this section, I’ll review seven chisel sets in light of the features that I discussed. My opinion isn’t the be all and end all of chiseldom, so if you disagree with my take on some of these chisel sets then let your judgment be your guide.
Stanley Short Blade 3 Piece Set
The Stanley 16-150 150 Series Short Blade 3-Piece Wood Chisel Set is a good starter’s set in my opinion for a few reasons. First, you’re not going to break the bank buying this set, and it’s made out of tempered steel that will last a very long time. This set is made in the western style and has a polypropylene handle.
The polypropylene handle is where I take issue with this set, common as they are. You may or may not prefer to wear gloves while you chisel; personally, I vary my glove use with the application. I say this because the polypropylene tends not to slip when it’s in your hand but might start slipping at the wrong time when a glove holds it.
That’s a safety hazard. The handle’s material will also last a long time, however. You probably won’t ever need to replace this chisel set out of any part of it breaking.
Von Haus 8p Wood Chisel Set
The VonHaus 8 pc Craftsman Woodworking Wood Chisel Set for Carving with Honing Guide, Sharpening Stone, and Storage Case is a full chisel set that’s a good choice for an intermediate level chiseler looking to broaden their chiseling skills. I like that this set includes a sharpening stone, which is a feature that helps to make up for the chrome vanadium steel alloy’s fast loss of edge.
Most of the chisels in this set will be bottom-heavy, which makes them great for precision work but not so great at the heavy hitting. The carrying case, while convenient, isn’t very high quality, and isn’t a feature that affects the chisels themselves.
I’d be comfortable using the 8-piece set or the 10-piece set as a foundation for my chisel education so long as I had a good instructor. As I said before, the lighter alloy chisels can express more skill than the heavier chisels.
Narex 6p Set
The Narex 6 piece set of chisels are beautiful and have the look and feel of an artisan’s tools rather than an amateur’s. The chisels themselves are chrome-manganese steel alloy, which suffers from the same issues as other alloys but to a lesser degree.
The wooden presentation box is beautiful, but not durable enough to be useful for anything other than a showpiece. The wooden handles on the chisels, however, are extraordinary. In my years of chiseling, I’ve never felt a chisel that sat in my hand with a perfect feeling than with the Narex.
Wooden handles are controversial because they can crack or chip, which is both valid concerns. This chisel set is, in my opinion, reserved for showy artisanry of the highest skill level. Improper use of these chisels will damage their wonderful handles, and once the handle is gone, the chisel is gone.
You’ll also find that you need to sharpen these chisels rather frequently.
Stanley 16-401 Bailey Chisel Set
Chisel Set, 5-Piece is one of my favorite chisel sets because it brings the comfort of a wooden handle to a serious blade made from carbon chrome. You won’t need to sharpen this chisel set very frequently, and you’ll feel like a real shop worker as you mallet away.
This chisel set will eventually break at the handle, but I’d happily buy another of the same set. Each of the chisels is slightly top-heavy, which would imply that they are for heavier work, and makes them slightly difficult to use in the context of precision chiseling until you become accustomed to the balance.
The advantage of being slightly top heavy is that these chisels are remarkably versatile—or at least they would be if you didn’t need to worry about smashing the handles. I give this chisel set high marks, but it’s not a set for beginners.
Stanley Sweetheart 750 Series
The Stanley 16-791 Sweetheart 750 Series Socket Chisel Set, Brown, 4 Piece is a chisel set that’s very similar to the Bailey set that I just reviewed. This chisel set is also made out of carbon chrome steel and has wooden handles, but it’s important to note that in my experience the style of wooden handle that the Sweetheart uses isn’t as comfortable as the Bailey’s.
Nonetheless, I think the Sweetheart is a good chisel set for experts who know how to handle a chisel that’s extremely top-heavy and whose handle may not be able to bear the force of repeated striking. For the finest artisanal chiseling, this kind of balance means that a minimum of force can get exactly the right results in one strike.
For an amateur or a journeyman like myself, I think there are probably better combinations of utility and value out there compared to the Sweetheart series.
Japanese KOUJIRO Chisels NOMI Oire Chisel 3pcs SET
Japanese KOUJIRO Chisels NOMI Oire Chisel 3pcs SET is the only Japanese style chisel set that I’ve reviewed, so it’s important to note that you’ll need a different kind of hammer to use it effectively. At first glance, these chisels are beautiful, and their tempered steel and socket design mean that you’ll be able to strike at these chisels until the end of time despite the wooden handle.
If you intend to learn the Japanese style of chiseling, this chisel set will take you where you need to go. In my view, they’re worth trying out simply because they’re inexpensive yet offer incredibly delicate expressiveness provided that you understand how to use the Japanese mallet—or so I’m told.
The wooden handles on these are a bit slippery, and they’re used without gloves. Other than that, you probably won’t have to sharpen this chisel set or worry about its integrity.
IRWIN Marple Wood Chisel Set
The IRWIN Marples Woodworking Chisel Set, 6 Piece is another set that I’d recommend to novice chiselers because of its inexpensive price, good range of different chisels, and relatively good durability thanks to its high carbon steel blade. If you’re a more experienced chiseler like me, these chisels probably don’t seem so appealing for some reason.
The polypropylene handles are this set’s most obvious weakness; they simply don’t last. Even if you seldom need to sharpen the blades, these chisels are very heavy and will make any precision work a struggle against the chisel.
To make matters worse, there’s no traction of any kind that’s visible, meaning that whether you’re using a glove or your bare hands, you’re in danger of slipping. There’s also no striking head at the bottom of the handle, so expect the handles to shatter if you try to put this set through some serious work.
Additionally, based on the way this chisel set looks, I can’t help but feel like the balance of the chisel would be off somehow—it’s just a hunch, but if I had to put money on it I’d say that these chisels are extremely top-heavy.
If you’re new to chiseling, you probably won’t notice any of these issues. If you’re a high-level chiseler, I can tell that any single one of these issues is going to drive you insane and that you should stay away.
Without further ado, I’ll kick off by explaining some of the features you should be looking for while making your wood chisel purchase because the world of wood chisels can be extremely confusing to those who haven’t spent a long time working the wood.
What Are The Different Types Of Chisel?
To start off, I think it’s worth mentioning that there is no single “wood chisel,” sort of like how there is no single “screwdriver” or “wrench.” There are a bunch of different types of wood chisels, and they all have a slightly different purpose and cater toward a slightly different kind of chiseling.
Just to make sure that you’re up to speed on the different kinds of chisels, I’ll do a rundown of the most common chisels and why they’re useful.
Bench chisels are the most common type of wood chisels in my experience, and that means your first wood chisel should probably be a bench chisel. Bench chisels have a fairly large blade that’s beveled with a tough handle and tang fitting.
The mortise chisel has more of a specific use, and that is to make deep mortise holes. Because you have to bend on the chisel the mortise chisels are built tough, with a long tang, mallet-ready butt, and sharply angled edge.
The paring chisel is about what you’d expect; it’s a chisel with a delicate and long blade that I typically use for fine detail work. In my experience, the paring chisel is the toughest chisel to master because of the fine motor control aspect of its use.
The paring chisel is attached to the handle via a tang and will bend or break if you strike it with your mallet.
The carving chisel is for fine detail work that requires an even smaller span than the paring chisel. Paradoxically, I find the carving chisel much easier to use than the paring chisel because it’s easier to envision what each movement of the carving chisel will accomplish relative to the state of your wood.
Dovetail chisels are, in my view, niche yet essential chisels which are necessary for the completion of dovetail joints in your chisel work. Imagine a paring chisel, but the beveled edges goes all the way to the middle of the steel. This makes it easier to get in the tight corners of dovetails.
If you’re restoring furniture or making furniture of your own, expect to use the dovetail chisel very rarely—but in my experience, when you need to use it, no other chisel will do the job correctly.
Corner chisels are V-shaped chisels that have a stubby blade and a big handle that’s ideal for tidying up straight edges or doing some serious first-draft chiseling. I use my corner chisel quite a bit—maybe more than I should—because it’s reliable and requires very little skill to accomplish the result that you want.
Slick chisels are the big brother of the paring chisel, and they’re even more difficult to use in my opinion. Slick chisels have a tang, narrow handle, and are intended for shaving off wood across a long and flat piece.
The idea behind using the slick chisel instead of the paring chisel is that the paring chisel would require more work to accomplish the same result, and likely not look consistent due to the repetition that you’d need to do with the paring chisel. In my experience, this traditional wisdom is correct, but that doesn’t make it any easier to use the slick chisel properly.
What Are The Features Of A Great Wood Chisel?
Now that you know the different kinds of chisel that you may need in your set let’s talk about the features that differentiate good chisels from weaker chisels.
Type Of Steel
The type of steel in your chisel is a major factor in the chisel’s longevity, the time between needed sharpening, price, weight, discoloration or rusting, and yes, ability to affect wood. In my experience, there are three kinds of steel that go into the blade of the chisel.
Tempered steel chisels are your most basic metal, which means that you’ll pay the least for these chisels. Tempered steel chisels are the heaviest, but they don’t keep an edge as well as other steels. Tempered steel chisels will last a very long time, however. In my shop, the tempered steel chisels last until they start to rust, which can be decades.
I suggest that you buy a simple tempered steel chisel set if you’re just getting into chiseling because you won’t have the necessary skillset to take advantage of lighter steels.
Chrome and vanadium steel alloys are the lightest and also the most expensive of the common chisel steels. Alloy based steel chisels require frequent sharpening, but in my opinion, will produce the best results in the hands of an expert chiseler. The one major drawback is the short lifetime of alloy-based steels, as they discolor, warp, and sometimes even shatter.
Carbon chrome steel chisels are more expensive than tempered steel chisels but less expensive than alloy based chisels. Carbon chrome steel chisels require the least sharpening of all the chisels and have a durability that’s almost as good as the tempered steel chisel with a weight that’s slightly lighter.
I think that carbon chrome steel chisels are good for an intermediate chiseler, but an expert will probably be irritated by its weight.
Western Or Japanese Style Chisel
There are two general styles of chisel: the Western chisel, and the Japanese chisel. The main difference between the two is that the Japanese is usually made with a harder steel, and the back of the chisel is hollowed out for faster sharpening.
Socket Or Tang Handle
Tanged handles tend to be a little lighter and less top heavy. In my experience, the tanged handle chisels are the chisels where you take care of the steel first and the handle second because the steel tang is where the majority of the chisel’s value resides. For furniture work or hobby work, a tanged handle is a right choice for your chisel in my opinion.
Socket chisels can take a much more severe beating than tanged handles before the handle gives out, but their bottom heaviness makes them harder to use for precision work. I have a few socket chisels in my shop for when I need to do some stuff that amounts to construction work or masonry.
In a nutshell, tanged handles are for finer work that will require tapping your chisel, whereas socket chisels are for coarser work which may require what I call “sledgehammering” your chisel.
Cleaning Up The Shavings
If you’re just getting started with chiseling, I think this guide is pretty helpful. In my view, there’s no clear winner among the wood chisels which I reviewed today—some are better for certain skill levels or particular chiseling applications, but once you’re a competent chiseler any of these will work.
When you’re picking out your chisel or chisel set, I suggest that you remember to try to find one with a full tang, a comfortable grip, and a variety of differently sized chisels or adaptors so that you can chisel to your imagination rather than to your chisel’s limitations.