Ah, the dovetail chisel. A source of controversy in the woodworking world, some artisans argue that you don’t even need one. But seeing as how making dovetails is one of the more essential things we do, I think it’s nice to have one on hand to do the fine precision work that goes into a good joint.
I’ll give you a quick rundown of what makes a chisel a “dovetail” chisel in the first place, and what you should look for in a good one. I’ll also go over some fine dovetail chisels and give you the information you need to make a decision when buying one.
Dovetail Chisel Reviews
I endeavored to find a good array of quality products with variations to cater to different preferences. Hopefully, I have a balanced mix of styles and designs. I’ll give you my pick for the best at the end, but remember, you aren’t buying a chisel for me!
Blue Spruce Toolworks Dovetail Chisel
This dovetail chisel is ideal for the serious woodworker who wants a chisel in the Western style. It is a premium product that is custom made and comes in a variety of blade sizes and handles. Not only do you get to choose your size of the handle, but they also have options for different finishes!
The A2 steel alloy blades are tempered to Rc 60 and are priced to reflect that. You get a lot of quality with this dovetail chisel, but you will have to pay for it. Still, if you plan on using it a lot, it is well worth it.
- High-grade steel at Rc 60 hardness
- Wide range of blade width and handle options
- Sturdy construction with beautiful finishes
- Premium price tag
- Shorter blade length may obstruct vision
Narex Pair 1/2" and 3/4" Dovetail Japanese Style Chisels
A couple of good Japanese dovetail chisels that come packaged together for savings. The Narex brand is a trusted manufacturer of fine woodworking products from the Czech Republic. These Japanese style chisels are made from Rc 59 chrome manganese steel, so their hardness is really quite good. They hold their edges exceptionally well.
- 5-inch blade for reach and visibility
- Excellent value to price ratio
- Easy to sharpen and comes out of the box sharp
- No packaging or included carrying case
- Handles are nothing special
- Sides of the blade somewhat thick
WoodRiver Chisel Set, 4 Piece
These modern tools are a good example of a chisel that isn’t technically a dovetail chisel but is designed with the ability to work dovetail joints in mind. They have something of a sterile look about them, with black polypropylene handles. The blades are drop forged vanadium steel alloy, so they aren’t the hardest you will find, but they hold an edge pretty well, and work dovetails serviceably. The sides are also quite sharp to help with precision work.
- Polypropylene handles are ergonomic and comfortable
- Comes as an affordable set
- Included plastic safety caps
- Steel not as hard as higher priced models
- Not “truly” a dovetail chisel
- (Opinion Alert!) Not all that great looking
Narex Czech Steel 4 Piece Set Butt Woodworking Chisels
These are a great option if you want the Narex quality, but also want shorter handles for more precise dovetailing. As the name suggests, these chisels have short butt handles that let you get close to your work and be as agile as you need to be. The blades are ground at a 25 degree bevel so you can really get in there. The chisels also have well-seated heavy steel tangs, and the handles have brass ferrules to withstand rigorous malleting.
- Short handles for delicate and exacting work
- Blade steel is reliable Narex quality hardness and sharpness
- Sturdy construction
- Short handles make them less versatile
- Aren’t ready out of the box, require some work
- No extras (carrying case, sleeves, etc.)
1/2" White Steel Dovetail Chisel - Matsumura
If you are looking for top-notch quality in the Japanese style, look no further. The thin, triangular cross-section allows for tight cuts and offers minimal resistance. The “white steel” is tempered to a whopping Rc 64 hardness rating. The handle is also handcrafted from the finest Japanese red oak. This dovetail chisel is of pretty impressive quality, but it’s a lot like an expensive sports car; it’s going to take a lot of work and care to keep it running smooth.
- Exceptionally hard and sharp steel blades
- Handcrafted handle is beautiful and sturdy
- Thin Japanese style blade great for working in tight spaces
- Premium price
- Above average hardness calls for extra work and care to prevent damage and maintain edge
The Dovetail Chisel: What Exactly Is It?
The dovetail joint is one of the oldest woodworking techniques around. It even predates written history! It’s an efficient and elegant way to join two pieces of wood. Crafting these joints is made difficult by the tight corners and angles required for a good fit. In
To that end, dovetail chisels are specifically designed to allow for access into those tight spaces. The bevel of the blade allows you to chop at an angle and get the precision you need for an even joint. In some cases, the dovetail chisel is also effective at clearing waste due to its unique shape, saving you some time and effort. Some chisels may not be dovetail chisels strictly speaking, but they have incorporated some design feature to function similarly.
Japanese Vs. Western
Dovetail chisels generally fall into one of two categories, Western or Japanese. The difference between the two is mainly in the blade. Western dovetail chisels are more traditional looking. Their blades bevel to a flat top and are usually broader. They more closely resemble bench chisels.
On the other hand, Japanese chisels have a strikingly different bevel. It comes to a point on the back so that it resembles a triangle or pyramid. This triangular profile means that they do not have an acute side angle which some woodworkers prefer. They are also generally narrower than their western counterparts. Japanese style dovetail chisels are thought by many to be more precise, but when it comes down to East vs. West, preference is the main deciding factor.
What to Look For in a Good Dovetail Chisel
So, as I like to say, there is no one size fits all chisel out there that is best for everyone. We all have different hands, methods and needs. Therefore you shouldn’t just grab whatever most people consider to be “the best” and call it a day.
However, there are good qualities and bad qualities of a dovetail chisel, and knowing what’s what can help you figure out which chisel is best for you. Once you know what is important to you and what kind of work you will be doing, you can better see what qualities you will be most compatible with. Let’s take a look at them, piece by piece.
No doubt you are going to want a comfortable handle to keep you from making mistakes and stopping your hand from cramping up. In today’s woodworking world, you have a lot of choices when it comes to handle materials to accomplish just that. You may also want to consider the aesthetics of the chisel you intend to use. I like to think that a good looking chisel just feels better in the hands just by virtue of its beauty.
You also will have to decide on a length. There are standard length handles that are good for robust work, but they might not be agile enough for delicate dovetail joinery and other precision work. If that is your bread and butter, consider butt handles for you dovetail chisels. They get your hand closer to the wood to give you more control.
Hardness is always an issue when it comes to steel woodworking tools. For dovetail chisels, the philosophy is the same. Aim for a hardness of about Rc 60. It will help your chisel keep its edge longer without being too hard to sharpen. You don’t want to go too much softer than that, but since you won’t be hammering away at your dovetail chisel all that often, it isn’t the end of the world to drop below 60.
I Wish I Could Justify It
It’s hard to ignore the beauty and cool factor of the Matsumura and Blue Spruce chisels. I personally love paying a little extra for custom made beauty and quality. The craftsmanship allows for butter smooth operation and you have a lot of freedom with customization and style.
For more part-time woodworkers, I’d give my recommendation to the Narex Pair 1/2″ and 3/4″ Dovetail Japanese Style Chisels. They will get the job done and then some without the need for all of the bells and whistles. They are a prime choice for casual and serious woodworkers alike if you just want something that works. Remember to think long and hard about what work you will be doing and how frequent you will be doing it.