The manufacture of wood chisels took off in the United States in the late 1800s, when tool companies such as Buck Brothers, James Swan, Stanley, and Keen Kutter (Simmons) rose to prominence. J.B. Addis & Sons, Henry Taylor, and Robert Sorby are among the renowned U.K. chisel makers from this era.
In general, the chisels produced by these and other manufacturers are divided into two groups. Most long chisels were socket-fitted to their handles while shorter ones were forged with a tang that extended deep into the handle. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon to purchase chisels without handles, or to buy replacement handles for ones that had cracked due to the repeated whacks of a mallet.
When assessing the quality of an antique or vintage socket-fitted chisel that lacks a handle, look carefully at the chisel’s cuff, which is the opening at the bottom of the chise...
Beyond their handles, chisels can be further divided into three basic categories: firmer, mortise, and pairing. The firmer chisel, which is probably the most common type found in a novice woodworker’s tool box, has a square end and beveled sides, making it good for getting into corners. For example, a firmer chisel could be used to square up a mortise that has been partially formed by drilling.
A mortise chisel, on the other hand, is used to create a mortise without drilling, although it is often used to shape a mortise that has been predrilled. Its sides are at right-angles to its flat back—only the tip of the chisel is beveled. In theory, one could make a mortise with only a mortise chisel, but many woodworkers use corner chisels to square up the corners and a curved, goose-neck chisel to smooth out the bottom of the mortise hole.
Both mortise and firmer chisels are meant to be struck, but pairing chisels, which are often long and slender and come in numerous sizes, are designed to be used by hand. As such, they are only suitable for fine woodworking. Many are damaged by weekend warriors who don’t know any better. The largest kind of pairing chisel is called a slick—some of these tools are almost three feet long.
One of Stanley’s most popular chisels of the last 100 years has been its Everlasting chisel, which has a shorter blade and a reinforced handle. The handle is a useful touch, but the length of the blade gives woodworkers more control of the tool. Interestingly, Japanese chisels have long been designed with shorter blades, and Japanese chisels also feature partially hollowed-out backs, which speeds up the process of grinding them flat.
Gouges are often lumped in with chisels, but they are actually a different type of tool. Most have curves, known in the trade as sweeps, that create convex cuts in a piece of wood.