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Picture of How to Use a Wood Chisel
PopularMechanics.com

For every type of builder, there are very few indispensable tools. For the woodworkers, the chisel is the simple, multifaceted tool you just can't live without.

Here are some basic techniques on making the most of the chisel, a tool that can take on everything from cleaning up large chunks of waste wood when constructing a porch glider, to carefully paring away thin shavings for a tight fit when you're, say, building a fence.

A few tips before you get started: Make sure to keep your chisel sharp, have a few chisels of varying sizes (if you're getting only one, make it a 3/4"), and, finally, don't go for the cheapest tools --always buy sturdy, solid chisels with life-time warranties.
 
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Step 1: Two-handed control

Picture of Two-handed control
For careful paring, use a 2-handed grip. One hand guides the cutting edge while the other hand provides driving power.

For extremely precise work, brace your guide hand up against the material and use it as a fulcrum to pivot on throughout the motion. You'll be surprised at how much control and accuracy you gain using this method.

Step 2: With force

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When greater cutting force is required, wrap one hand around the handle and use a mallet to drive the chisel. Be careful when striking older, wood handled chisels, as a wood handle is much more likely to split than a plastic one. Also, avoid using a metal hammer for striking --a hard plastic mallet will do less damage to your chisels, and if you happened to miss the chisel head, less damage to your fingers and knuckles.

Step 3: With the grain

Picture of With the grain
Cutting against the grain will cause the chisel edge to dig in and split the wood. This is due to the combination of downward sloping grain and the downward sloping beveled edge of the chisel. To make an ideal cut, in this case, you would flip the board over to orient the grain properly. Quite simply, always cut with the grain.

Step 4: Heavy or light cuts

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While most light cuts are made bevel up, heavier cuts or confined spaces may require the chisel to be used bevel down. In this photo, the recess forces you to hold the chisel at a greater angle. Holding the bevel side down helps prevent gouging.

Step 5: Beginning a notch

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To cut a notch, face the bevel toward the waste area and define the perimeter with vertical cuts. Then, with the bevel still facing inward, make slanted cuts from the stock face to the bottom of the perimeter incisions. This should form the notch walls.

Step 6: Removing notch waste

Picture of Removing notch waste
With the walls of the notch finished, you can begin removing the remaining waste with paring cuts. Keep the bevel up and hold the chisel flat, trimming until you reach the desired depth. Now you can mount your hinge and handle flush against the surface of the wood.

Step 7: End-grain paring

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When paring thin slices from end-grain, orient the chisel bevel up, and use a swiveling motion for smooth cutting. Using a wide chisel will give you more stability and let you finish the job quicker. Be sure your chisel is extra sharp before you attempt to pare end-grain. A dull chisel makes it difficult to cut, and even possibly dangerous, as you have less traction on the cut and the chisel can more easily slip.

Step 8: Cutting rabbets

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To accurately trim the depth of a rabbet, use a block that matches the rabbet lip as a guide. Make sure the block is clamped to your bench, and then rest the chisel on it as you cut. Rabbet cuts are commonly found in the joints of drawers and cabinets because they are relatively easy cuts to make and when made right, they can form a very strong framework.

Step 9: Deep mortises

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Deep mortises are best made by first boring a series of overlapping holes. Be sure the drill bit is slightly smaller than the width of the cavity you want to make. Then, use a chisel, bevel side toward the waste to remove material. When you get to the corners, make the cross-grain cuts first to prevent long-grain splitting.

Step 10: Concave cuts

Picture of Concave cuts
To trim along a concave curve, use a chisel that is slightly wider than the thickness of the stock, and face the bevel downwards. Gradually press the handle down as the blade is advanced through the wood. Steady pressure and movement will assure a symmetric curve when you are finished.
LevyN19 days ago

yes

Broom4 years ago
In step 3, "With the grain", your picture actually depicts cutting into the grain, not with the grain, which (as you note in the text) is BAD, and will lead to gouging.
travw Broom4 years ago
*Ahem*

That is with the grain, not against the grain. In other words, he knows what he's talking about.
Broom travw4 years ago
Not sure why you've taken such a smart-assed tone, but nonetheless:

"Grain" isn't a bidirectional line. Grain goes in one direction (as in, North, not North-&-South).

And in his picture, he is cutting into the grain, which is bad.
wobbler Broom3 months ago

You are right, Broom. I assumed when I saw this picture it was showing how not to do it, to illustrate the first sentence. However, as this is a beginners guide, I think it needs clarifying that this picture is how not to do it and it needs another picture showing the correct way going with the grain.

nancyjohns1 year ago

Thanks.

Sharad7 years ago
Can anybody make mistakes after reading such perfect instructions for chiseling. Please teach us more. Sharad
yes, everybody can make mistakes after reading this
I.E… Don't cut like we are in the photo?!

I also notice that your chisel is not sharpened — it looks as if it has just been ground, or brought.

But, good advice. Chisels are widely misunderstood by people trying to work wood, and your advice will make the whole process a lot easier and safer for people.
Tom Ali7 years ago
Thanks a lot for such a good and professional guide. Hope to find more on other topics on using hand tools.
Dinerro947 years ago
its a very good instructable BUT i bet that the person who was chiseling was a professional and not a beginner, it takes years to be good at chiseling... But it is a very good intructable.
dataphool8 years ago
Good Instructable; you have captured the basic principles involved for a carpenter and his chisel. You could, and I think, should have added a section on sharpening chisels; or considering the complexity, throw in an extra instuctable of that step. A section on cold chisels and their use, and you will have the chisel family. Thanks.
theRIAA8 years ago
chisels are used too rarely today whenever I'm working and ask someone for a chisel, they give me that "What the hell would you want a chisel for??" look, and hand me a saw.
crapflinger8 years ago
make sure you keep your chisels sharp too... a dull chisel is about as good as tits on a bull...and pretty dangerous too
Incidentally, sharpening chisels is a cakewalk, assuming you have a grinder and a stone... Simply cut a hollow on the bevel side (be sure not to overheat!) and then lay the hollow flat against the stone with a circular motion to hone to a nice razor edge, occasionally honing the flat side to dispose of burrs...
Azzazal8 years ago
Very nicely done Instruction
singingfish8 years ago
Thanks, I inherited a stack of chisels when my grandfather died, and now I know what to do with them :-)
mikesty8 years ago
Fo' chisel my nizzle :) Good to see PM and posting as well :)