How to Use a Wood Chisel

Introduction: How to Use a Wood Chisel

About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

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.

Step 1: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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    18 Discussions

    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.

    3 replies


    That is with the grain, not against the grain. In other words, he knows what he's talking about.

    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.

    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.

    Can anybody make mistakes after reading such perfect instructions for chiseling. Please teach us more. Sharad

    1 reply

    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.

    Thanks a lot for such a good and professional guide. Hope to find more on other topics on using hand tools.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    make sure you keep your chisels sharp too... a dull chisel is about as good as tits on a bull...and pretty dangerous too

    1 reply

    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...

    Very nicely done Instruction

    Thanks, I inherited a stack of chisels when my grandfather died, and now I know what to do with them :-)

    Fo' chisel my nizzle :) Good to see PM and posting as well :)