Wood chisels or chisels are basic tools for woodworking. They allow a multitude of tasks, from making lace to carving small sculptures. In fact, we could say that they are the equivalent of the brush for the painter. Therefore, it is more than advisable that you have quality chisels if you want to carry out a project efficiently and professionally. But how can we differentiate between a good chisel and another that is not? Today we analyse the main points to consider.

Quality chisels: is it just a question of brands and prices?

Currently, there is a wide range of brands and manufacturers of chisels. Internet and international trade has opened the doors to new products, surpassing the traditional local offer. European mythical brands such as Pfeil or Robert Sorby now compete not only with low-cost products made in Asia, but also with other North American or Japanese manufacturers. In this situation, it is difficult to know which option is the best, even if we have spent years dedicating ourselves to carpentry. And there are many Western brands that have decided to move their production to Asian countries in order to reduce costs. Although they ensure that it is the same product, in many of these cases the quality has been reduced by machining a large part of its manufacture.

Whether you are a professional or an amateur, it is important that you consider where and how the chisel you want to buy has been made. Also, you must avoid falling into the commercial topic that the most expensive chisels are the best. Therefore, we advise you to read our post about the best western and Japanese brands, as well as the differences that exist between both. You will see that there are important divergences that go beyond the brand and the price and that have to do with its design, composition and realization.

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Steel, a key factor

To choose correctly quality chisels we must pay attention to the properties of the steel with which the blade is made. It is the most important part of the tool, so its characteristics must match our needs. As we have seen at the beginning, although there is a brush for each type of stroke and paint, there is also a chisel for each job and type of wood. Investing in variety will allow us to know which chisels fit better to each type of project and to our way of working. Also, having different measures and forms will help us to execute projects of different magnitudes.

In the West, one of the best steels remains that of Sheffield (England), used by the main brands in the United Kingdom. This steel has a medium-high hardness that allows covering most jobs. It is affordable, resistant and easy to sharpen with modern tools.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Veritas, Lie-Nielsen or Blue Spruce has developed their own steel through innovative combinations and methods of forging. This allows them to offer harder and more resistant steel. These compete directly with the excellent Japanese steel, but keeping much of the traditional western design.

For its part, in Japan we find another great diversity of options, ideal for the most demanding. Artisans with a long family tradition in the forging of steel make custom chisels following their own technique. Each generation keeps the secret, which is transmitted to the descendants after a long learning acquired with experience and discipline. This has allowed blue and white steel to be mastered to perfection, which hardens to 65 HRC. It should be noted that this requires a special sharpening by hand. Unfortunately, there are many copies or imitations of Japanese gouges, so it is not easy to find a good Japanese gouge outside the country.

In any case, the most recommended quality gouges are forged by hand. This process allows each piece of steel to be customized, one by one, and correct any deviation. Although its processing is slower and requires some experience, the highest performance and details are achieved. In addition, some of these firms and other craft workshops offer the possibility of customizing the chisel following the instructions or preferences of the client.

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Design, use and applications

No less important is the composition and shape of the chisel. Beyond the differences between Western and Japanese style, we should look at:

  • Type of handle. The wooden ones are the most recommended since they transmit the force with greater control and precision. We recommend that they be made of very hard wood (maple, oak or rosewood) as this will better resist each blow.

You must bear in mind that if you are going to hit the chisels with a hammer, it is best to opt for a chisel with a hard plastic handle or with a steel base. Otherwise, no matter how strong the mango wood, it will end up breaking in a few weeks.

  • Size of the handle. For a good grip, handle should conform to the shape and size of our hand. Western gouges tend to be more ergonomic than Japanese but, again, it will depend on our taste and style. Therefore, we advise you to try the model you have selected first. This will help you to really know your measurements, weight and if it adapts well to your hand.
  • Type of union between leaf and handle. As we have seen, it will determine the transmission of forces in each hit. Also, the type of union will mark the maintenance of the handle, so we must consider what will happen if the handle is split.
  • Form of the leaf. Before making any purchase, we will need to be clear about the differences between a chisel, a carving gouge and a construction chisel. Each one has specific sheet designs and measurements. If you are looking for a typical chisel, straight cut and general use, you should focus on the bench chisels for the western style and the oire nomi for the Japanese.
  • Hardness and elasticity of the leaf. The higher the hardness, the lower the elasticity. For this reason, there are chisels with diverse hardness, capable of adapting to different types of wood. Thus, the hardest steels are intended for the work of harder or resinous woods. In these cases, the hardness should be around 60-65 HRC, presenting a high carbon content.

On the contrary, medium-high hardness chisels, of between 50-60 HRC, allow most wood to be worked. Being more “elastic”, they facilitate your driving through the wood grain. In addition, they are easier to polish and are also usually cheaper. On the contrary, they do not face the knots well or advance correctly in hardwoods.

In short, if you are looking for quality chisels, you should assess several factors, beyond the brand and the price. As with many other products, it will also depend on each client and the type of work that will be carried out. Therefore, it is important that you know the type of project you usually do. In this way, you can focus on what type of handle, steel and size would fit best.

And remember, if you have any questions, we will love to help you in your choice.

See you in the next post 😉