Buying a chisel set

Buying a chisel set should be a once in a lifetime event for most home improvement and DIY enthusiasts, because if you choose quality chisels, and look after them well, there is no reason why you should need another set in the future. There are carpenters across the land who own chisels that belonged to their grandads, quite simply because they are made from high quality steel, that can be sharpened over and over again. So high quality steel is key to any good chisel, but if you’re buying a chisel set today, there are a few other issues to consider.

Chisel handles

The vast majority of DIY jobs that need a chisel, such as hanging and hinging a door, require you to hit the chisel with a hammer or mallet. You can only use a hammer on chisels that have shatterproof handles, or protective caps on the end of the handle. Mallets are required for wooden handled chisels, or composite ones, that don’t state in their specification that you can whack them with a hammer. Now, unless you do a lot of whittling, carving, and jointing work, and want that “traditional-looking” tool in you hand, then don’t go for anything that you can’t hit with a hammer. Don’t get me wrong, a beautifully crafted wooden handled chisel feels great in the hand and is fantastic to work with, but it won’t last because one day you will be in a hurry, and the following will happen.

  1. You will reach for your wooden chisel.
  2. You will not have a mallet to hand (or maybe not even own a mallet).
  3. You will say to yourself,  “Never mind I’m sure a couple of whacks with a hammer will be okay”.
  4. You will get away with this a few times, and say to yourself “Mallets, pointless pieces of kit, these modern wooden chisel handles can take a right beating.”
  5. You will notice the odd hairline crack opening up the handle grain.
  6. You will convince yourself that’s okay, and part of the design.
  7. You will then be halfway through a job, when you whack the handle and end up with several shards of wood rather, than a handle in your hand.
  8. You  will say to yourself  “Mmmm, maybe the mallet would have been better, should have gone for the shattterproof option, but it was a lovely chisel…..”

….now I think you may have detected that the “You” above actually refers to me! I hold my hand up, I have abused wooden chisels in this way, I have learned my lesson, I promise never to use a hammer with a wooden chisel again, but just in case, now, I always go for handles that are designed to be hit with a hammer!

Chisel blades

I’ve already mentioned the importance of high quality steel, which you will generally find is reflected in the chisel set price. However, you also get the option of different types of blade. The three main types are firmer, paring, and bevel edged. Firmer chisels tend to have a thicker stronger blade, designed for heavier work – the blade is rectangular in cross section. A paring chisel has a long thin blade ideal for detail work, such as in long housing joints. The bevel-edged chisel is the most multipurpose option having beveled edges allowing you to cut very acute angles. To be honest, in DIY terms, you really need look no further than bevel edged chisels. Very occasionally I’ll use a firmer chisel when cutting out the hole for a five lever lock, but in general bevel edged chisels are all you need.

Chisel set sizes

You need a minimum of three chisels for most DIY jobs, but a set of six to eight will mean you will never come across a chisel-requiring job that you can’t do. Most of the time, you will use the “medium” sizes, but occasionally the “small” is required – for cutting the mortice for window fasteners for example, and maybe the “large” for larger mortices or splitting batten to make wedges and packers. More than eight chisels though, and you’ll find there will be some you never use. The next crucial decision when choosing a set, relates to sharpening. Chisels are no good without sharpening, and so you do need an oilstone of some nature (these range massively in price, but to be honest, I find the cheap ones work for me – if you’re making dovetail joints every day – different story). Therefore my advice is always buy a set that comes with an oilstone, and crucially a honing guide. You simply clamp your chisel in the guide which provides the ideal angle for honing your chisel on the oilstone. Some pros will scoff at these guides, but trust me, life for the non-pro joiner/carpenter is made very easy with these little pieces of kit.

Choosing your set

My choice is based on all the above and also one final point about the set. Again, much like my wooden handle ramblings, this is based on my experience.

  1. If you buy chisels singly, or in sets that don’t come in a “roll”, box, or own custom made carrier, you toss them in your toolbox where the blades get damaged, and you also become overwhelmingly tempted to use them for opening paint cans. Ultimately they have a short life.
  2. If you buy chisels in a “roll”, box, or carrier, and make sure they are always returned after use, so they are never used for any job they are not designed for…….ultimately you will find they have an incredibly long life.
Best chisel set

Bahco 6 piece chisel set – my favourite, but shame it doesn’t come with an oilstone and honing guide!

Therefore following this criteria, and the fact that in my view, in terms of quality there are two or three options that stand out from the crowd, I find the choice comes down to a decision between Marples and Bahco chisels. In the end though, the Bahcos win because I find they just feel so comfortable in the hand. To my utter and complete annoyance, I don’t think you can buy the fantastic Bahco set (pictured right and available on Amazon)in an all-in-one box with honing guide and oilstone (you used to be able to, because I’ve got one), so you will have to buy the guide and stone separately.

My only other suggestion would be, especially if you are on a budget, is this excellent set from Draper, which includes an oilstone and guide – perfect. I must admit, personally I don’t associate Draper with a chisel set I would buy, but having checked these out, and noted the Amazon reviews, I don’t think you’ll go too far wrong with them.

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