View Full Version : Mortising chisels

Marc Hills
09-24-2003, 6:52 PM
I was awestruck watching Frank Klausz do hand-chopped mortises in his M&T video a few months back. This summer I tackled large scale mortises while building my workbench, using a brace and bit followed by bench chisels to clean up. Now I'm ready to expand my Neander horizons and invest in some mortising chisels.

There's just no easy way to put this, I'm on a very tight budget. If one can't get a decent mortise chisel for less than $40, then ok, I need to hear that. And yes, I'm keeping my eye out for old Greeley's, Swan's, Stanleys and Sorby's. But if my lack of success over the past few months is any indication, I'm likely to still be looking for vintage chisels next fall unless I get really lucky.

My research on new mortise chisels brands so far can be summarized as follows (feel free to comment, dispute, question my sanity, etc):

New Robert Sorbys (Registered mortise, heavy duty mortise): Not as good as their price or reputation would suggest: poor edge retention, disappointing performance for many recent purchasers, relatively expensive.

Japanese Mortise chisels: Very hard steel and hence edge holding capability, good performance with the negative of edge brittleness, especially when levering out waste. (these are on my "consider" list). Expensive.

Two Cherries: The gold standard among western mortise chisels. Not as hard as Japanese chisels with possible side benefit of less tendency for edges to break down in rough use. I'm considering these, but they too are quite expensive.

Hirsh: made by the same manufacturer as Two Cherries. The equal to them except for finish and polishing. More comfortable handles? Rumored to be less expensive than Two Cherries. Also rumored to actually be for sale. I'd love to consider these, but I can't find them anywhere.

Crown Tools Mortise Chisels. I've found references to Crown manufactured mortising chisels but I can't get a firm read on whether they are any good, how much they cost and even who would sell them. My sense (based on a few Crown tools that I do own and use) is that they traffic in the appearance and reputation of old world European tooling, but don't quite measure up. My guess is that they would be worse than Sorbys.

And then, my latest find, Diefenbacher tools sells "English Mortising Chisels" at a (relatively) attractive price. About 60% of the cost of a similarly sized Two Cherries. I've sent an email to Ron Diefenbacher re: their quality of steel, etc, but haven't gotten a response yet. (Imagine that, he's not patiently waiting next to his computer anxiously awaiting the opportunity to validate the low-end options of cheap bastards like me!)

Can anyone offer other alternatives that I can research? Am I all wet about my research so far? Should I pick a less expensive hobby?

A related question, but what sizes chisels do I need? Except for my workbench, I've been working almost exclusively with surfaced 4/4 (3/4") I'm thinking definitely the 3/8". If I can only afford two right now, should I go with the 1/4" or the 1/2"?

Thanks in advance for any insight, suggestions you may have.

Alan Turner
09-24-2003, 7:27 PM
I greatly prefer the older chisels, and to your list, I would add T.H. Witherby, and the older Buck Brothers. Should be $10-15@. As to sizes, I find that the most used are the 1/8" to 1/2". When I see older chisels at a flea market, yard sale, etc., they are frequently mortisers. As far as the bench, bevel edges, my personal favoirte is the Stanley 750, which gets spendy on ebay, but not so much so elsewhere. The older paring chiels are likewise about $10-15@, and the same brands are good also. No need to spend $40 on mortise and paring chisels, IMHO. I actually like the old steel better than the new, although I have heard that the 2 cherries are also excellent. If a new handle is needed, so what. I am not a collector at all. I have no matched sets (although getting close on the 750's (so, did they make a 5/16")). A slippery slope, we all know.

Lloyd Robins
09-24-2003, 7:59 PM
Sorry to only add another expensive chisel to your list, but Steve Knight has a link to a maker of mortise chisels that look very interesting. Here is the URL:

http://www.paragoncode.com/toolmaking/mortise_chisels/ .

Good Luck

scott pollack
09-24-2003, 8:41 PM
marc, ill agree with alan. like you, i too am on a budget so finding good tools at a cheap price is important. for the money, buck bros makes a good tool.

as far as size, if you are using mostly 4/4 id go with a 1/4" first. most tenons should be 1/3 of the total thickness of the board. so that would make the 1/4" chisel the best to start with. good luck in your search.


Matt Woodworth
09-25-2003, 9:09 AM
Are you sure the hirsch and two cherries chisels are mortising chisels? I know that they have identicle bench chisels but I didn't know about matching mortise chisels.

I bought the Hirsch set of bench chisels here (http://www.leevalley.com/wood/page.asp?page=46403&category=1,41504&ccurrency=2&SID=) .

Pete Lamberty
09-25-2003, 9:30 AM
Hi Marc, I don't think having a great chisel it is as important as you may think. I took a chairmaking class with Brian Boggs. He told us that when he started making and selling his chairs, he had so little money that he could not afford a chisel to make mortices. So he sharpened a screw driver and used that. He said he used it for a long time before he had the money to buy a chisel. So don't feel bad about not having a chisel. Buy a good screw driver. Pete

Dave Anderson NH
09-25-2003, 10:30 AM
Both companies sell both standard bevel edge bench chisels AND mortising chisels. I've no comments on either since I haven't used them.

Marc Hills
09-25-2003, 12:15 PM
Alan: Thanks for the suggestions regarding older Witherby and Buck Brothers tools. Basically, if I had found a mortise (or even a firmer) chisel of any make or vintage, I would have bought it. Nothing is showing up at my old tool haunts. Iím with you, Iíd actually prefer an older tool, but Iím pessimistic about finding anything in the near future. I want to chop mortises, not drive across state lines. Besides, if I find a seller of old mortise chisels, I bet they'll also have a nice tenon saw. And a plough plane or a Bedrock smoother. Maybe a set of Millers Falls carving tools Ö.. Mmmmm. Uggghhh. Old tools. Doh!

Lloyd: Thanks for the link to Jim Wilsonís chisels. I read somewhere (maybe BP) a while back that his tools were held in very high regard, but that he had ceased production. Good to see him rejoining this ĎSecond Golden Age of Hand toolsí as Dave Anderson put it. You had me going there for a minute until I realized the prices didnít include the handles.

Scott: Your point about the 1/3-1/3-1/3 rule is well taken. Looks like 1/4Ē should be at the top of my list. Thanks.

Matt: As per Daveís follow up, it's been my understanding that mortise chisels are sold under the Hirsch label, Iíve just never found a source to buy them.

Pete: Now Iíve heard horror stories of using chisels for screwdrivers, but this is the first Iíve heard of it the other way around. Except for really deep mortises, I wonder how much better a modified screwdriver would be than a ľĒ bevel chisel. In any case, I want to see what the real McCoy does for my mortising technique, so Iím determined to get a real mortise chisel.

Well, let me repose my original question: Does *anybody* out there use new mortise chisels? Or is it that everyone but me knows the secret password to utter at flea markets and antique malls that opens a hidden door to the mortise chisel room?

Wendell Wilkerson
09-25-2003, 2:23 PM
Highland Hardware (www.tools-for-woodworking.com) lists Hirsch mortise chisels in their catalog. The prices look almost the same as Fine-Tools but shipping should be considerably less. If you get some of these, let us know how they work out. I have the Hirsch mortise chisels on my "tools-I-need-to-buy-someday" list.


Tom Scott
09-25-2003, 2:55 PM
I have some of the Sorby mortise chisels. I've chopped in pine, straight-grain fir, poplar, bloodwood, and cherry. I was pretty new to hand tools when I bought them and didn't do much research, but heard/read the same comments about them as you (after I bought)...poor edge retention and performance.
Frankly, I don't think they are that bad of a chisel. Probably not as good as their price would lend you to believe they are, but certainly not bad. I don't find myself sharpening any more than I think I should, and have not ever noticed any rolling of the edges. On the other hand, these are the only mortise chisels I've ever used, so maybe I just don't know what I'm missing.
I also have the 2-cherries bench chisels, which I like a lot. If the mortise chisels are anything these, I'm sure they would be nice. If I were doing it again, and was going to buy new, I would probably take a serious look at these. But at $40 / chisel, that is a big investment.
I hope this helps.


Paul Barnard
09-25-2003, 8:45 PM
I have a set of Sorbys too. They were a birthday present from my wife and to be honest I have no complaints about them at all. I have choped mortices in Oak and Maple as well as various softwoods with them and not had a problem with edge retention. I have an assortment of older chisels too and to be frank I haven't seen a big difference.

Scott Quesnelle
09-26-2003, 12:19 PM

I have heard other people not advise using the 1/3 1/3 1/3 rule because now the tenon is less than half the thickness of the 2 cheeks.

For 3/4 stock, most of the reading has recommended a 3/8" mortice which gives you 3/16" per cheek of the mortice. This means equal wood is removed from both mortice and from the tenon.

As for chisels
Another option would be to grab some O1 from a local steel supplier (Metal supermarkets, perhaps) or MSC or other online joint.

Each chisel is less than $10 worth of steel.

It will already be annealed and should cut with a hacksaw easily. Cut 2 triangles out of the top to make the tang taper. Cut a shoulder at the base of the tang. Cut the 30 bevel on the end with the saw. Touch up with a file, and the heat treat for 01 is dead simple.

Make yourself a custom handle for it. (Either turned on the lathe or spokeshave an oval profile to help you keep it registered).

Drill a hole in the handle a bit smaller than the tang.
Heat the tang and burn the handle on.

Begin using chisel. If it ever breaks, you know what it takes to make a new one or by then you might have more $$$ for tools.

Look at:

He also sells chisels, with and without handles (Save some $$ and make your own handle).

Doug Littlejohn
09-26-2003, 8:46 PM
Try watching Ebay. Over time, you should be able to get at least a 1/4 and a 3/8 old mortise chisel. I get them for around $15 and they seem to work just fine.

Steven Wilson
09-28-2003, 12:09 PM
I like the Two Cherries bench chisels and mortise chisels. The mortise chisels are very stout and make choping mortises by hand a fairly quick endevor. Unless I'm making a bunch of mortises (i.e. Art's and Craft's style) I hand chop them instead of using a benchtop mortising machine, because it's faster, and more acurate to chop them by hand than machine. The Two Cherries chisels are very good, even though they are a bit pricy atleast you don't need many (I mostly use one).

Michael P Mitchell
05-12-2010, 11:07 PM
Highland Hardware (www.tools-for-woodworking.com (http://www.tools-for-woodworking.com)) lists Hirsch mortise chisels in their catalog. The prices look almost the same as Fine-Tools but shipping should be considerably less. If you get some of these, let us know how they work out. I have the Hirsch mortise chisels on my "tools-I-need-to-buy-someday" list.


Anyone ever try the Narex Chisels from Highland Hardware? I would like some but cannot afford $65 each. I see the Narex are listed at $40 for a set of three. Anyone know if they are junk or worth considering?

James Mittlefehldt
05-12-2010, 11:30 PM
I use the NArex bevel edge bench chisels from Leeer VAlley and I am happy with those I have not seen mortise chisels from them though.

To the original poster Lee Valley sells Hirsch mortise chisels, I have three of them and I am happy with them. You should be able to mail order them in the states.

Will Brauneis
05-13-2010, 5:13 AM
I was in your position about a year ago when i first started my hand tool collection and i was on a tight budget too. The guys here recommended i get the Ray Iles mortise chisels sold by toolsforwoodworking.com. They are a little pricey 67$ for a 1/4" but i checked the couch cushions and scraped together enough for one. In my opinion they are outstanding! The D-3 steel holds an edge forever and they are built heck for stout. No matter what chisel you get i would definitely buy the best you can because they will last a lifetime.
I would also recommend checking ebay you should be able to get some for cheep but they might take a bit of work to get them back to working shape. If you do a lot of heavy mortising i would recommend the English pig sticker type but if you do shallow mortises i would go with the smaller sash type.

That's my 2 Cents
Good luck on the chisel hunt!

Tim Sgrazzutti
05-13-2010, 5:21 PM
Have you tried eBay?? Oval bolstered mortise chisels without handles are pretty common and inexpensive. Derek Cohen has a tutorial on his website on re-handling them. I had good success with this, YMMV.

Ray Knight
05-13-2010, 10:55 PM
If budget is a major issue, then absolutely try the Narex mortise chisels as sold at Highland. Metric sizes, well machined, hone to shaving sharpness easily, nice handles, edge seemed to hold up for my brief trial use. and all for $14 - about $18 each. One of the major WW magazines gave narex chisels a good thumbs up. They are Eastern european sourced (Czech if I remember correctly), not Chinese. Ray

David Keller NC
05-14-2010, 8:54 AM
Well, let me repose my original question: Does *anybody* out there use new mortise chisels? Or is it that everyone but me knows the secret password to utter at flea markets and antique malls that opens a hidden door to the mortise chisel room?

Marc - I use new mortise chisels. I've a fair number of antiques, but they are mostly superb condition very old (some 18th century) collector's items, and I just don't wish to use them except very lightly simply to assess their design.

So I started with the L-N mortise chisels. Very nice, but the design is, in my opinion, inferior to the traditional British pattern with an oval cross-section handle.

For that reason, I sold my L-N set and bought the Ray Iles from Tools for Working Woods. Yes, they are quite expensive, but they are also superb tools. I polished the backs and honed the bevels when I got them over a year ago, and I've yet to even have to strop them. And I cut all mortises by hand with these chisels.

Since your budget is very tight, I would recommend that you consider the Ray Iles, but simply purchase 1 or 2 for now. Assuming you build furniture-sized objects (rather than smaller projects), I'd get the 3/8" size first, or perhaps the pair consisting of the 1/4" and 3/8". Another option would be to purchase the 1/4" size, and the 1/2" size. The 1/4" can be used for stock widths from 1/2" to 7/8" (you really don't have to use the "1/3 of the width of the stock" rule), and the 1/2" can be used for larger projects like doors, workbenches, etc...

Byron Black
05-14-2010, 11:15 AM
I can recommend the Narex chisels. Matthew from Workshop Heaven (A UK tool dealer) has started stocking these, and rates them very highly, as do a number of forum members for a UK forum. They are affordable, and very stout and should do what you need.

Tony Shea
05-14-2010, 3:42 PM
As one other person stated above, the Hirsch mortise chisels that you're referring to are available over at the Lee Valley website or through their catolague. I was in the same situation not long ago and ended up going with a 1/4" and 3/8" Hirsch pair. I am not at all disapointed. They hold an edge very well and are really solid and large chisels. The backs were completely flat and needed only a small amount of work to get them in perfect condition. I decided on these as I was also on a budget and heard pretty good things about these. If I had to do over again I would probably make my 1/4" mortise chisel a smallerish type though, maybe the Lie Nielson model. The Hirsch's are just massive.

Having said all that I almost wished that I had saved up for a bit longer and picked up the Ray Isles from TFFW as these are some seriously fine examples of some quality chisels. These are tools that are going to last a lifetime therefore you might as well buy some of the best you can afford. The RI mortisers get amazing reviews and I had the opportunity to handle some of my buddy's. The oval handle is actually a nice feature in lining things up and feels a little more natural in the hand.

Any of the chisels I pointed out would be fine for your purposes and am sure you'll be happy with them all. Just pick the ones that fit your budget and start making some chips.

Rick Rutten
05-14-2010, 4:16 PM
I have the Narex bench and mortise chisels. I started with a four chisel bench set because it got good reviews and best buy from PWW. After that I determined I should have few moritse chisels. I did some research and found the Narex to still be a cost effective option for someone just getting their feet wet in the hobby. I don't really know enough to buy used chisels. I got mine through Highland WW. A total of seven chisles for not too much. Thier current mortise chisels are 3 for $40 or you can get them ala carte.

They seem to hold up pretty well. I have bashed up several projects without incident. A light resharpening is all that has been needed so far. If spend more time in the hobby then I can look to upgrade. For someone just getting started they are a resonable investment to help me learn.


Greg Portland
05-14-2010, 5:08 PM
I have the Hirsh mortise chisels (purchased from Lee Valley). One important note is that the sizes are -metric-. Also, these are long, beefy mortising chisels (over a foot long). For regular bench mortising use they may even be too long / unwieldy. However, they are great for pounding out very large mortises.

Harry Goodwin
05-16-2010, 7:17 PM
I own the narex set from highland and I think they are great partcularly the cost. Harry

Don C Peterson
05-17-2010, 12:22 AM
I glanced through the replies and I too like the vintage chisels for the most part, but when it comes time for mortising, nothing I've tried holds a candle to the Ray Iles English Mortise chisels from tfww. They are on the spendy side of the aisle, but IMO they are worth every penny.

I've had mixed results from ebay on chisels. They tend to get bid up in price to the point you might as well just buy new. I've come across much better finds at estate sales, but more often than not, those are a waste of time too because the good stuff usually goes fast (assuming there's any good stuff to be had). Since you are on a tight budget my advise would be to either save up for one Ray Iles chisel or be patient in your search for vintage chisels.

For mortising you don't need a "set", get a 3/8" and that will do nearly every mortise you need, I rarely grab the 1/4" but it is nice to have for those occasions...