The chisel is one of the most widely-used and generally abused tools currently made. Although available in a variety of shapes and sizes, each designed for a different purpose, many woodworkers use only one type of chisel for every job. However, many modern manufacturers have rationalized their ranges to the extent that many special types of chisels are hard to find, so often the woodworker has to make do with what is available.
The chisel performs many functions and, depending on the job, is used in either the left or right hand. Often, the chisel is in use for long periods at a time, and may even be used with a mallet.
Bearing these facts in mind, the chisel must be selected not only for the quality of its steel and the manufacturer's assurance that it has been properly heat-treated, but also for the excellence of its handle design. Too often in the past, chisel handles were made to suit the blade and shape of the woodturning machine, and not of the human hand. Many of these chisels were not only difficult to hold but, with prolonged use, made the hand sore and the arm ache. Fortunately, the present-day manufacturer has paid greater attention to ergonomics, and chisels are designed with not only the hand in mind but also the material used, so that it is comfortable to grip. Many of these handles are practically indestructible, and certainly, most are splitproof. The overall design and color has also been considered.
When looking for a chisel, the woodworker would be well advised to seek out those from a reputable manufacturer. Hold the chisel in both hands, check the handle for firmness and the blade for flatness. At the same time, notice the quality of the grinding, as a badly-ground chisel will require a great deal of work on the oilstone before the fine hairline cutting edge is produced. If a bevel edge chisel is being selected, make sure that the bevels are finely ground. Whilst extreme accuracy of size is not vital, usually if a mortice chisel is bought, it is best to check its accuracy.
Examine the chisel closely to check the alignment of the blade and the handle. Balance should not be ignored, as a thick, heavy-bladed chisel will be out of balance and make working difficult. If the handle is wooden, check it for splits and other flaws. A good chisel, correctly sharpened, will keep its edge for a long time, unless it is abused, so that valuable time is not wasted in resharpening fairly new chisels.
Chisels can be classified under three groups: General Purpose, Mortice, and Special (gouges and knives).
The handles of all these chisels are secured either by a tang or socket, and are made from either wood or plastic. The handles must be checked in the knowledge that they may be struck with a mallet and that often the chisel may be wrenched from side to side. Therefore, the wood must be close-grained and free from knots, and must not be prone to surface cracking and splitting. A hard but pliable wood, which is shock-resistant, is essential. Few of the available timbers have all these features- ash, for example, is fairly hard, pliant, and knot-free, but its grain is quite open. Beech is closer-grained but not quite as pliant.
The early English edge-toolmakers chose boxwood, which is unequalled in its suitability. Boxwood is indigenous to Europe and is regarded largely as a decorative shrub or tree for hedges and gardens. It has a narrow trunk and grows wildly in misshapen branches, reaching about 8' high. The handles are turned from the branches. Box was used by the printer and engraver in the past, and it is likely that these blocks came from trees of some size. The blocks were cut with the grain running vertically, and sold by the cubic inch.