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How to use a wood chisel properly

For most light finishing cuts, the chisel is held in both hands-the right hand grasping the handle and applying the needed pressure, while the left hand holds the blade firmly to guide it over the work. A mallet is used only when rough cuts are being made, or when a great deal of wood must be removed. Mallets are sometimes required also for cutting across the grain or when working with hardwoods.

When driving a chisel with a mallet, always hammer with a series of light taps rather than with heavy strokes. This makes the blade easier to control and lessens the chance of splitting the wood or gouging too deeply. Incidentally, a wood mallet or a rubber or plastic-faced hammer is the only tool that should be used for this job. Using a conventional hammer may cause splitting or “mushrooming” of the handle and will shorten its life considerably, unless a special steel-headed chisel is used.

To insure maximum control and smoothness of cut, a chisel should always be moved so that its blade is at an angle to the direction of cut. This causes the tool to cut with a paring action which is much easier to control and which gives a much neater finish than does a straight thrust. The work should be securely supported or held in a vise to minimize slipping, and cuts should always be made with the grain wherever possible. To provide maximum control, the left hand should grasp the blade as close to the cutting edge as practical, but at no time should the fingers be allowed to get in front of the cutting edge.

Skilled cabinetmakers will always make the first cut in the waste part of the wood, rather than starting right on the line. Thus, if the wood splits-or if the chisel slips-damage will occur in the part that will be removed anyway. Progressive cuts are then made, working back toward the finished line. This technique of removing only a little at a time-even when a comparatively large amount must be chiseled off-is always safer than trying to hack off large amounts in a single operation.

For roughing cuts-as when deep slots or dadoes are being cut-the chisel is held with the bevel side down. This makes it easier to keep the blade from biting too deeply into the work and permits the user to make progressively shallower cuts as he works his way down toward the finished line. For the final finishing cut, and for delicate paring cuts when wood must be trimmed to an exact dimension, the chisel is held with the bevel side up. The flat side of the blade is then pressed against the surface so that the beveled blade will gradually shave off the wood in thin layers.