Three Reasons to Get a Mortise Chisel

Cutting mortises is not my favorite joinery task.  I’ve used a number of methods for mortising, both hand-powered and electrical, but until now I’ve put off getting mortise chisels because they weren’t in the budget. Now that Narex offers a decent mortise chisel in my price range, I got myself a little Christmas present:

A 1/4” and a 3/8” mortise chisel, which are the two mortise sizes I most frequently cut.

Why didn’t someone tell me why a real mortise chisel was an essential part of the hand-tool woodworker’s kit? Now that I hold them in my hand and put them to wood, it’s obvious why mortise chisels excel at mortising.

1. Size matters.

L-R: mortise chisel, bench chisel, and paring chisel, all of the same width (3/8″) but VERY different thicknesses.

I had never put a regular bench chisel up next to a real mortise chisel. The blade of the mortise chisel is much thicker, providing more strength but also more weight. I think a heaver chisel can cut deeper at one stroke due to the extra inertia. The extra thickness also results in an extra-long bevel, which acts as a ramp for chips as you pop them out of the mortise.

2. Control.

The thickness of the blade and the oval cross-section of the handle make it easy to keep the chisel plumb and square. It’s more difficult to repeatedly place a regular round-handled bench chisel perfectly square to the workpiece.  The mortise chisel’s size and shape makes it easier to use consistently while chopping a mortise.

3. Don’t just pry. Scrape.

I sometimes read of woodworkers trying to pry large chunks of waste out of a mortise with the mortise chisel. (I’ve also seen pictures of mortise chisels with tips broken off. Not a coincidence.) As I experimented with my mortise chisel, I quickly realized that you should almost never need to pry hard when removing the waste from a mortise. I could scrape out obstinate chips instead.  I have seen quite a few old pros chop mortises but haven’t seen them do this, yet it seems effective.

Insert chisel on the far side of the mortise…

Once you have chopped into the mortise, loosen the waste by inserting the tip of the chisel into the far end of the mortise. Then, holding the chisel by the blade with your off-hand and by the handle with your dominant hand, pull whole chisel back.  The motion is similar to paddling a canoe. Use your off-hand (and not the end of the mortise) as a fulcrum if you need extra leverage.

…and pull it straight back, scraping the chips off the bottom of the mortise.

That way, you preserve the crisp edge at the end of the mortise.  Plus, if your hand is the fulcrum, you can’t possibly put enough leverage on the chisel to break the tip off.  You’ll hurt your hand first.

Whether you are prying or scraping the waste out of the mortise, there is a surprising by-product. It cleans and smooths the walls of the mortise. How? The mortise chisel blade’s cross-section is not perfectly rectangular but trapezoidal. That turns the bottom edges into sharp cutting edges. They’re not (usually) sharp enough to cut your hand, but they are sharp enough to scrape the walls of the mortise as you dig the waste out of the bottom.

A relatively clean mortise wall, all ready for gluing up.

Oh, and  in case you were wondering, I haven’t used any other mortise chisels, so I can’t say how the Narex models compare to others on the market.  I can say, however, that the Narex mortise chisels have excellent balance:

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11 Responses to Three Reasons to Get a Mortise Chisel

  1. orepass says:

    When I purchased my mortise chisels it was like opening a new door.

  2. sablebadger says:

    I second the recommendation for the Narex chisels, I’ve got a set of them in both bench and mortise variety and i’ve been pleased with them.

  3. I love mortise chisels,,,

  4. Have you seen Paul Sellers make a mortise with bench chisels? I tried it and it works well.

    • Sure have. I took a class with him some years back when I lived in Texas. I’ve been experimenting with his mortise chopping method using the mortise chisel. So far I’ve gotten pretty good results. He can do it faster with a regular bench chisel, but I’m already faster with the mortise chisel.

  5. I bought a set of six Narex mortise chisels. The tips seem to crumble and chip a little too easily. I don’t have any others to compare them too, but I’ll probably buy one or two in other brands. They work, but I’m not really satisfied with them.

  6. Brent says:

    I fell into a great deal on oval handled “pig sticker” bolstered mortice chisels and in use they are light years better and faster than using my bench chisels. I learned to chop mortices with Marples blue chip chisels in a class I took from Paul Sellers in Texas many years ago. That method works, and I did it that way for years. After using the larger heavier pig sticker with its larger steeper bevel I am sold; I chop deeper and remove chips so much quicker. My fingers don’t cramp trying to hold the thin blade of a bench chisel, and my mortices are probably chopped twice as fast. Try the old style pig sticker, you will love them.

  7. Steve Massie says:

    Steve you will find those are great chisels, I have those as well. I am also trying out Paul Sellers approach using a bench chisel as I am in the process of building his bench design. So far it is working like he describes. Good luck and have fun !

    Steve

  8. jprid says:

    Thanks for the write up, i’ve tried cutting mortises with a bench chisel but never was good. i might have to try a mortise chisel.

  9. Anyway, mortise chisel are not expensive, you can found a lot vintage chisels on ebay, for few bucks…… usually better than the narex ones.

  10. I tested these chisels for Highland woodworking a while back and I have had experience with several other brands of mortise chisels. The Narex are right up there near the top in my opinion. When you factor in the ridiculously low price these seem like a no brainer. To me if you are chopping mortises by hand then you should invest in a dedicated chisel. Sure you can use bench chisels like Paul has demonstrated but I personally believe the mass and durability of a mortise chisel makes it easier and takes the burden off a bench chisel. You really only need 1 or 2 sizes for most furniture mortises and the English style can be had for a song on ebay or new like these Narex so I’m not sure why I would continue to “make it work” with a bench chisel.

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