When you pick up a chisel or gouge for use, they will likely be in your hands for a longer time than your square or awl. It is very likely that you be using them to make carefully controlled cuts to layout lines that you have scribed onto the wood, so comfort and control in the form of the handle shape and blade length should be carefully considered.
Bench Chisels – These will be your everyday woodworking chisels and they will get the most use. A good start would be a 1/4, 3/8, 1/2, 3/4 and 1-inch wide selection of chisels. My first proper “set” of chisels was from Nooitgedagt chisels of Holland; they are a nice medium length, with comfortable wooden grips and the steel is excellent. I still see them about on auction sites.
Gouges – Mostly for woodcarving, but occasionally used to cut and fit joinery. During heavy work they are usually propelled forward by a wooden mallet, but most of the time you will be using your hands directly, making sweeping shearing cuts in the wood. Gouges worth owning are generally expensive, and as a specialist’s tool it is prudent to purchase these for a specific task. I often find them in my hands during restoration projects and you will end up with a few if you pursue this line of work.
Mortise Chisels – If you’re committed to working wood with only hand tools, you’ll want these strong chisels for chopping out the waste in a mortise. I’ve only needed these where I have had to reproduce a missing member, like a leg or post of some sort.
Paring Chisels – Often described as a patternmaker’s tool, these are rather long and thin, with their bevels ground low so they are essentially the opposite of the mortise chisel. You would not chop a mortise with a paring chisel, driving it into the wood with a heavy mallet, they are only pushed along. Used to shave down irregularities, usually during fitting of joints. So you might find them used on the bottom of a dado or the walls of a mortise or face of a tenon trimming any uneven areas.
Spoke Shave – Very handy shaping tool, especially along contoured edges of your woodworking projects. I would advise old wood models over most metal contraptions. You can hunt these down or discover them randomly; just make sure that you have ample metal left on the blade to make it useful.
Draw-Knife – More or less useful, depending upon what area of woodworking you’ll pursue. You used to be able to discover these quite easily. Like the spoke shave you’ll want to make sure that the long cutting edge has not been so far ground down that the tool is useless.
The Junk Chisel – I have a cheap, short 1-inch wide plastic handled chisel that I use for those restoration tasks where I wouldn’t want to stick my nicer chisels; for example, a freshly opened mortise…who knows what has been jammed in there over the years. I use the junk chisel to clear the way, like a bomb sniffing dog, before the nice chisels finish the job. You can find chisels like these in sets of three or four for a very modest cost at most every home center or hardware. Yes, you could start out with these as your bench chisels while you explore what type you may eventually want.
So the only items you would need initially (in my opinion) are a collection of bench chisels and the spoke shave. Below are some examples of what has just been discussed with a little commentary.
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