When I first started woodworking, chisels were one of those tools I owned because I was supposed to. All the cool kids had them so I did too. Over the years as I became better at sharpening and using them, chisels quickly became an absolutely essential shop tool that I’d be lost without. In fact, in answer to one of those silly “stranded on an island” questions, chisels would be on my short list of tools to bring with me because they are just so versatile. Not only could they help me build my new hut, they would also be quite handy for defense and hunting my daily dinner.
Like many tools, chisels come in an incredible variety of brands, styles, and sizes and it can be incredibly confusing to a new woodworker. The question of size, specifically, is what was on emailer Eric Johnson’s mind when he wrote this,
“I am really falling for those Japanese chisels you like from Hida Tool. If I were only to buy four of these to start out with; can you recommend what sizes you use most and would be good to get for a set of four? I am a typical hybrid type woodworker.”
So the quick and dirty answer, in my opinion, is 1/4”, 3/8”, 1/2” and 3/4”. Of course having a 1” wide chisel is a nice treat too but I don’t consider it essential to a basic set. Let’s dig in a little deeper!
Eric mentioned two important things in his email that will guide the rest of this discussion. He says he’s interested in Japanese chisels and that he’s a “hybrid” woodworker, implying that he uses power tools for the grunt work and finesses with his hand tools. A lot of woodworkers adapt this “best tool for the job” approach and you can read more about it in my book titled Hybrid Woodworking (How’s that for a sales pitch?).
In case you weren’t aware, Japanese chisels are sized in metric and you usually can’t just pick up the standard sizes recommended above (at least I’ve never seen them). Fortunately, the slight difference between imperial and metric is a blessing in disguise, especially for the hybrid woodworker. Here’s one scenario to consider. You just created a 1/2” mortise with your router. You know the mortise is 1/2” because you used a quality 1/2” bit. You want to square the ends of the mortise so you reach for your western style 1/2” chisel.
Perhaps I’m just ham-handed but when I try do do this, I nearly always mangle the end of the mortise. Trying to fit an exact 1/2” chisel into an exact 1/2” mortise is a bit tricky. Cleaning the bottom of the mortise gets dicey too as any accidental side to side movement can cause dents in the mortise sides. Of course we all know that most mortises are hidden from view in which case it doesn’t really matter. But what about through tenons? The squareness and crispness of the mortise edges and ends matters a great deal! Another example to ponder is a stopped dado or groove. In some cases, the stopped area will be visible in the final piece and if you mangle the end, you’ll certainly be able to see it.
This is precisely why I prefer metric chisels as they are typically just a tad narrower than their imperial equivalents. The metric version of a 1/2” chisel is 12 mm. 12 mm = .472″ or slightly less that 1/2″. So whenever I am squaring anything cut by a standard imperial piece of tooling, I have a very easy time putting my chisel in position and chopping without mangling the previously-established areas of the joint. This same situation holds true for the other metric chisels.
So ultimately, my recommendation for Eric is the following set:
6mm (approx. 1/4”), 9mm (approx. 3/8”), 12mm (approx. 1/2”), and 18mm (approx. 3/4”)
Keep in mind this is just my opinion based on what works for me. Whatever you do, don’t go out and replace your Western chisels in favor of Japanese style. The issues I presented concerning Western chisels are minor and picky at best. But this is what happens when you dissect a detail in woodworking and you should be used to that by now! This article is really only intended as food for thought for folks who are just now deciding on what chisel sizes they want to add to their arsenal.
One last tip for anyone looking to purchase some of these expensive Japanese chisels. Put your set together over the course of a few years. I find it helps avoid marital strife! If you have thoughts on this topic I’d love to hear them. Drop a comment below!