How to Buy a Good Used Chisel

Some vintage tools I picked up at the flea market.

Some vintage tools I picked up at the flea market.

Chisels are great tools to buy used. Partly because it’s so difficult and expensive to buy new chisels of good quality. Most of the chisels you buy at the hardware store are junk when it comes to serious woodworking. The steel isn’t as strong as it used to be. Brands you get at the hardware store have been doped with vanadium and stainless steel, in quantities that prevent rust and make for a shiny tool, but don’t hold an edge nearly as good as a tool from 100 years ago. Some things have not improved with modern technology; chisels are a good example. So, where do you find second hand chisels? Estate sales, auctions, flea markets, garage sales, and antique stores are likely sources to find used chisels.  This article will tell you what to look for once you stumble upon some old chisels. I’ll tell you what to look for in a good chisel, and what brands I trust.

For timber framing, you’ll need some heavy duty chisels. Not the delicate pairing or bench chisels (ones with beveled sides) you find in most toolboxes. We’re talking about big, thick, long mortising chisels that allow you to clean out a big mortise, 2″ wide and 8″ thick. Mortising chisels are sometimes called “framing chisels” or “firmer chisels”. They have square sides instead of beveled sides. They’re a lot thicker than a regular bench chisel. They’re also a lot longer than a bench chisel so they can reach the bottom of deep mortises. The two chisels in the picture to the left are both 1″ T.H. Witherby socket chisels. The one in back is made specifically for mortising, you can see it’s a lot thicker than the chisel in front.

For timber framing, the two chisels I use the most are the 1.5″ chisel, and the 2″ chisel. Those are really the only 2 chisels you’ll need. If I only had one chisel, I’d make it my 1.5″ chisel. I can make due with this one chisel alone for cutting an entire timber frame. A corner chisel is nice, and they’ll save you a little bit of time squaring the corners of mortises, but you can get away without having one. The only downside to using a corner chisel is that it’ll eventually need to be sharpened, and sharpening a corner chisel is a lot more time consuming than a regular chisel.

Look for old chisels at flea markets and antique stores. All of my chisels (except one beautiful Barr chisel I got as a gift) I’ve found at flea markets, garage sales, and antique festivals. I’ve never paid over $15 for a chisel. Considering a new hand forged framing chisel cost upwards of $100, second hand chisels are a bargain.

Look for a chisel with the right shape. Make sure it’s not bent in any direction. The back of the chisel should be flat. Dead flat. If it has a bend to it, it’s probably been used as a pry bar or abused in some other way. Don’t buy a bent chisel. It’s not worth fixing.

Chisels come in two styles, tang and socket. A tang chisel is a chisel with a long pointed metal end that the handle fits around. A socket chisel has a hollow end that the handle fits into. For timber framing we need something we can really whale on when cleaning out a mortise. I only buy socket chisels because I fear a tang chisel just won’t stand up to the abuse.

Make sure the rust on the back of the chisel isn’t severe. Heavy pit marks can be hard to remove, requiring a lot of time lapping the back to get a flat surface. Remember, the flat back of the edge forms half the chisel. The back is just as important at the beveled side you sharpen.

Look at the tip of the chisel. Has it been ground down with a power grinder? If so, the temper of the steel may have been comprimised. Grinding a chisel on a power grinder, without stopping to cool the tip, may heat the steel to a point where the temper is lost and the tool’s ability to hold an edge is comprimised. I avoid chisels that have been ground down unless I know the person who did it.

P.S. & W. mark on a chisel. Made by the Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co

P.S. & W. mark on a chisel. Made by the Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co

Look for a makers mark. The company that made the tool probably stamped or etched the tool with their logo or blacksmith mark. Most of the time when you’re buying a rusted old chisel you can’t quite read the stamp. Eventually you’ll start to recognize the parts of a quality blacksmith’s stamp, even if you can’t see the whole thing. For example, when I see a rectangle and a “T.H.” I instantly know it’s a Witherby chisel and should be bought without second thought.

Here are the brands that I look for:

  • P.S.&W. (Pexto) – The P.S.&W. Extra chisels are my personal favorite.
  • T.H. Witherby
  • DR Barton

I’ve bought other brands besides the ones above, but only if I can get them for a few bucks. The following brands are my second choice brands:

  • Buck Brothers
  • Greenlee
  • New Haven Edge
  • White
  • Wincheste
  • Underhill
  • Jennings
  • Stilleto
  • Ohio Tool

There are a lot of other brands out there that may or may not be good. Often times a brand that was once a quality brand loses it’s way and produces junk. For example, Stanley used to make a very high quality chisels, like the Stanley 750 model chisels. Nowadays no serious woodworker would buy a Stanley chisel, unless they needed a small paint scraper! Only after sharpening and using a chisel will you discover the quality of the steel.

Lastly, make sure it feels good in your hands. Tools are a extension of your body, what feels right in my hands may feel clumsy in yours. Find a chisel that feels good to hold and use.

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