What Grade of Steel is Best for Woodworking Chisels?


When it comes time to buy a good set of woodworking chisels, you might have noticed there are many types of sets you can buy. Selecting which one is the best might be a daunting task, but I’ve got some helpful news about which woodworking chisels will be best for you.

For chopping or clearing cuts, you will want harder steel that will keep its edge longer. Sharpening is harder but is done less often. For pairing or finishing cuts, softer steel that can be sharpened quickly is preferred. It is important that the edge is always sharp to produce a good finish.

What is the difference in woodworking chisels steel?

Just as Bob Vila might tell you in one of his epic DIY home improvement episodes, you’re going to get a crash course in woodworking chisels in this article. And for those of you who still remember Bob Ross, that frilly-haired hippy of PBS fame, this is not going to be a lesson on happy little accidents. I’m telling you right now that chisels are a lot sharper than Julia Childs’ perception of drinking on public television!

With that being said, I’m happy to report that some tools in your arsenal are going to require a clear definition of why they are used, and when to use them. There are essentially three basic categories for woodworking chisels that you should know about. Each category does something different and this is the reason why you need to have several chisels to do just the right job. If you’re like me, then you can spot the bargain buys along the way.

Bench chisels

These are your typical workhorse chisels that can be from the Sears Craftsman level series for most people. This means they are hard-working steel grades, and tough for many applications and you won’t be losing sleep over the cost involved. These are chisels that are perfect for chopping and paring wood of all types. If you’re new to these terms here is what you can expect from these definitions:

* Chopping

This is a chisel that is meant for chopping out wood for quick removal. This is essentially a pocket, mortis, or groove that is carved from wood. It’s typical in making mortis holes or in areas within the wood that require positive/negative identical fitting joints. This is carpentry at its finest and is how most traditional carpenters create mortises for their tenons.

In other words, these are not the typical wooden peg attachment you see on most of the IKEA furniture instructions. And what is even more important to mention, these are chisels that are meant to take a beating. They are built with socket handles to handle the blow from a hammer, whereas tang chisels are used to shave away wood by hand.

* Paring

A pairing chisel is used to pair off excess material. The gentle side-to-side pairing action is gentle on the sharp edge compared to the blunt force of the chopping action. Because edge sharpness is important when pairing, these chisels are typically made of softer material. The time it takes to bring a scary sharp edge back to the blade is minimal because the likelihood of chipping or breaking the edge while pairing is minimal.

These are chisels that are often long and thin and can get into spaces that you can’t get to easily. You never want to use a mallet or hammer to use these and are best used for finishing material from the inside of a mortise. The pairing action is also used to remove excess material to be flush with the rest of the face.

Because of the length of a paring chisel, you have more control shaving the right amount of material in bottoming out a wood mortise. They are as sharp as shaving razors, depending on the wood you’re using.

Pairing is more of a gentle shearing action from side to side compared to the blunt force of the chopping action. The delicate blade edge does not go through as much trauma and can stay sharper longer.

Mortise chisels

I mention the Mortise Chisel because of its unique profile. While technically a chopping chisel, they are much thicker to give a solid guide along the mortise wall. Like the chopping chisel, these will use harder steel that will hold an edge while removing large amounts of material.

Go figure- these are called mortise chisels because of their thick and rigid blades. These are intended to make straight cuts but are also tapered for size when it comes to making specific mortise cuts and many other types of joints. They can be used for chopping and paring according to the usage it was meant for. Since these are going to be your precise chisel set, you need to use these only when you are doing the hard work.

Mortise chisels will typically have two variants as to how it’s used. You either use a mallet or work the wood by hand. Mortise chisel will be hammered when chopping deep channels but will require a longer sharper chisel to flatten the bottom of every mortise created. These are usually referred to as being a paring chisel. You are using the pressure of your chisel to scrape away the bottom of a channel with your hand, using pure leverage.

· Paring chisels

By now this is getting repetitive, but if you’re like me, that’s all in a day’s work! Paring chisels are a superior type of chisel meant to be your best friend. If it comes down to making a joint fit perfectly, you’ll need an excellent set of pairing chisels. These will all do their job according to the select wood you work with. Softer woods like cedar and pine will all slice like butter, whereas oak and other forms of hardwood, will need careful shaving accordingly.

Pairing across the grain can be tricky but with a sharp chisel, the results can be stunning.

Which steel should I choose for woodworking chisels?

Now at this point, you have to be wondering which kind of steel is best for woodworking chisels. But coming from the mouth of Bob Vila, there are essentially two types of steel that are used. If you can’t take that as a token of gratitude, then you can’t appreciate why using certain grades of steel is so important. As you might already know, the hardness of a chisel will determine how long it will last (and stay sharp) overall.

Harder steel also keeps a sharper edge obviously, so softer steel will need sharpening more often. This isn’t so bad but will require you to keep a chisel sharpening tool. This will involve using a bench grinder, sharpening stones, and even fine-grit sanding paper for metal. You will also need selective tools that attach to your chisel to keep the correct angle for sharpening. These additional items are essential if you buy either low or high-quality chisels.

Hard steel is best for chopping

Vanadium Steel is obviously going to be the best choice for chopping since the composition of steel grades and vanadium make this steel stronger. Now this will also depend on the type of mallet that you use, so using a steel hammer isn’t recommended for long-term use. A good wooden mallet will do a fine job as long as you have your chisel sharpened ahead of time. If you have a dull blade, this will make the job unbearable and take considerably longer.

This type is steel is also used for making very precise cuts which are why vanadium steel is often made into surgical tools. Most of the chopping chisels are made differently than a standard tang chisel to it can withstand being pounded. These chisels have a tapered end so that a wooden handle fits into the chisel taper. This takes a lot of the pressure off of this steel while it cuts since vanadium steel can also be chipped if you aren’t being careful.

You might also want to look into socket chisels that are intended for much more beating with a wooden mallet. These are designed for woodworkers who are carving wood all the time and use continuous mallet hits to chop wood from numerous angles. The socket also allows you to control the direction of your mallet hits so you can get a variety of precise cuts as you whack away.

Then again there is also the Framing chisel that is intended for repeated mallet strikes and is considered an all-around workhorse for woodworking duties. Each of these chisels is made from vanadium steel so don’t accept anything less than this type of steel for strength and reliability. These will be pricier of course, but then again, these will be a tool you can use for a lifetime of reliable woodworking chisel usage.

Soft steel is best for paring

Carbon steel is a bargain if you want to save some money, pure and simple. Because it’s going to be a softer metal it will scratch and get dull over some time. This is why it will need sharpening regularly. However, sharpening softer steel will go faster than sharpening hard steel. Often times just a leather strop will bring the edge back to working order.

Don’t go with steel with too low carbon content. These will be too soft and will not hold an edge at all. You will quickly become frustrated with low carbon content steel – even if they have been hardened. They just do not hold an edge. The trick is most all manufactures will not divulge their formulas to the public and it is hard to tell exactly what you are buying. Cost is about the only clue you will have.

Just like any other kind of steel blade, this steel is also going to need taking care of. If it hasn’t been mixed with stainless steel grades and other steel additives, it will rust simply by oxidization of the steel itself.

You’ll need to clean your chisels more often and treat them with oil to prevent oxidization from happening. This will quickly happen if you buy a set from Harbor Freight, for instance, trying to save a few bucks. Likewise, this will happen if you buy any cheap steel chisels imported from China or even off Amazon. You don’t want to joke around since cheaper steels can also bend if you’re making a precise mortise cut.

This is why you’ll want to have the cheaper chisels for very basic duties, while stronger steel is reserved for the fine finishing touches. If all you’re doing is making some direct cuts with softer steel, you’ll need to sharpen the blade twice as often as with vanadium steel. Don’t be fooled by cheap knock-offs that are plated with chrome or something that makes your chisel look like stainless steel. These will last as long as they are worth the cheap price.

I recommend buying quality chisels that start with honest prices and are name brands. If you don’t, you could be sacrificing quality over safety. Bad low-quality steel is not worth your time unless you’re using your chisel to open paint cans. Otherwise, always buy trusted chisel brands that you can continually count on to get the job done right.

This is not a review article but I have been looking for a set of chisels for my shop. I had inherited some very soft steel chisels that will not hold an edge from a long while back. This article is just passing on the information I have found during my research. Here are some sets that I have found that will work for both pairing and chopping. These are affiliate links but you will not be charged more and the suppliers will reward the website for the referral.

John McCormick

I have been woodworking since being introduced to the hobby in High School. I enjoy woodworking as a hobby and would like to share some of what I have learned with the world. I have recently built a CNC router system and I have enjoyed learning this new dimension of the hobby.

Recent Posts