Fair Woodworking

January 30, 2013

How (not) to hold a chisel

Filed under: chisel,Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Picture issues — fairwoodworking @ 6:46 pm

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


It’s not my thing to tell anyone else what to do, so sit quiet listen to what I have to say.

I’ve been on a bit of a quest to find the best way to hold a chisel while chopping out the waste of dovetails.

I originally learned to hold a chisel from Rob Cosman, and his method has some really great benefits. You place the wood with the baseline at 90 degrees to your body, this position allows you to hold the chisel in such a manner that you can visibly see if the chisel is pointing straight down. In the picture below, I watch to see that I don’t lean the chisel too far to the right and create a hump in the middle, but also not lean to the left and cause an under cut.

I also find holding the chisel this low, gives me great control in placing the chisel exactly where I want it. My pinky finger is always in contact with the bench or the work, and my forearm rests on the bench. Even if you have shaky hands, this grip gives you tons of control. The problem is also the grip. I’m holding the chisel between my thumb and pointer finger. It wouldn’t seem like it, but I find this very fatiguing, and I have to stop and shake the cramp out of my hand too often. The other problem is the part of the chisel I’m holding. My grip is on the sides of a beveled edge chisel. The side lands are very narrow, and with long use, it can feel like they are cutting into your finger tips. If you are an owner of the new Veritas PM-V11 Bench Chisels,  the lands are almost non-existent to the point of being almost as sharp as some low-end chisel ends, and this could be a real problem.


So, how else could you hold the chisel?

Well, you could turn your work and the chisel 90 degrees.

This way you still have great control of the chisel, and the sides of the chisel can’t cut you, but now you can’t see if the chisel is plumb to the cut, and the base line is behind the chisel where you can’t see it. This grip also does nothing to help against cramping up.


Or you can go old school, and hold at the top of the handle. Your hand is again safe from sharp edges, you can see the base line, and you can see if the chisel is plumb (note that in the picture I’m leaning too far to the left). This grip is easy, I could hold a chisel like this all day.

But getting the chisel point to land exactly where you want it to, will require an awesome sense of dexterity. The temptation is to put the mallet down and guide the chisel with my right hand, then pick up the mallet again. That seems inefficient.

Well, you could choke up on the chisel a little. This helps some, but control still seems to be an issue. A chisel tends to wander in the direction of the bevel when you strike it with a mallet, and I’ve always noticed that the further up the chisel, the more this would happen.

If I move my grip all the way back down to the end of the chisel, I can hold it with my middle finger against the palm of my hand. Further up, the chisel rests against my thumb between the two knuckles. This grip is surprisingly comfortable. It seems to be an absolutely natural hand position.

Placing the chisel is a snap, as I can pivot on the side of my hand.

I’ve never seen anyone else hold a chisel this way, I don’t think it could be considered historically accurate. It seems to me that most times that we drift from historical examples we take on bad work habits.

If there is a down side to this grip, I haven’t found it yet, and lightning hasn’t yet struck. I think I’m going to stick with it until one of the two happens.



  1. Interesting. I’ll have to try this. My solution was to take a Lee Valley Butt Chisel, cut off the yellow part of the handle to remove the top-heaviness and grind down the shoulders to enable them to reach the inside corners.


    Comment by ChrisHasFlair — January 30, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

    • Hey Chris,
      Like everything it has its pro’s and con’s, I’m still getting a feel for it. It may not be for everyone, but I like it.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — January 30, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

  2. I was dovetailing a carcass last night and got hand cramp from holding the small chisels close to the tip, too. Maybe those who use/used chisels for a living build some special hand strength? I’ll give your way a try next time.

    Comment by Trialanderror — January 31, 2013 @ 9:05 am

  3. It’s nice to hear that others can relate.
    Love to hear how you guys feel about it after you try it.

    Comment by fairwoodworking — February 1, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

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