Friday, May 8, 2015

Making a new handle for a mortising chisel

Brian Eve gave me 3 very nice mortising chisels during our chair building extravaganza event last year.
None of the chisels have got a handle, so my idea is to make three similar handles so they look like a set.
Joshua Klein from "The workbench diary" had a post where he described his method of making octagonal handles.
I think that octagonal handles will look fine on mortising chisels, and since the bolster is a bit elongated, the handles will not be equal on all sides, but will feature two slightly larger sides. This should make a handle that will enable me to automatically position the chisel in the correct way without looking at it first. Or at least that is my theory.

For the handles, I have brought with me some hornbeam that I also got from Brian Eve (He is a really nice guy)

At first I cleaned the blades  in a Sulphuric acid solution just like I did yesterday with the plane irons.

I then started drilling a small hole in the centre of the handle blank. Next I sort of wiggled the drill from side to side in the hole to make it conical.

Then I used my smallest chisel to make the hole fit the tapered tang. I checked regularly that I didn't make the hole to deep or wide.
When the tang fitted so the bolster was around 1/4" from the handle when inserted using only hand pressure, I stopped.

I banged the handle into the table a few times with the chisel inserted to seat it most of the way. After that I turned it around and placed the tip on a knot and gave the handle a couple of good whacks with a big hammer. That settled the tang firmly into the handle.

The blank was then cross cut to 13 cm (5.25"). I chose that length because it seemed appropriate for the size of chisel.

Next I drew a pencil line on the blank that I could plane to. I planed using my smoothing blade to get a decent surface. I managed to take one swipe too many, and nicked the blade hitting the bolster.
After that I was a bit more careful when planing the other sides of the handle.

When the handle had four tapered sides, I drew lines on the corners so I could remove the material and make the handle octagonal.
In order not to jeopardize my plane iron any more, I used a chisel for this operation.
Next step was to chamfer the end of the handle.

At last I sanded the handle to break the edges.

I think the blanks are not completely dry, but I doubt that it will matter. It might even be an advantage since it could cause the tang to start rusting a bit inside the handle thus securing it better.

After having played around with the finished chisel for a couple of hours, I am afraid that the handle is a bit too fat. So I think that I have to try to make it a bit more rectangular in the top of the handle. Right now it is almost square (with the corners removed).

The finished mortise chisel.

Blades before starting.

Elongated hole in the handle blank.

Seated by hand to about 1/4" distance.

Planing to the line.

First four sides planed.

Marking out for the octagonal chamfers.


  1. Nice! That hornbeam looks really cool! I think I might have a little more, I wonder if I should do mine just the same? I like it.

    Do you think you'll find a use for those monsters?

    1. Hi Brian.

      I hope you are enjoying your vacation at home.
      I think I'll need to invent a timber framing project or maybe a new work bench for the children. That would be a fine use for those chisels.

      I am a bit surprised at how nice the handle feels to hold. I haven't had an octagonal handle on a chisel of any kind before. But I just need to thin down the handle a bit still.
      Brgds (and thanks for the chisels)

  2. Wow! That turned our great! Your going to have a fantastic set of mortise chisels when all is said and done.


    1. Hi Greg.

      Glad you like the result.
      The best thing is that the chisels are unused.
      They have never been sharpened, but are just shaped and ready for making a secondary bevel to make them ready to use. I can't remember where Brian got hold of them, but I think it was on German Ebay.
      The one that I have handled is 1/2" wide. The other two are wider.
      They are in the workshop right now, but I think they are 9/16" and 5/8". So they are some pretty heavy chisels.

  3. That looks great. Now I am looking at my common oval handles and thinking....

    1. Thanks.
      Oval handles seem to be more traditional on mortise chisels than those octagonal ones. But I suspect that they feel pretty much the same to use.

  4. I just saw this article, and had a chuckle, as a couple months ago I made almost the same handle on a couple mortise chisels made by a blacksmith for me. Mine are markedly thinner on the sides and feel very nice in the hand. I used one for cutting the mortises in the table I am working on now.

    1. Hello Johann.

      Thanks for commenting.
      I have never had a blacksmith make a custom tool for me. It must be a special feeling to use a tool that was made especially for you and with a home made handle.
      I guess that these chisels were made for timber framing purposes. Since they are fairly large. But If I had to make a large mortise in a furniture project they could come in handy.

      I think I will get to use the mortise chisels on my porch project, but I am not 100 % sure of it, as I haven't worked out the final details of the build in my head yet.

  5. Actually, they were cabinetmakers tools up until the late 19th century, by which time they had been replaced with the modern form we know today. Moxon has them in his book, as does Diederot, and the folks at Colonial Williamsburg, USA use them on a regular basis. I just posted the latest update to my table project, and in one of the pictures you can see mine. Good luck with your project.

  6. This article inspired me, I want to do the same, what are the sizes of your 3 chisels, I mean the width of the blades? I want a set of 3 and I'm not sure about the 3 sizes more commonly used for mortises, Thank you.

    1. Hi Paul.

      Thanks for your nice comment. I am glad that the post could be of inspiration.
      I am out at sea now, so I can't measure the sizeof the mortising chisels. As far as I remember they are fairly large. I think there is one 1/2", one 5/8" and one 11/16".

      The sizes that will be useful depends heavily on what type of woodworking you like to do.
      Technically I think that those I just mentioned are too large for ordinary woodworking, but they are fine for carpentry. Though the 1/2" mortising chisel could be used for larger mortises such as e.g. making the apron for a table, etc.

      If you want to make smaller stuff you are going to need something a bit narrower in my opinion.

      A set of 3 with the sizes 1/4" 5/16" and 3/8" would be my best advice for general woodworking (furniture size).

      If you need to make some very wide mortises, you can always make a double mortise.

      If you look at the first 3 pictures of this post, that's what I did for the center stile of the window.

      A rule of thumb is to make the width of the mortise 1/3 of the thickness of the board. Off course you can stray from this, but as a starting point it is OK. That's why you don't need very wide mortising chisels unless yo get into timber framing :-)

      Please let me know if you need any further help.