Chisels for Hand-Cut Dovetails

Woodworkers talk about chisel quality, sharpening, and dovetail joinery. October 28, 2005

I have been working on perfecting my hand cut dovetails for many years. I use a set of hardware store, Stanley chisels that I've had for over 25 years. Do any of you find the quality of the chisel makes a noticeable difference? Sometimes they're okay, other times not - usually the last pin on the board. Any recommendations as to brand of chisel you've had success with?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor J:
I've had a set of Marples with boxwood handles for about 30 years, and they served me quite well. About 10 years ago, as my Marples started getting too short, I began replacing them. I bought a few Sorbys (with octagonal handles) - they looked great but turned out to be junk. I then bought some Japanese ones which I love. They hold an edge quite well, especially in very hard woods. I thought I'd try a new Lie-Nielson chisel, but from what I've heard, they're not that good. I'd buy Japanese.

From contributor W:
My boxwood Marples have been excellent for 20+ years and I recommend them highly.

From contributor P:
I recommend learning how to sharpen them. Flatten the back side, hollow grind the bevel to 27 degrees or so, hone... Everybody will have opinions on chisels and which are good/bad. Whether you use Marples (which I think are too soft), Buck, Swiss, Sorby... If you get a good edge and it holds the edge, you are fine. Cutting dovetails starts with a good tuned up hand saw.

From contributor W:
I fully agree with the post above on the saw. I learned from a guy who did what Krenov told in one of his books. For Western style dovetail saws, hammer out about half of the set. I did that and hooray!, I could cut 1/3 the line I had laid out and that meant that I had to work less with chisels to fit tails to pins.

From contributor D:
I think we all agree - a good dovetail is fit with a single edge of steel. An 80 year old friend of mine gave me a Stanley chisel that belonged to his dad. It was in pretty rough shape, but beautiful in design. The blade is about 7 inches long and transits into a cup for the handle, rather than a tang. The handle has dimension. I took it home and scrubbed it down with mineral spirits and a bit of steel wool. It brightened right up. Once I put an edge on it, it became the sharpest tool in the drawer. Conclusion... it's all in the steel. And, I guess that is a sad commentary on the tool manufacturer of our day.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. It seems to be a fact that it's the steel that makes a difference and even some of the old, quality brands have succumbed to the quicker and cheaper concept. I bought a couple of Matsumura chisels (3/16" dovetail and 1/2" paring) and am eager to try them out. Japan Woodworker is the supplier and I hope to get them before the week's out.

From contributor S:
I cut dovetails on the tablesaw, to get that handcut look. Stanley does not make a chisel small enough to get between my dovetails. I got a 2mm and a 3mm chisel from Highland Hardware in Hotlanta. I use a Dewalt #9152 6.5" circle saw blade originally designed for cutting aluminum that I had reground. I can keep the pin width down around .080" and can even vary the angle on each side of the tail so that it is obvious to even my wife that no router could have done that. Japan woodworker has good stuff, too.