How to Use Wood Chisels for Carving

September 18, 2022

Carving wood with chisel tools.

One of the fascinating forms of woodworking is woodcarving which had been widely practiced throughout the ages. But at present, I know of many woodworkers who have already mastered other woodworking areas but have never tried wood carving. They may have reasons for not engaging in wood carving, but I think wood carving is a refiner form of woodworking. Besides, if you want to raise your woodworking skills, you might as well try to learn wood carving. If you are going to dabble in wood carving, you might as well buy your set of chisels. 

Of course, there are other tools besides the chisel that you can use to engage in wood carving, but the chisel, of course, is the primary tool that you can use to kickstart your wood carving career. But what is a wood chisel?

A wood chisel is a tool characterized by a shaped cutting edge on its end. You can use it for cutting or carving on wood by hand or by striking it with a mallet. Its handle is either made of wood or metal. You only need to force the blade onto the material that you want to carve or cut.

Interesting Facts About Wood Craving with Chisel

You will seldom use a wood chisel in your woodworking projects, but there will be instances when you need to carve out on the wood, especially if you need a recess for your striking plate or hinge. The use of chisel may look easy, but before you start chiseling, it will be best to be cognizant of the basic chiseling techniques, as well as of the sharpening tips to optimize the use of your wood chisels. 

Once you’ve known the basic techniques and tips, you can begin your wood carving activity using a 3/4″ chisel. If your chisel is not sharp, you can sharpen it or buy a new sharp one—one equipped with an impact-resistant handle (plastic). Such a chisel will allow you to use your hammer in pounding or pushing the chisel sans damaging the chisel. 

Quality chisels are not expensive, so it will help to buy a set of chisels for your woodcarving activities. Before you start using your chisel, check if it is sharp, for even new chisels can exhibit dullness. Moreover, once you are not using your chisels, you can safely stack them away on a special canvas or a sock to keep their edges protected and sharp.

Simple Steps on Wood Carving Using Chisel

Using a sharp wood chisel, you can cut mortises, chop out corners, and shave rough surfaces. You can likewise use the chisel to scrape off glue. Here is a rundown of the steps you can follow to optimize the use of your wood chisel when carving wood:

Step 1: Choose the Right Chisel for the Job

The type of chisel you use will have a bearing on the results of your wood carving projects. Hence, it will help choose a chisel type best for the given task at the onset. You should also know when to use a bevel edge chisel, a mortise chisel, or a paring chisel. You should also take into consideration the chisel blade’s shape and size. 

Before starting to chisel on the wood, you need to inspect the chisel you will use to ensure that it’s in good condition. Check also its blade’s flatness using a square. You can also sharpen the edge of the blade if you think the edge is a bit dull.

Step 2: Know the Proper Way of Holding the Chisel

At the onset, it will be good to know how to hold the chisel. If you know someone well-versed in using a chisel, you can undergo an apprenticeship under him. But chisel is pretty simple to hold. You only need to hold it as if you are holding a dagger. Lower down your hold on the handle so that you can cover a bit of the blade using your hand.

Step 3: Align your Cutting Edge to Your Marking

You should mark out the design you would like to carve on the wood and then align the chisel’s cutting edge with that marking. You can lower or raise the chisel’s angle depending on how deep the indentation you would like to make or how much material you would like to carve out.

Step 4: Apply Enough Force

When you need to carve more or when you need a greater cutting force, you can wrap one of your hands around the chisel’s handle and utilize a mallet to drive your chisel. Take extra care not to split the chisel’s handle, especially if you are using a chisel with a wooden handle, for a wooden handle tends to break. 

It will also help to refrain from using a metal hammer. Instead, use a hard plastic mallet so as not to damage your chisel. Moreover, you will less likely to injure your knuckles and fingers when you miss the chisel’s head.

Step 5: Remove Notch Waste

When you’ve finished the notch’s walls, you can start removing waste using paring cuts. You can keep up the bevel and keep the chisel flat. Then, trim until you get to the desired depth. Afterward, mount the hinge and handle against the carved wood surface.

How to Deal with Varying Carving Conditions?

Your carving tasks vary depending on many conditions and factors. So, you need to adjust depending on the conditions demanded by the carving process. Here are some of the conditions you need to deal with:

Dealing with Grain

If you cut against the grain, the chisel’s edge will likely dig in, splitting the wood. This happens because the chisel’s beveled edge is downward sloping while the grain is also downward sloping. You can flip the board over to get the right orientation for cutting and avoid splitting the wood. What I mean is you should always cut along the grain.

Altering Your Chiseling When Doing Light or Heavy Cuts

When you cut using the chisel, you will most likely cut with the bevel up, especially for light cuts. But when you engage in heavy cuts, or you need to cut in confined spaces, you may need to cut with the bevel down. Bevel down will allow you to prevent gouging.

Cutting a Notch

You need to make the bevel face toward the waste area. Then underscore the perimeter using vertical cuts. With the bevel facing inward, you can make slanted cuts from the stock face up to the perimeter incision’s bottom, allowing you to form notch walls.

End-grain Paring

It will help orient your chisel bevel when you are pairing thin slices from the end grain. It will be good to use a swiveling movement for smooth cutting. Choose a wide chisel likewise to achieve more stability and a quick finish. Your chisel should be very sharp to allow you to pare the end grain. 

If your chisel is dull, you will most likely find it hard to pare the end grain. Moreover, it will be dangerous to you cause you will have less traction when cutting, and your chisel may also slip easily.

Making Deep Mortises

To make the deep mortises, you can start by boring several overlapping holes. Use a drill bit that is smaller than the cavity’s width you intend to make. Then, chisel out with the bevel side facing the waste side. Once you reach the corners, ensure that you can first make cross-grain cuts to avoid long-grain splitting.  

Making Concave Cuts

When carving wood, you will also make concave cuts. You can use a slightly wider chisel than the stock’s thickness, with the bevel facing downwards. Press the handle down slowly as you advanced through the workpiece. Apply steady movement and pressure to get a symmetric curve result.

Cutting Rabbets

You can use a block that fits well with the rabbet lip as your guide when trimming your rabbet’s depth. Ensure that you clamp the block to your workbench. Then set the chisel on it while you cut. A rabbet, of course, is a groove or recess cut into the workpiece’s edge.

Most Common Chisel Woodcarving Techniques You Can Use

When cutting or carving using a chisel, you should know the steps and the conditions mentioned above. However, you should likewise be cognizant of the following most common woodcarving techniques you can employ using a chisel:

1) Mortise Cut Technique

At the onset, you can outline the area you would like to carve using a utility knife. You can also make several shallow cuts perpendicular to the flat surface. If you do not do this, you run the risk of chipping wood beyond the mortise. Then chip away slices by tapping with a hammer the chisel with the bevel side facing down. In this way, you can carve wood out of the wood’s inside perimeter. 

To cut some thin slices, apply pressure at the chisel’s back with its bevel facedown. Elevate the handle and lower it to see if you are using the right amount of pressure. If you chisel the grain, you may end up with a bad result. If the grain burrows down into the wood, your chisel may end up cutting deeply. In such a case, stop and chisel slowly toward the other way.

2) Paring Cut Technique

To flatten the exposed recess edge, you can pare thin slices on the wood. To do it, you need to chisel flat on your wood piece. Try to pivot your chisel while you cut. Push the edge in an arc manner to speed up slicing. Once you have opened the gap, you can straighten its bottom by making thin slices with your blade’s rear side. 

You should utilize the chisel’s unbeveled hand and press parallel to your workpiece. As you rasp onto the wooden slice, let the slope face down. As you flatten the cut, exposing it from the ground, let the bevel face upwards while keeping the chisel back near the top.

3) Chopping Cut

You can also chop out a considerable amount of wood by chopping with less split quantities. You can cut with your chisel about 1/2″ thick out of the wood by thrusting a hammer on the back of the chisel. Chisel out from the very end before moving your chisel to extract the material. Ensure, however, that your chisel is very sharp for this task. 

Set the chisel next to the cut side, and hit it firmly using your hammer to remove wood from your notches. Then, cut a dado or a groove by cutting at the desired depth from both sides. Then, chisel out the wood in the center and make a slice of around 1/2″. 

You can chisel out dadoes with small cuts instead of chiseling out too hard. Moreover, you can use the mallet or hammer for more challenging tasks, or you can only push the chisel using your palm.

4) Scraping Technique

When scraping, you need a perfectly flat chisel with a sharp edge. You should scrape cleanly using your chisel sans leaving scratch marks on your wood piece. You can also scrape glue joints and other imperfections by only pressing the wood’s edge at the right angle, with the chisel’s back going towards you. 

You can enable the blade to move using your fingertips to remove thin shavings. You can also push down as you pull your chisel toward you. Moreover, you will need a straight and smooth edge to achieve perfect scraping, allowing you to cut cleanly without leaving some wood marks.


The chisel, as a tool, has been around for several millennia. Its use has stood the test of time as one of the most valuable tools when making intricate wood joints and carved-out designs. Many woodworkers shy away from its use because they now have power tools. Moreover, the chisel’s use is more personal and sometimes requires a bit of artistic inclination on the woodworker’s part.

Nevertheless, you will surely benefit from the use of the chisel. Yet, if you use the wrong type of chisels, you may be only wasting your money. So, before buying a chisel set, make sure that you are getting the best set for your wood carving tasks. Moreover, you should know the different types of chisels so that you can make an informed purchase when selecting a set of chisels.

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