Hand Tools

Re: Solving this mystery of oval bolstered chisels

Warren in Lancaster, PA
This is a complicated subject. Some mortising jobs were gradually taken over by machines in the 19th century. There was a fair in 1836 in which "very many new mortise and tenoning machines were exhibited". Because of this, it is more difficult to talk about mortise chisels in the 19th century than the 18th. It is difficult to know which trades continued to use hand methods and for what purposes.

After 1800 it seems that the mortise chisels became more robust and then split into the joiner's mortise chisel and the sash mortise chisel. This distinction does not seem to exist in the 18th century. I have seen a number of references to cabinetmakers using the lighter chisels. For a mortise like for a cabinet door that is fairly deep and not too long, a heavy Joiners (oval bolster) chisel is very clumsy.

Joel Moskowitz once published the method of mortising he was taught by Fraser. It involved setting the gauge 1/16 wider than the chisel, boring out the waste, and then cutting to the line with a mortise chisel and a paring chisel.

Frank Klausz grew up working in his father's shop, which had a mortising machine. I laughed when I read his 1979 article in Fine Woodworking where he was riding the back of the chisel to make a mortise by hand. By 2007 or so he was riding the bevel. Even an Old World cabinetmaker can learn hand methods here in America.

So yes, it is a complicated mystery. The 18th century is less complicated because the tools and techniques were more standard.

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