Chopping the mortise--Bevel edged or traditional mortise chisel (video)

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Blog entry by Paul Sellers posted 07-05-2012 07:24 AM 9015 reads 7 times favorited 17 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Chopping the mortise—Bevel edged or traditional mortise chisel

I recently saw a Youtube video put together by Lie Nielsen where it shows a mortise being cut behind glass; the idea was to show the progression of the traditional method using a traditional ‘pig-sticker’ mortise chisel and I understand it was Roy Underhill who came up with the idea, which was wonderful.



As a boy in school I was shown this method and indeed we were trained that way, but once I left school and started to chop mortises in the everyday of life I found that lightweight chisels chopped more effectively, especially on the lighter work of furniture making and joinery rather than the heavy bank doors once common that had 3/4” wide 5” x 5” deep twin and double mortises in mahogany and oak (that’s two or four mortises per corner sometimes on the bottom and middle rails). In my apprenticeship, most of the men chopped mortises with a Marples bevel-edged chisel. They used the ones shortened by wear, admittedly, but I used my then brand new Marples bluechips and have done so now for almost five decades. In all of those years using these and other  makers, I have never bent a chisel once. Furthermore, I have trained 3,500 woodworkers, many raw beginners to the bench, and I have never found one chisel bent either.

Growing in my craft, I found myself changing the pattern and developed the one I teach and advocate today. No matter the chisel, this method is fast and highly efficient and so effective I find myself able to consistently chop a 4” long mortise 1 1/2” deep and 3/8 wide in around 4 minutes. I own a mortise machine, but seldom use it because of this. Anything and everything you have seen me work on in the past three years has been cut by hand methods.

My reason for staying with the bevel-edged chisels is indeed as much the size of the bevel cutting edge itself as the thinness of the steel chisel used. Obviously, because it’s so small (narrow), the steel penetrates very effectively in any wood. The lighter weight of the chisel means I can easily drive it with minimum counter-opposition from the weight I inevitably get with the heavy framing chisels.


Sparked by the idea of the Youtube video, we decided to show the method I used and at the same time try to show the contrast between the traditional mortise chisel and the bevel-edged chisel. The reason being that traditional mortise chisels are not so readily available and accessible to everyday woodworkers and to show how effectively this method works with either chisel.



Working on massive doors in the pre-machine age and making such projects day in day out I would indeed use a heavy weight traditional mortise chisel. I worked on two large doors for the National Trust’s Penrhyn Castle two years ago and so I do not challenge the ancient craftsmen who used and developed them for such work. Neither do I challenge them for fine work either.

An English five-bar field gate had ten mortises 3/4” by 4-5” through stile 4-6” wide and a man made one in a ten-hour day complete with bracing in solid oak. That man used the kind of mortise chisel I am talking about. These chisels were wonderfully made to last the lifetimes of two craftsmen. At the everyday bench for we woodworkers, we use good chisels carefully and work with what we have at hand.

-- Paul Sellers, UK

17 comments so far

View Brit's profile


8520 posts in 4339 days

#1 posted 07-05-2012 08:26 AM

Wonderful demo Paul. Thank you for putting this together. I currently use a bevel-edged chisel to cut my mortises because I don’t have any pig stickers. However, I tend to bore out the waste with an auger first. I find the problem with boring first though is that a bevel-edged chisel has a tendency to twist in the mortise no matter how hard you try and keep it perpendicular to the side walls, as it wants to follow the path of least resistance. I can see how this wouldn’t happen if I used your method, so I’ll be giving it a go. Thanks again.

It was also interesting to see that the bevel-edged chisel left a better surface on the side walls.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View stefang's profile


17040 posts in 4830 days

#2 posted 07-05-2012 09:40 AM

Enjoyed your demo Paul. I have never owned any mortise chisels and so I always use bevel edged chisels. I do, however use a different method from yours that I learned from another English woodworker, Ian Kirby, who now lives in the U.S.

I posted a blog on the method some time ago. Unfortunately I forgot to clamp the work piece to the bench while demonstrating it, so it didn’t turn out quite as well as i had hoped. The link to the blog is below. I sure would appreciate it if you would be so kind to have a look at it and give a critique on the method. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings as the method is not of my design.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View mafe's profile


13872 posts in 4585 days

#3 posted 07-05-2012 10:12 AM

Hi Paul,
That is one intereresting video.
Amazing to see how much easier it goes.
I have a wonderful set of old French mortice chisels, now it will be exiting to see if they will end up as ‘waste’.
Thank you for your always living way of showing us your methods and ideas.
Best thoughts,

-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect.

View Don W's profile

Don W

20443 posts in 4064 days

#4 posted 07-05-2012 10:25 AM

As always, very well done Paul. As with others, I’ve always cut with like this because of the lack of a mortise chisel. I’ve always meant to get a set, but its never made it to the top of the list. I love the glass idea. To bad seeing the bottom wasn’t always that easy.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View ksSlim's profile


1304 posts in 4386 days

#5 posted 07-05-2012 12:23 PM

Thanks for easily visable demonstration. Your method shows me that I waste time by using an auger to remove the worst of the material and clean up with the bevel. I’ve used mortise chisels but find them clumsy and still have to clean up with a bevel edge.
Thanks again for the video.

-- Sawdust and shavings are therapeutic

View Bertha's profile


13635 posts in 4189 days

#6 posted 07-05-2012 01:26 PM

Outstanding! I’m most impressed by your familiarity with that smaller mallet! I winced every time you really started pounding on it. Thanks for this video; much food for thought.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View A Slice of Wood Workshop's profile

A Slice of Wood Workshop

1126 posts in 4670 days

#7 posted 07-05-2012 01:33 PM

Great video demo. I have been thinking I needed mortise chisels, but now I don’t really have to worry about it so much.

-- Follow me on YouTube-

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 3971 days

#8 posted 07-05-2012 03:45 PM

I noticed your mortise chisel does not have a secondary bevel like the ones I bought from Ray Iles. Did you remove it? Or have you always used them this way? I have to admit your way seems a lot faster than with the mortise chisels I have. Thanks for the demo I am going to try your way and see how it works, I can always put the secondary bevel back.

I like the mortise chisels because of the straight flat sides, but heck your way with the bench chisels works just as well.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View spunwood's profile


1202 posts in 4332 days

#9 posted 07-05-2012 04:02 PM

Wow, thanks for this post…very helpful and inspiring.

I hear a lot about “scoring” the mortise. Did you do that?

-- I came, I was conquered, I was born again. ἵνα ὦσιν ἓν

View Mauricio's profile


7170 posts in 4648 days

#10 posted 07-05-2012 04:11 PM

Amazing Paul, thanks for showing that comparison. I’ll have to give that a try.

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Bertha's profile


13635 posts in 4189 days

#11 posted 07-05-2012 04:18 PM

I’m also curious whether you’ve used a hollow-ground pigsticker before. I’ve used them before straight off the wet wheel, not bothering to straighten it out. I’m wondering how that would affect your method.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View whitewulf's profile


456 posts in 4433 days

#12 posted 07-05-2012 08:45 PM

I’m not convinced or impressed with the video. Paul took a lot longer reaching depth with his method. starting in the center of the mortise, I am down to full depth in three to four cuts, I do not know how heavy his mallet is, it appears to be to light to drive a mortise chisel. most assuredly lighter than what I use even with bevel chisels. If you do something wrong, long enough you will get better at it.

I await Tar & feathers!

-- "ButI'mMuchBetterNow"

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 3971 days

#13 posted 07-06-2012 02:38 AM

You can reach the bottom of a 2 inch deep mortise in 3 or 4 cuts starting at the middle?!? I wold love to see that.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View Doug's profile


1305 posts in 4257 days

#14 posted 07-08-2012 03:23 PM

It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to spend more money to make mortises by hand. Thanks Paul.

-- Doug

View thedude50's profile


3613 posts in 3974 days

#15 posted 08-13-2012 06:53 AM

your method was the same one my grandfather taught me when I chopped my first mortise. I do agree with White wolf on some points You seemed to baby the mortise chisel . I am always to the bottom before I am half way through And I could see you taking extremely shallow cuts till you were half way on the mortise chisel.
I know your trying to sell people on your ideology but that test simply showed me a self fulfilling prophecy. I know you wanted the bevel to win so you made it come out that way. I also know that in a pinch you can use a bevel chisel to cut a hand cut mortise. Truth be told I will reach for my mortiser and be done in half the time you chopped the mortise by hand. And when I am in the mood to chop them by hand I will stick with my mortise chisels.

-- Please check out my new stores and

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