Why can't I get a tight joint using a chisel?

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Forum topic by trevor7428 posted 06-09-2016 08:27 AM 1385 views 0 times favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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266 posts in 1880 days

06-09-2016 08:27 AM

For some reason I have a hard time geting a tight joint, whenever a chisel is involved.

I wanted to make this project found in Fine Woodworking magazine, just to enhance my jointery skills

This project requires though tenons

and a special kind of dovetail. Which looks like a normal dovetail but on the back end is a mix of a rabbit and dovetail

My issue is, whenever I use a chisel I can never get a tight joint. I purchased the porter cable dovetail machine which is why the dovetail looks so good lol. But when I had to modify the backend for the rabbit. I couldn’t get a tight fit and unfortunately I had to use filler for the small gaps in the through tenons

I marked everything out first with a marking guage and marking knife, but the only chisels I have are craftsman. They are sharp tho. I was thinking of purchasing a nice set of mortising chisels, but I don’t know if that will help with my issue.
Is it just practice makes perfect or is there a common issue I’m not aware of to get a tight (gap free) joint using chisels?

-- Thank You Trevor OBrion

11 replies so far

View hotbyte's profile


1007 posts in 3894 days

#1 posted 06-09-2016 11:04 AM

I’m fairly new to hand tool work and one tip I picked up in reading and watching videos is not to make full cut but work your way to the knife line. When you take that final cut on the knife line, it should be a very thin shaving. If you try to cut too much at once, the bevel of chisel will push it back over the good side of your line.

View waho6o9's profile


8953 posts in 3496 days

#2 posted 06-09-2016 11:46 AM

HTH, I’d use clamps though

View Robert's profile


4156 posts in 2399 days

#3 posted 06-09-2016 11:50 AM

It looks like you just over pared or got out of 90.

Several aspects to tight joints:

1. Accurate marking.
2. Accurate sawing.
3. Accurate chiseling

I repeated the word “accurate” because this = practice so don’t beat yourself up about it. I recommend keeping some stock prepped to the same dimensions as your project. Spend some time practicing the exact joints you will be doing. Its kind of like a pitcher warming up or a player taking batting practice before the game. Be patient, be confident, and allow yourself to be human.


4. Can’t overemphasize ”Sneak up on it”.
5. Paring blocks are a helpful aid to keep everything 90. You said your chisels are sharp, but are the backs flat? You will find out quickly how crucial this is when you use a paring block.
6. Chiselling technique. Holding chisels by the bottom + having good lighting.

The rest is mental. Many a time I put of joinery because something just didn’t “feel right”. Can’t explain it, but I know what days I shouldn’t be doing joinery LOL and clean up the shop instead.

I would get a decent set of chisels, review the sharpening, watch some videos, put on your favorite music, and get some practice boards.

Hope this helps.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View Kirk650's profile


680 posts in 1667 days

#4 posted 06-09-2016 01:16 PM

Yes, rwe2156 is so right. And what he said about putting off some joinery when “it doesn’t feel right” works for me too. I have to be in the right mood to go slow and careful.

And yes, get some good chisels and get them real sharp.

View johnstoneb's profile


3163 posts in 3091 days

#5 posted 06-09-2016 01:34 PM

The chisels you have will work fine. They just won’t hold an edge as long as some of the “better” chisels. You will just have to sharpen more often and get a good strop, running an edge against a strop will renew the edge and extend time between sharpening. practice, practice, practice and sneak up on the fit.

-- Bruce, Boise, ID

View JBrow's profile


1368 posts in 1839 days

#6 posted 06-09-2016 02:05 PM


I agree with what has already been said with a few more thoughts.

If you have not already done so when you first got the Craftsman chisels, I suggest flattening their backs. Not only will the flat back of a chisel help arrive at a sharp cutting edge, but it also can result in a better referencing surface that can help produce truer cuts.

I believe that pushing the chisel through a cut allows for better control than tapping the chisel with a mallet. Light cuts are needed when pushing the chisel. Using the weight of the upper body to add some additional force to the downward thrusts can be useful. However some loss of control of the path of the chisel is possible; less likely with more care and experience. Occasionally I rock the chisel back and forth slightly side-ways while at the same time keeping the back of the chisel pressed against a flat reference surface while applying driving pressure. I only rock the chisel once I am into the cut. I push the chisel straight-way at the beginning of the cut.

I find a narrower chisel gives me better control since less material is being removed and thus less force is required to drive the chisel. The less force needed to drive the chisel, the more likely the cut will be accurate. The chisels I most often use are the ½” and ¾” wide chisels. I find that I have a good balance of the force required to drive the chisel and accuracy.

The beveled edge of the chisel can drive the chisel off the cut line if the cut is too deep and too much wood exists on the bevel side. This is one reason a pairing cut can produce better results; the absence a too much wood on the bevel side. When unavoidable, shallow stab cuts followed by removing material in front of the bevel can help keep the chisel running true. If a lot of material must be removed, as in the through mortises on your project, the easiest approach (probably what you did) is remove most of the material at the drill press. But if using only the chisel, keeping well away from the defining marks of the mortise until the rough chisel work is done can leave a series of paring cuts that can take you accurately to the mortise marks.

The chisel is one of the simplest tools in the workshop. A new set of chisels may offer steel that holds an edge longer (and take longer to sharpen) and may be more comfortable in the hand. But I doubt that a new set will help with accuracy in joinery. I just do not see how a new set will improve one’s work without good technique. However, if I did a lot of hand work requiring chisels, I would consider getting a high end set of chisels. Since I only do occasional chisel work, I keep using my Craftsman chisels.

View pintodeluxe's profile


6237 posts in 3732 days

#7 posted 06-09-2016 03:58 PM

With the through mortises, you can leave the tenons a bit oversized and shave them down until they fit with a shoulder plane or sanding block.

You still have to make 4 independent cuts that are straight and square, which can be a challenge. I switched to a hollow chisel mortiser for just that reason, but kudos to you on advancing your hand tool skills.

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View diverlloyd's profile


4029 posts in 2776 days

#8 posted 06-09-2016 05:32 PM

it looks like you chiseled on your lines. you should chisel on the scrap side of your line about 1/32 away from your actual line, if you scribbed a line or penciled it. if you penciled it you need to leave the line. a pencil line if you cut it will be gapped twice the line thickness. so stay away from the line.chisels can for a lack of a better term(migraine so i cant think very well) smoosch the line if chiseled on it and force the chisel on the good side of the line. and chisel from you face side of the board. i always leave my line and then finish it at the fitting stage. if you do any mahogany this will help out a lot it likes to chip and crack. hand tools are a blast to use and will help you with making you machinery work more accruate.

View trevor7428's profile


266 posts in 1880 days

#9 posted 06-15-2016 10:59 PM

Thanks everyone for the great advise. If I did purchase a new set of chisels, anyone have any recommendations? Is a set of mortising chisels best. Especially because that’s what I would be doing most with them (or I believe I would)

Also, to me sharpening is suck a pain in the you know what. What is the best to use? A diamond stone, if so what grit and how many different grits do I need. Or are water stones best? Currently all I have are $10 harbor freight pieces of crap lol

-- Thank You Trevor OBrion

View TheFridge's profile


10861 posts in 2405 days

#10 posted 06-15-2016 11:26 PM

I think. You just opened a can of worms.

For bevel edge chisels.
Vintage are nice if you have the time to work on them or the money to buy them ready to go.

Narex are a great value. I’ve heard good things about the new Stanley sweethearts. I have lie nielsens and they expensive but worth every penny if you have the money.

Mortising chisels
Tried the narex and they were ok. Worth the money. I imagine LNs are worth the price but I’ve heard from many that the Ashley iles are amazing.

I use paper on granite. If I had an extra 2-3 hundred bucks floating around I’d get the Shapton professional stones

Edit: strop is a must for me.

-- Shooting down the walls of heartache. Bang bang. I am. The warrior.

View Kirk650's profile


680 posts in 1667 days

#11 posted 06-15-2016 11:26 PM

I have bevel edge/dovetail chisels (Lie Nielson) and a random assortment of others (Crown, Pfiel, Irwin) and one 3/8 mortise chisel (the size I use most). I started with the Irwin/Marples, with Sheffield steel) and they have been Ok, not great. I suppose for value for the dollar, the Irwin/Marples with the Sheffield steel are a good place to start. Some like Narex, but I’ve not used them. The Pfiel chisels have held an edge well, and their price is reasonable. Google up the Fine Woodworking comparison test on chisels. That’s a really good read and is worth your time.

As for sharpening, I now use Duo-Sharp diamond stones and a leather strop with jeweler’s rouge on it. Quick, easy, fast cleanup, never need flattening. I’m into fast and sharp, whereas some folks seem to be more into a semi-religious experience with Japanese water stones. And oil stones, to me, are too slow and not worth the effort. No offense intended regarding the water stones.

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