18th Century Chisel Handles

I prefer proper tanged firmer chisels for my work. These are traditional cabinetmakers chisels, not the much-vaunted bevel edge socket chisels which are so prevalent today. To substantiate this claim, one only need look at the Seaton Chest or the Plumley inventory, both of which show large numbers of firmer chisels in common sizes needed by this type of craftsman. Heavier, stronger socket chisels are there too, but in sizes larger than commonly needed by cabinetmakers or joiners. And contrary to popular belief, you can cut fine dovetails with firmer chisels...

My goal here is to document how I make handles for tanged chisels. This came up on my Facebook page and I was asked to document my process, which you will find below.

The wood for this set of Butcher firmers is hard maple. Traditionally, this probably would have been beech, but the only beech I have on hand is some primo 12/4 for plane making and I didn't want to cut any up for this small job.

The block in this case is 4 1/2" long and is just over 1" square. For my chisels, I like to make a handle that is twice as big at the top as the diameter of the bolster. When combined with a 4 1/2" length, this gives a pleasing and consistent taper across the entire set.

I drill the hole in the block in the exact center. I typically do this using a small hand-held gimlet, as this enables me to ensure the hole is straight down the length of the block. How you may ask? I simply start the gimlet, then I spin the gimlet while holding the gimlet's shaft. By carefully watching the rotation of the block, I can see if the hole is veering to one side or the other and can make course corrections. If this isn't clear, I can get more pics of this.

I then simply use that smaller hole as a pilot hole for successively larger brace-mounted gimlets and shell bits, although in this case my small gimlet was approximately the right size for the last 3/8" of the tang.

The orientation of the bolster is the key to this method. I want the square sides of the bolster to align with the flats of the handle blank because the chisel itself should align with the bolster, as you can see in the above photo (the perspective makes it look a little funny, but it is straight). Sometimes the chisel wants to twist as you drive it on, so stop often and check your progress.

With the handle driven all the way on, it is time to taper the blank. Because I want the end of the handle that is closest to the blade to be the same size as the bolster, I simply carry up the bolster size with a pencil.

 After that, I connect the pencil lines with the butt end of the handle blank. This is the line that I will cut to by chopping close to the line with a chisel, then planing to the line (in this case with my highly anachronistic Wood River #3 and LN small block... they were handy and sharp and my normally used wooden strike block plane was not courtesy of a hidden nail...).

 One side done. I typically leave the side that aligns with the broad face of the chisel just a smidge wider than the other side, as this makes chisel orientation easy to determine without even looking.

 Remember that the chisel tapers on all four sides, meaning that you will have to lay out and cut tapers on the adjacent sides as well. Basically, do these operations once, rotate the chisel 90 degrees, then do them again.

This will leave you with a square handle that tapers on all four sides. Now, the bevels must be cut. I simply take a pencil, lock it against my pointer finger at a pleasing distance, then run the finger like a fence along the tapered faces. You will make eight lines this way. What I do is make four lines with the chisel edge facing me, then flip the chisel so the chisel edge faces away without putting down the pencil or changing the "setting". This enables you to make all the lines easily.

After you have the lines, it is a simple matter to either pare them down with a chisel, cut them with a plane, or perhaps even rasp them down. I typically prefer to pare them with a chisel then finish with a small plane.

This will leave you with an octagonal shape at the striking end. On virtually every period example I have seen, this end is beveled and then rounded off. This is probably done to prevent the handle from splitting. Using the same "finger gauge" yet again, I draw on a line about 3/8" or 1/2" from the end, using the end itself as the reference for the finger. It is then a simple matter of beveling this off with the rasp, as you can see in the picture below.

 Once the bevels are done, I typically round them over a bit with the rasp to make the finished product look a little less square. At this point, I will also address any wonkiness with the bevels, tear out, splinters, etc. with the rasp. I leave the rasp marks on the chisel, which is 100% consistent with period examples, where looks took a back seat to comfort, functionality and expediency. Even Ben Seaton's chisels show rasp and file marks on the handles, and we all know how carefully he built his tool chest. It simply doesn't matter in most cases.

In the above picture, the woodwork is finished. All that is left is some shellac, some wax, and this chisel will join the roll of Butchers that I use on a daily basis.


  1. If you ever want to get your hands on some nice quartersawn beech for making your chisel handles, just keep an eye out for Stanley transitional planes - especially broken ones that are priced appropriately (i.e. cheap). There would be enough clear wood in a transitional jointer for at least six of your chisel handles - possibly eight.

    Just a thought. ;)

  2. That is not a bad idea. I hate cutting up old tools in general, and I have a soft spot for transitionals (my first-ever plane was a transitional Union jack plane), but sometimes they can be given a new life that way. I've done this with busted-up old wooden planes, usually to get good beech to make a mouth patch for another plane.

  3. Yes please add a picture about that gimlet spinning. I have not the foggiest idea what you are writing about.

  4. Kees, I'll do a followup post. Basically, if the hole isn't straight in the block, the block will appear to wobble around when you spin it around holding the gimlet.

  5. Great post Zach. Do you use the same handle dimensions for all your chisels or do you size them according to chisel width? I picked up a 2" wide Butcher with a handle that looks like someone couldn't find a mallet so they used the business end of a hatchet.

  6. Thanks Bill! I wish I had that 2" Butcher! It's the one size I need to complete my set, but seems to be quite rare.

    I address the differing sizes by utilizing the size of the bolster to dictate handle size. I make the handle blank twice as big as the bolster and the bolster varies according to the blade size. So, on this chisel I was working on, the bolster is just about 1/2" wide, so the handle is a little bigger than 1" square. On my larger Butchers, some have up to a 3/4" bolster, which dictates a little over 1 1/2" in my system. I try to make all of them about 4 1/2" long as that has turned out to be the most comfortable for me.

  7. Ewww .. thanks! I've got a carving chisel .. or two .. that need a handle.

  8. Thanks for this post, I have some mortise chisels that need handles. How do you determine the size of the hole to drill for the tang?

    1. Hi Alexander,

      Honestly, I just grab my tool roll full of bits and just start comparing them to the tang sections. I start with a gimlet bit of approximately the smallest size of the tang, then go up from there. I like to drill the holes so that they are about 75 or 80% the diameter of the tang. This gives the tang plenty of wood to bite into. You will probably split a blank or two at first until you get the hang of it, which is a big benefit to shaping the handle after installation rather than before.

    2. Thanks for the reply. So you do the same size bore all the way down then?

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