You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led.Stan Laurel
In previous articles in this series about hammers to use with our chisels, your humble servant discussed the varieties of suitable hammers, the appropriate faces on those hammers, and recommended some weight ranges. In this article I will examine some important hammer and chisel techniques Beloved Customer should consider to make your chisel work more efficient and help your chisels last longer.
The Chisel Wiggle
Something to keep in mind about our chisels when beating on them is that their cutting edges are intentionally and carefully hand-forged and heat treated by experienced blacksmiths (none with less than 40 years independent experience) to be especially hard to meet the demands of professional craftsmen for the extra sharpness and cutting longevity only hard, fine-grained steel makes possible. They are not the sharpened Chinese screwdrivers sold by the big corporations that amateurs are accustomed to using nowadays.
To maximize the advantage such excellent steel affords, Beloved Customer must avoid driving the chisel so deeply into the wood when cutting mortises, for example, that the extreme cutting edge binds in the wood forcing the user to wiggle the chisel forward and back to loosen and extract it from the cut. I call this undignified movement the “chisel wiggle.”
Your humble servant realizes this is contrary to what many woodworking gurus teach, but I unabashedly assert that it is irresponsible behavior in the case of our professional-grade tools because binding the blade in the wood this way creates what I call a “high pressure cut” situation, placing a tremendous amount of clamping force on the thin metal at the extreme cutting edge. Doing the “chisel wiggle” in this situation will damage the cutting edge dulling it quickly. If you doubt this, please dig out your hand-dandy loupe and do a before-after comparison.
In addition, the time lost extracting the wedged-in-place chisel and the resulting interruption in the workflow caused by repositioning one’s hands, and perhaps even setting aside the hammer (egads!) while doing the chisel wiggle, makes it impossible to maintain an efficient cutting rhythm. If you doubt this, we double-dog dare you to do timed comparative tests. The difference in efficiency will become instantly clear.
People accustomed to using Western chisels with their softer, plasticy blades made from high-alloy high-scrap metal content steel with higgledy piggledy crystalline structure are actively taught to use the chisel like a crowbar to lever waste out of cuts. This is another type of “high-pressure cut” that damages the tool’s cutting edge at the microscopic level.
The mass-produced screwdrivers sold as chisels in the West nowadays are tough but relatively soft, can’t be made that sharp to begin with, and they dull significantly during the first few hammer strikes anyway, so most people can’t detect the edge degradation the chisel wiggle and prying create. Those who are satisfied with sharpened screwdrivers don’t buy our chisels so I have no advice for those poor benighted souls, only prayers: Namu Amida Butsu. But it is of little matter: they seldom have the sharpening and tool skills required to tell the difference anyway. Horse, meet water; Ah… not thirsty I see.
The Chisel Cha-Cha
Now that we have explained what not to do, let us examine what we should do instead.
Here is wisdom: A more efficient, more craftsman-like way to remove waste when cutting a joint is to stop striking the chisel with hammer during each cut just before the chisel binds, or just before waste clogs the joint, and then, without changing your grip on its handle, or losing a beat in your cutting rhythm, flick your wrist forwards or backwards so the chisel blade flips the waste out of the joint you are cutting. And Voila! No time lost extracting a stuck blade or setting down and picking up your hammer; and no repositioning your grip on the chisel. And the cutting work can continue uninterrupted without the wasted time and effort of extracting a bound chisel thereby damaging the cutting edge.
It’s very much a crisp dance step performed by hammer and chisel with a rhythm something like: “chop, chop, flick, (reposition chisel for next cut)… chop, chop, flick, (reposition chisel for next cut) … chop chop flick.” With each “flick” bits of cleanly cut wood fly out of the joint. I call this series of movements the “ chisel cha cha.”
Next let’s examine the nexus between hammer weight and avoiding the dreaded chisel wiggle.
The Dance of the Hammer and the Chisel
As mentioned above, the way to avoid the chisel wiggle and instead dance the more graceful chisel cha-cha is to avoid banging the chisel into the cut too deeply/tightly. You need to stop hammering just before the blade binds in the cut, precisely controlling the depth to which your hammer drives your chisel, stopping just before the blade binds. Easy to say but difficult to accomplish if the hammer is too heavy. On the other hand, too light a hammer is also inefficient. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all-situations hammer weight.
A well-balanced, stable hammer with a handle that fits your hand/arm, and of a controllable weight makes it easier to develop and maintain this precise, unconscious control. Lots of factors are involved but the weight of the hammer/chisel combination is the most important one of the bunch.
How to determine the best weight? Of necessity it varies with the work, tool, material and the nut holding the hammer so trial and error is the only practical solution. But generally, a hammer that feels a bit on the light side is best. And a good handle makes a world of difference. More on that in future posts, so stay tuned.
The following summarizes the points you should take away from this series of articles so far.
- Select a hammer weight that balances well with the width and weight of the chisel, the hardness of the wood you are cutting, your body, and the type of cuts you are making.
- The hammer should not be so heavy that you cannot precisely control the chisel’s depth of cut while maintaining an efficient cutting rhythm close to the natural frequency of the hand/arm/hammer assembly;
- Don’t drive the chisel so deeply into the wood that it binds forcing you to wiggle the chisel, or heaven forfend, set down your hammer to extract it;
- Use your sharp chisel for cutting wood, not like a screwdriver or crowbar for prying out waste. Instead, use your sharp blade to cut the waste loose and then remove it from the joint by flicking your wrist without stopping, disrupting your cutting rhythm, or setting down your hammer.
There is nothing to stop you and your hammer and chisel from performing as a precise and graceful, but oh so violent, dance team, so enjoy!
In the next installment in this tale of bold hammers and graceful chisels we will examine in more detail the rhythmical motions involved in doing chisel-work efficiently and the role of the hammer in that dance. Sorry, no champagne or pretty girls but there just might be a song or two. Until then, I have the honor to remain,
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