Hand tools for a cabinet maker part II – Rowden Atelier

Hand tools for a cabinet maker part II

This month we will be looking at chisels and marking and measuring tools. A few years ago now for another magazine, I did a test of all of the brands of chisels available in the cabinet makers bevel-edged pattern. The objective was to find the best-branded chisel for apprentice cabinet makers. In doing this, I found out that although chisels vary enormously in the quality of their grinding, the shape and the quality of the handles. However, most of the manufactures are using a very similar grade of steel, so the edge holding capacity of certainly European made chisels were very similar. What we did learn at this time was that if you move away from the European kind of chisel to the Japanese chisel, it was possible to gain an edge holding capacity that would outlast the European chisel by 4 or 5 times. The disadvantage of going to Japanese is that they are made from slightly more brittle steel, but if one is careful in the way one uses them this wouldn’t seem to be a too significant a disadvantage. However, a slightly more serious drawback is the fact that re-sharpening a Japanese chisel takes a good deal longer than sharpening a European one. This is because the edge was made from much harder steel and requires much greater care in sharpening.

So you pays your money, and you takes your choice. If you get a European type pattern chisel, you may well be sharpening the edge 4 or 5 times more frequently than the owner of a Japanese pattern chisel. Still, sharpening tools shouldn’t be a big deal; it should be something that should be accomplished as a natural part of the rhythm of working. You work paring away at that tough bit of Maple for 15 – 20 – 25 minutes then your concentration goes, and the natural way to restore it is a gentle walk down to the sharpening bench – strop, strop one side and strop, strop the other side, change stones, strop one side and strop, strop the other, and you’re back again to work. Sharpening is good for you.


You are going to need a set of chisels that go down less than 1/8 th inch to approximately 11/2 inches. Especially in the small sizes, you are going to need all of the chisels in as many variations in width as you can get. This is because one chisel may not fit in that dovetail opening while another one will. This can be best achieved by buying one set of chisels in say imperial measure (fractions of an inch) and then buying chisels that fill in the sizes between these in metric measurement. Look at the way the chisel is ground. One of the features of the chisel is the way the back of the chisel is bevelled or cut back to lighten the blade. This really should go right down as close as possible to the flat back of the chisel. Imagine the difficulty of paring into a dovetail socket with a chisel that didn’t do this (and many of them don’t, with many chisels the bevelling is just a decorative effect rather than a useful property). Look also at the way the handle is fixed on to the blade and look at the size of handles. Many manufacturers these days are fitting one size of handle onto both small and large blades making the tools unbalanced and unwieldy. My personal preference is for wooden handle chisels that are not covered with a slippery plastic lacquer—coming down to specific recommendations. I think of the Europeans pattern chisel I would recommend the Sorby 167 series. These are available from 1/8th inch up to 1 1/2 inches and cost between £18.82 for the smallest up to £25.74 for the largest. Of the Japanese, I would recommend the “Umeki-Nomi.” These are very well bevelled chisels they are often called dovetail chisels well made without being too expensive and available in 3mm, 6 mm, 9mm and 12 mm. Axminster power tools stock these at prices from £26 these chisels like most Japanese chisels have hollows ground into the flat backs to help with the fettling or preparation process.

Paring chisels are usually ground at a slightly finer angle and never used with a mallet. I have a pair of very beautiful Japanese paring chisels, one of 25 mm in width and a second of 35 mm width. These are extremely beautifully well-balanced tools with long red oak handles, but sadly I can’t find a supplier in the UK who can provide similar chisels for my students. Still, I think they are available from the Garrett Wade catalogue. I hesitate to recommend a European pattern paring chisel because it takes too long to flatten the backs of a wide, long chisel. This is where the Japanese pattern with the hollow back scores so strongly. Sharpening your chisels, you’ll need a Japanese waterstone. “King” make an excellent 1200 grit stone at about £10.50 and I would also recommend buying a “King” finishing stone of 6000 grit. This will cost you £17.20. You can get a finer 8000 grit stone, but I don’t think I would recommend this.


Now I will move on to marking and measuring tools. These are essential bits of equipment. First, let’s look at rules. This isn’t an imperial measure workshop, and we are going to ask you to convert from feet and inches and start thinking in millimetres. Once you get used to it, you’ll find it a much easier way of measuring out jobs. Buy rules with clear measurements that are engraved into the surface of the rule. There are lots of rules with metric and imperial measurements, but the best rule we’ve found is in metric only, and it is produced by Stanley and is their metric 47R Range. These rules are available in 150 mm, 300 mm, 600 mm, and 1 metre and range in price between £4.04p and £23.01p. Please try to avoid cheap rules and avoid those rules that have metric and imperial and half millimetre graduations. These rules tend to confuse. I would think to start with I would buy a 1 metre, a 300 mm and a 150 mm and later get a 600 mm. Measuring tapes are also useful for rough measuring out on boards, and as long as it’s reasonably accurate, any tape will do the job.

For marking knives we have taken to using Swann Morton Scalpels – there are several different kinds of handles, and the blades are easily replaceable. This is after years of using specialist marking knives with the bevel on one side. Perhaps it’s my eyesight failing, but I find the scalpel gives a cleaner crisper line to work to. You’ll need probably two marking gauges and two cutting gauges. “Crown” make quite nice small gauges and the Joseph Marples No.2 gauge is a well made simple gauge. One of the nicest gauges is the Veritas wheel marking gauge. This is quite a costly item at £15.08p, and I probably wouldn’t spend that kind of money myself, but it does look a very nice tool. If you didn’t want to buy the Veritas, I might go for the Axminster Superior Marking Gauge at £8.64 made in Rosewood with brass fittings.

For mortice gauges, you do need to spend over £20 to buy a precision piece of equipment usually in Rosewood with brass fittings. You may find a good one second-hand but if you don’t then look at the Crown 154 Mortice Gauge at £21 or the Axminster Power Tools Superior Mortice Gauge at £28.55.


Along with gauges, rules, and marking out, you need two engineers squares. I recommend all metal engineers square because there are a large number of wooden-handled tri-squares around that are just not quite accurate enough for cabinet making. You are going be needing a degree of accuracy in your marking out that will not be achievable if you have a traitorous little instrument like a square that wasn’t quite square in your tool kit. Go for high-quality engineers square with BS939 engraved on the body of the square. This will guarantee that it’s been checked to a level of accuracy that you require. If you can check the square in the tool shop before you buy it against a higher grade of engineers square called an “inspectors grade square” or against a surface plate with a bottle gauge fitted on it. If the shop doesn’t have these instruments for testing your squares, they shouldn’t be selling the squares, go somewhere else. I would suggest that you buy a small 3-inch square which will cost about £17 and a larger 6-inch square which will cost about £21. You can if you are feeling very wealthy, go for a 9-inch square rather than a 6-inch square, but that will cost you £45 or so. Another tool you are going to require is a bevelled straight edge. This is a piece of steel usually between 800 mm and 1000 mm in length used for cutting veneers and checking the flatness of timber and tools. It’s an important piece of equipment, and you should buy the very best one you can afford. We’ve seen some bevelled straight edges coming from Axminster Power Tools that have been relatively inexpensive of between £15-£18. Still, the straightness has been rather dubious, and we have had to have one edge re-machined by our local engineer. Checking and re-machining this tool could become an annual event unless you spend considerably more money and buy an engineers quality straight edge in the first place. That is if you can find one. My only source at the moment is the Garrett Wade catalogue.

You will need two sets of drill bits one set to cover the entire range of holes to be drilled from 1mm to 13mm. This is usually in a boxed set of “Jobbers” type and is available in increments of 0.2mm. I think that to start, I would be content with 0.5mm size increments. The other type of drills to get is a set of the lip and spur pattern bits which are good at cutting clean, accurate holes.

Written by our founder, David Savage. Originally published as An apprentice cabinet makers tool kit in Good Woodworking Magazine / 2001