No matter how much (or little) money you have, if you are clever enough you can score an exquisite chisel for about $1.
I was reminded this week when I picked up some items on eBay and had to take a few extra unwanted items in the lot, including three plastic-handled chisels. Two of them were Craftsman chisels that were dead ringers for my grandfather’s 1970s-era tools.
The third was a Stanley 1-1/4”-wide 720 chisel with a translucent yellow handle and steel striking button on its end. Normally chisels like this wouldn’t warrant a second look in a flea market box. But if you take a close look at these 720s, you could end up with an excellent worker.
The trick is to know what’s important and what’s not. Here’s my short list of the key features:
1. The handle has to be comfortable for paring or chopping. The 720 passes this test with flying colors. Its vague Coke-bottle-shaped grip falls right into your fingers in both positions. In fact, when gripping it for chopping, the chisel is comfortable only when your index finger is out of the way of the striking button. The only disadvantage of the 720’s handle is that it gets a little slippery when your hands get sweaty.
2. The chisel has to be balanced when you grip the tip of the blade like a pencil (this is the grip for holding the tool for positioning it for light chopping). The 720 is a tad top-heavy for this operation. It’s not unusable, but it’s not perfect.
3. The steel should be easy to sharpen and keep a decent edge. Chisels that are too hard take too long to hone. The 720s are good steel. I bought a couple of these early on in the craft and have also sharpened those belonging to students. They’re good steel.
4. The long edges should be narrow. Very narrow. This is where most mid-priced chisels fail. The narrow side-bevels allow you to sneak into the acute corners of the tail portion of dovetail joints. The 720s are generally very good about this. The one I just bough has side bevels smaller than 1/16”. Nice.
Oh, and there’s one more important characteristic: The chisel has to be fairly rust-free (especially on the unbeveled face side). This particular example is a miserable failure as it probably spent a few years in the bottom of a chum bucket. I cleaned the scaling off with a Klingspor Sandflex block and took a look. Craters everywhere.
Oh well, what do you want for $1?
— Christopher Schwarz