Chisels and Timbers

No, I’m not making a miniature dugout canoe or a wooden gutter, but it kind of looks like it. This is the most extensive rafter repair we have to do for the House by Hand project, and I’ve been excavating the rot pocket out and creating a space to graft in a nominal 4x4 with epoxy. This will allow the faces of the rafter (which will be visible in the final construction) to retain their patina as well as strengthening the whole thing significantly. We’re confident about this type of repair because the roof system will be two layers – another insulative "skin" will be framed atop this one. But more on that in the months ahead. (We're posting regular updates on the project over at the Daily Dispatch.)

As anyone who has done timber framing knows, big chisels are absolutely vital for this work. Back in 2017, when Luke Larson and the crew from Green Mountain Timber Frames trucked our shop building from Vermont, I brought out my bench chisels to help cut some joinery but immediately noticed how positively dainty they seemed compared to the other carpenters’ tools. I tucked them sheepishly back into their canvas roll, hoping no one noticed. The scale of the timber dictates the scale of the tools: I needed some bigger chisels. 

And I found a few good ones. Old tools are often the best way to go, as you know if you've checked out our recently produced course on restoring and using heritage tools. My favorite is this gnarly W. Beatty & Sons 1-1/4" firmer chisel that seems to hold an edge no matter what. I’ve blasted through old knots and a couple accidental nails without issue. The oak handle looked like it would need replacement when I bought it, but it’s held up just fine.

Another chisel that needed a little TLC was this 1-1/2" bevel-edge, unstamped except for an owner’s initials: “EJH.” I found it in a bucket of metal parts. When I first attempted to put an edge on it, I realized that the steel was soft – very soft. Unusably soft. The edge would roll as soon as I got into anything tougher than clear pine. My guess was that it had been in a fire which destroyed the temper. I re-tempered the chisel (in a toaster oven) and drove a timber-frame oak peg in the socket as a handle.

The most majestic chisel around here is this beautiful ebony-handled 3" framing slick that a very generous friend sent our way. You can’t beat this tool for paring and slicing long scarf joints. Simply hefting it makes one feel important. As I've noted before, it’s an elegant tool for a more civilized age.


Would you like email notifications of our daily blog posts? Sign up below...