By Joseph A. McGeough
The remote origin of the chisel may lie with the stone hand axe, the almond-shaped tool that was sharp at one end. Although long rectangular chisel-shaped flints appeared about 8000 BCE, the later Neolithic Period evinced a version that was finished by grinding. With care, flint and obsidian chisels can be used on soft stone, as shown by intricate sculptures in pre-Columbian South and Central America. Gouges—i.e., chisels with concave instead of flat sections, able to scoop hollows or form holes with curved instead of flat walls—were also used during this period. Chisels and gouges of very hard stone were used to rough out both the exteriors and interiors of bowls of softer stone such as alabaster, gypsum, soapstone, and volcanic rock. The final finish was produced by abrasion and polishing.
The earliest copper chisels were long, in the manner of their flint forebears. Such so-called solid chisels of copper (and later of bronze) were used not only for working wood but soft rock as well, as many magnificent Egyptian monuments of limestone and sandstone testify.
By using bronze, a better casting metal than copper, and moulds, it was possible to economize on metal by hafting a short chisel to a wooden handle. This also resulted in less damage to the mallet. The round handle was either impaled on a tang with a cast-on stop (tanged) or set into a socket (socketed); both forms of hafting presaged modern forms. The Egyptians used the chisel and club like mallet with great skill and imagination to make joints in the construction of small drawers, panelled boxes, furniture, caskets, and chests.
The use of iron meant that tools had to be forged; no longer were the flowing lines and easily made cavities of casting available to the toolmaker. Consequently, early iron chisels were rude and solid. Tanged chisels were easier to make than socketed chisels, for which the socket had to be bent from a T-shaped forging. Hardened steel edges (first developed by accident) were created by repeatedly placing the iron in contact with carbon from the charcoal of the forge fire.
Chisels and gouges were made in great variety in later centuries as generally increasing wealth created a demand for more decoration and luxury in both religious and secular trappings and furniture. The rough and heavy tools of the carpenter were refined into more delicate models suited to woodcarvers, to joiners who did wall panelling and made stairs, doors, and windows, and to cabinetmakers. In the 18th century a woodcarver’s kit may have contained more than 70 chisels and gouges.