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Ian Kirby Woodworking Design: Hand Cutting Mortises with Chisel and Mallet
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Mallet and chisel A classic technique, master woodworker Ian Kirby still enjoys making mortise joints with a mallet and chisel.

A mortising chisel basically does one job, but it does it exceedingly well. While there are many ways to chop a mortise employing a variety of different machine tools, mortising by hand feels like “real” woodworking.

Marking up joint Before making any cuts, mark-up and check your joints carefully and make the cuts along those lines.

The first step in this process is accurately marking up the joint. Use a mortising gauge for this task to set both the mortise width and position. To set the depth of your mortise, simply place a piece of blue masking tape on the chisel back.

Setting mortising chisel Before setting up for your first cut, use both hands to firmly set the chisel on the blank.

Position the chisel with two hands, then firmly tap the chisel with a joiner’s mallet to set the edge into the stock.

Now you have a decision to make. Do you chop to the full depth of your mortise in one process, or cut the mortise in “layers”? We’ll describe the layered process here. The layered approach will take five chisel cuts before you remove the first waste:

Making cuts with chisel Start making your cuts with the chisel and mallet, setting the cuts about 3/16" apart, to make the four cuts.

Cut 1: Set the chisel about 3/16" from the far end of the mortise. Tap the chisel lightly to set it — then hit it hard. It will take a few blows to drive it in to the first level.

Cut 2: Move the chisel about 3/16" towards you, set the chisel, and then give it three hard smacks. It will go a bit deeper than your last effort because of the space created by your first cut.

Cut 3: Again move the chisel about 3/16" toward you. Set and smack it three more times. You will drive it a bit deeper than for Cut 2.

Cut 4: Reposition the chisel as before, set and drive it to the same depth as in Cut 3.

Clearing the mortise waste Moving back 3/16" away from your last cut, drive the chisel through to finish the cut and clear out the waste.

Cut 5: Now position the chisel, back face away from you, 3/16" away from your last cut. Drive the chisel in, lay the mallet down and lever the chisel handle toward you. Take care to keep it aligned with the mortise sides. Then scoop out the waste.

To remove the second layer, go ahead and repeat the five cutting steps again.

Checking with square Once you've made all your mortising cuts, use a square to check the gaps and make sure the cut is square.

Once the bulk of the waste is removed, square the ends of the mortise by placing the chisel on the marked line, with the chisel’s back face to the end you are cutting. Align your chisel against a square, then drive it down cleanly. NOTE: you will not get a flat-bottomed mortise chopping by hand. Make sure the depth is sufficient across the whole of the mortise. You’ve now completed your mortise.

posted on December 1, 2010 by Ian Kirby
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One thought on “Ian Kirby Woodworking Design: Hand Cutting Mortises with Chisel and Mallet ”

  • Jim Childress

    Ian Kirby's posting has helped me to learn the correct way
    to cut a mortise with the hand chisels and mallet I purchased
    today 9-9-2015. Be sure to thank him for me.

    Yours in woodworking,
    Jim Childress

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