What, exactly, is a register chisel?

Ask ten woodworkers to explain what they mean when they use the term register chisel and you’re apt to get ten different answers.  Some people will refer to them as “registered” chisels, indicating that the tools have been placed on a list hosted by some higher authority.  Others might tell you that the tool was manufactured under the terms of a Royal Patent.  As Churchill said, it’s rather “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Among the many meanings of the word register, Webster gives these for our consideration:

  • to make or adjust so as to correspond exactly,
  • to be in correct alignment, or register 

Many craftsmen of the bygone era (including carpenters, millwrights and machinists) would use the word register to indicate a surface that must mate exactly with another or one to be used as a reference datum for measurement.

Register chisels have these characteristics;  square sided, thickly made and only slightly tapered (is at all) in section, hooped, ferruled (typically with a shock washer),


the handle is parallel to the back and the back is flat.


The flat back is very specific to a register chisel.  It allows for heavy (minimal clearance angle) cutting on a “register” i.e. cleaning up mortise cheeks after boring or a gain.  Large surfaces which require flattening, i.e. bridles and laps can be accomplished with socket firmers or slicks.  These tools do not (typically) have flat backs and handles are set above the tool’s center axis.  Socket firmers are either “lightly” driven with a mallet or pushed for paring.  Slicks are only pushed.



While a flat back would seem to be the norm, most tools warp during the hardening and tempering process.  For most chisels, a slight warp (in the right direction) isn’t a problem.  However, grinding or some other method of straightening is required to insure a perfectly flat back, as on a register chisel.

So this is the explanation that was given to me nearly sixty years ago.  I’m going to stick with it unless or until someone gives me a better one.





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3 Comments on “What, exactly, is a register chisel?”

  1. Les Elsie Says:

    And all this time I thought a register chisel was something crooks used.

  2. Y Saer Says:

    I don’t know what Churchill knew about carpenters’ tools – I think that he was better renowned as a bricklayer.

    However, there is an description of ‘Registered Chisels’ in R A Salaman’s ‘Dictionary of Woodworking Tools’.

    Currently the term ‘regiastered’ (in the UK, at least) has come to mean a substantial framer’s chisel that has an iron ferule at the end of the handle and may be struck with an iron hammer.

  3. Les Elsie Says:

    A related question I had at one time was what is the difference between a registered chisel and a firmer chisel. They both looked alike and had shared characteristics primarily that of square edges as opposed to the beveled edges of a bench chisel. The conclusion I came to is that a firmer chisel is a lighter version of a registered chisel. It has a thinner blade and the handle is not hooped as it normally is on a registered chisel. Evidently, if you’re going to give it a whack a registered chisel is the tool of choice. Primarily hand powered with occasional light pounding a firmer is adequate.I also came to the conclusiojn that they were frequently sold as one another. If the client asked for a firmer and the store carried registered chisels you can guess what he bought which may have led to some confusion between the two chisels.

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