The Chisel and the Importance of Quality in Woodworking

[Page last updated May 4, 2020]

The chisel is almost as old as the hammer and over thousands of years has been perfected by gradually improving technology culminating in ca. the last quarter of the nineteenth century. There are a number of contemporary toolsmiths who follow the old methods today as well as the availability of numerous vintage tools of very high quality.

Why is quality so important? After all, a chisel is only a piece of bar steel with an edge honed on one end and a handle on the other. This perception can’t be farther from the truth. A fine chisel is perfected at its’ core by metallurgy, the steel must consistently be hard enough to maintain sharpness over a long period of time and be soft enough to easily be honed when necessary. In addition, a chisel that will see constant use must provide balance and handle design that fits comfortably.

Listed below are some contemporary makers and quality vintage products that could grace your tool chest. This is not an exhaustive list but it is based on the general consensus of high quality.

(As a note of reference, the Rockwell Hardness Test was originally invented in the early 20th century and became standard for most steels rapidly. Very hard steel (e.g. chisels, quality knife blades): HRC 55–66. For chisels, anything over HRC 62 is probably too brittle and very hard to sharpen.)

Framing Chisels – Corner Chisel

Lie-Nielsen – Corner Mortising Chisel

Producing square mortises is exacting work. The Corner Chisel, used after the mortise has been roughed out by hand or with a slot mortiser—which produces round edged mortises—helps square corners easily and precisely.

Made from A2 Tool Steel, hardened to RC 60-62 and ground razor sharp. Beveled at 30º. Comes with Maine-harvested Hornbeam handles. Overall length is approximately 10″.

Click here to view our YouTube video “Quick Tips: Sharpening the Fishtail and Corner Chisels”.

Available in three sizes: 1/4″, 3/8″, and 1/2″.

Framing Chisels

Timbertools.com Fire & Ice Series

We all start out with machine-made chisels, and find out quickly that the edge gives way within a very short time. How pleasant then to discover that Timber Tools Traditional Framing Chisels will go on for hours before you need to touch up the edge with a hone. 15 seconds with a Belgian Blue (Garnet) honing stone and you are good to go again. These chisels will take and hold a superior edge that will last longer, bar none. Forged from modern carbon steel, tapered toward the socket, with a flat back, slight beveled edge and an ergonomically shaped socket handle, they are perfect for mortise and tenon work.

All of these framing chisels follow the design features of early 20th century tools, in their shape and unique socketed handle. But whereas those old tools, until the advent of “silver steel”, were most often of heavy, forge-laminated steel. Timber Tools blacksmiths use modern carbon steel. This allows them to create a sleeker, somewhat lighter, yet tougher tool. According to most users, all of their tools are a delight to hold and work with.

Their handles are turned from well seasoned, dry hard-wood: American hickory from Tennessee, or on request ash, oak, and custom or exotic made to order: cherry, purple-heart, etc.

framing-chisels-Timber-Tools

Timber Tools set of 3 Framing Chisels – $460.00

Framing Chisels – Swansneck Lock Mortice Chisel –

Two Cherries Chisels – Lock mortise chisels, which are sometimes called �swan neck chisels� are used to clean and square up the bottom of blind mortises. This is simply one of those tools that make the job go faster and easier. Most important it helps preserve the cutting edge of your mortise chisels from the scraping action you would otherwise have to do. This is also the tool that you would use for carefully clearing deep, narrow, recesses when setting locks and other hardware into furniture (hence the name). The tool is built strong to take a lot of abuse. Overall length about 12″-15″., Made in Germany.

3cherries-swansneck-mortise-chisel

Two Cherries Lock Mortice Chisel

 

Marples-swansneck-chisel

Marples Swansneck Lock Mortise Chisel

Falcon-wood – Swansneck Chisel (Marples) – English pattern – $88.00

Framing Chisels – Pigsticker Mortise Chisel

The last time anyone offered a real English-style mortise chisels was in the early 1960’s. The real thing has been elusive for awhile. Ray Iles has nailed down the essential features of the tool. His chisel is mostly indestructible. It’s designed for the ultimate bashing with a heavy wooden mallet. The ferrule-less beech handles transmit a huge amount of force directly into the heavy steel bolster. You can really see Ray’s attention to detail and skill as a craftsman in the handles. They’re oval, so you will automatically hold the chisel aligned with the mortise without even thinking about it.
Traditionally, the best handles were tapered and proportional to the tool size, which made them a lot easier to hold. It just feels right. The oval shape gives a lot more strength in the pulling direction but still remains comfortable.

The sides of the chisel form a slight trapezoid, so that if your chisel isn’t perfectly aligned with the cut you won’t damage the sides of the mortise, and more importantly, there is a lot less of a chance for the chisel to get stuck. You just push the chisel in the mortise a little and it loosens up. Lighter sash mortise chisels are ground parallel but that’s because they are designed for shallower mortises in window sashes which are usually in soft wood.
Some manufacturers say that that parallel sides make it easier to guide and align the chisel with the mortise but in fact the alignment of the mortise is determined by the first stroke of the blade into the wood, long before the sides of the chisel can have any effect.

The primary bevel on the chisel is ground to a very narrow 20 degree angle. This of course is not a strong enough angle to hold up to vicious chopping, but it’s historically accurate because the narrow angle lets a blow on the chisel push the chisel very deep. And that’s what we want – to go as deep as possible with each blow. But of course we have to strengthen the tip or it will bend. So mortise chisels need a hefty secondary bevel at the tip or around 35 degrees. It turns out with D2 steel (see below) we can use a very tiny secondary bevel. It works great and it reinforces the shallowness of the primary angle so these chisels can get even deeper per blow than the old antiques. All you need is a tiny secondary bevel, even a 1/16″ is fine. In general we recommend that when you sharpen just sharpen the secondary bevel and it will grow wider. If it gets annoyingly wide just regrind the primary bevel at 20 degrees.

On some early 19th century mortise chisels the primary bevel is rounded into the front edge of the chisel. This makes is easier to lever out waste on deep mortises. We recommend it but decided that since not everyone will want this feature and it’s easy enough to add yourself we left it off the new chisels. Ray rounded the front edge of the chisels a little to make it easier to hold.
There was a question about what metal to use. There were a couple of historically appropriate options: hammer-weld a cast steel cutting edge to a mild steel body, or make the entire thing out of cast steel. Real cast steel hasn’t been available since the 1950’s. So what do you do? He decided on D2, a slightly more expensive, more durable, overall better tool steel. Some people feel that D2 doesn’t get as sharp as good traditional carbon steel, but this is less of an issue than it would be in, for example, a paring chisel, since mortise chisels don’t need to be as surgically sharp. And the pummeling required by the mortise chisel’s higher bevel angles makes the extra toughness of D2 a real boon. Ray thought that in D2, these chisels would stay sharp forever. He’s off by a few years but the edge retention on these chisels is amazing.

Bench Chisels

A few makers produce superb quality chisels by hand. They are a joy to work with, the only drawbacks being price and often a long wait for delivery as they are basically all hand made, not spit out from an automated manufacturing process.

One of the premier makers is the Swiss company Pfeil.

Another maker of quality chisels at a favorable price is Narex, a Czech company.

Carving Chisels

Type of Steel
There are plenty of different types of steel to choose from; Laminate, Stainless, and Carbon. Each option has its own unique set of pluses and cons.

Do you want something that will be durable and will retain sharpness, regardless of how much it costs? If that is your situation, you may find that carbon blades are for you. Carbon is known for being very durable and able to stand the travesty of time. However, the blade is also a little more sensitive to contaminants like oil, so more maintenance may be required.

Laminate steel, on the other hand, is usually thin, workable, and sharp. But it can also be a little bit more delicate. If you don’t mind the eventual need to replace the blade, a laminate knife could be a good option for fine detailed work.

Stainless steel is kind of the man in the middle. It’s workable, sharp, quite durable, and usually fairly affordable.

Whatever type of steel you choose, the key to a pleasurable experience is maintaining a razor-sharp blade, so it’s important that you learn how to sharpen properly. Also, pay close attention to the handle. Long use demands a comfortable fit.

DASTRA Tools (Germany)
*DASTRA Carving Chisel Set-

Vintage Makers of Note

ATKINS & SON(S) –  Aaron Atkins and Son were established in Birmingham c1833 and survived to approx 1966. They were known as Atkins & Sons in 1932 (possibly earlier)..

GREAVES ISAAC  – were listed in Piggots Directory in 1829. In the 1970’s Lambert Forgings still had hundreds of their original tools in their backroom, having just bought up some original stock. They also have tools by William Greaves of Sheaf Works, better known for their Electro Boracic Steel coopers’ and carpenters’ tools.

Henry Taylor Tools – The Acorn brand have been in business since 1843. There are some indications that the outstanding quality of their tools has been slipping over the past 5 years or so. You will have to judge for yourself. Made in Sheffield UK.

HOLTZAPFFEL – a London based company that specialized in engineers’ tools; notably their ornamental turning lathes. They also made high-quality hand tools for gentlemen. This is a Milton Hatchet, with a single bevel to the straight blade on the back.

HOWARTH JAMES (later Howarth and Sons) – better known for axes and carpenters’ tools. Howarth was born in 1811 into a family of edge tool makers. He was in partnership with Henry Taylor from 1834 to 1842 but started on his own shortly thereafter. His sons ran the business after his death. The firm closed in 1913, and Robert Sorby & Sons later acquired the trademark in 1922.

Thomas Ibbotson & Company (1825 – 190) Another Sheffield company. They were bought out by Marples. Tools most often found today are English pattern mortice chisels.

MARSDEN BROTHERS George and Robert Marsden are probably best known as suppliers of ice skates to Queen Victoria. Situated at Bridge Street Works, in Sheffield, they claimed to have a history dating back to 1696, but this is probably through the acquisition of older firms, rather than actual fact. In 1839 Joseph Fenton and George Marsden joined together to form Fenton & Marsden, late W Stanley. Circa 1846 Silverwood formed a partnership with Fenton & Marsden, and between 1852 and 1856 the Marsdens bought out Silverwood, re-naming the firm Marsden Brothers (I suspect the earlier Marsden, in partnership with Fenton, and later Silverwood, was their father). In the early 20th century the firm was bought out by John Wilson. who soon after was adsorbed into Robert Sorby.

MATHIESON Alexander Mathieson originally of Saracen Lane, Glasgow are better known for their carpenter’s tools, especially their chisels and planes. The company was in business from 1822 to 1966, moving to new premises, the Saracen Works in East Campbell Street in 1854. They became a dormant subsidiary of Record Ridgeway Tools Ltd (Sheffield) in 1957.

J NOWILL & SONS SHEFFIELD – a Sheffield cutler who made edge tools. Their JN&S  cutlery mark was used from about 1901 to 1930 (prior to that they used JN).

I SORBY  and Mr. Punch logo – John Sorby was appointed Master Cutler of Sheffield in 1806. Later the company became John Sorby & Sons. After his retirement his sons John and Henry took over and the name changed to I & H Sorby. The mark was acquired by Lockwood Brothers in 1847. To confuse the issue I Sorby was a trademark used by C & J Turner, latterly Joseph Turner and Company, who succeeded the earlier Sorby and Turner, in about 1801 or shortly thereafter. It is not certain if it was the same John Sorby, or his nephew, John, that went into the shortlived partnership with Turner. Whatever, the I Sorby (and Mr. Punch) trademark survived well into the 20th century as in 1909 William Marples & Sons purchased the remaining interest in Turner Naylor and Company, and thus acquired the stock and goodwill of I Sorby. In 1932 they also acquired through Turner, Naylor and Co. the stock and goodwill of John Sorby and Co, and the tradename, I & H Sorby, and their Sheep trademark.

R TIMMINS & SONS were makers of heavy steel ‘toys’ – toy in this context means any small metal object, including hand tools. The company, founded in 1790 by Richard Timmins, was situated in Hurst St, and later in Pershore Street, Birmingham. In 1889 they were taken over by another Birmingham maker, W & C Wynn of Suffolk Street (also listed as edge tool makers), and who moved to Commercial Street in 1872. For a few years, both companies continued to operate under their original names. In 1892 they were incorporated as Wynn, Timmins & Co, and in 1897 the premises in Commercial St were renamed Century Works. The company survived until 1969 when they were taken over by Balfour Dawins Ltd of Sheffield, and the works in Birmingham closed*.

 

References for Further Information

Bob Burgess “A Load of Old Billhooks.” A website devoted to makers of billhooks, but most of these makers also made other edge tools as well, including chisels. Primarily focused on UK makers, but touches on others as well.

Joel’s Blog – “English Mortise Chisels: 18th Century til Now” – Introduction. This a thorough treatment presented in 5 installments.

LaBois – “The Best Brands of Timber Frame Chisels” A thorough discussion of the top 4 brands of hand-forged framing chisels.

Neeman – “The Birth of a Tool – Part 2; The Chisel (Video) A nicely produced video presentation.

Paul Sellers –  An extensive discussion on chisels, their manufacture, quality, and performance.

StewMac –  “Sharpen Your Chisels So They Cut Like Razors.” I think most pros would have little argument with Stewart’s process.

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