Chisels – At the Heart of Woodworking

But Where Do They All End Up?

Humans have been using chisels for thousands of years. They are the basic tools needed by woodworkers. Bronze versions with wooden handles have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to around 5 to 3,000 BC. The wooden furniture found in various tombs used mortise and tenon joints, so no prizes for guessing why chisels were needed.

Of course, there are, and were, such things as stone carving chisels too, but I won’t go into them, I will stick to the woodwork versions.

As a student I worked in a building suppliers’ and I soon got used to trying to simplify the choices when I was asked for chisels. Firmer, mortise and bevel edge were terms that needed explaining. I found that for most DIYers, a simple set of bevel-edged chisels would do nicely, but there were other more demanding users who wanted the right chisel for the job. They are more knowledgeable, in general, and buy better quality tools that are expected to last (and be cared for better too).

Why “Chisel?’

In Latin a chisel was a ‘cisellum’ derived from the word caesellum meaning ‘to cut’. We first see the word chisel in English in the 1350s, and surprisingly, the word has stayed the same – I guess that means that it is fit for purpose.

Even now, with all we know about steels, all chisels are not created equal. After the wider adoption of the very first steel chisels there must have been variations in quality, a result of the forging process, that would have been the source of arguments and discussions between end users. Just like nerdy folk do today.

The differences of opinion would have been all about the usual things we argue about now – edge retention, shape, length, bevel angles and handle design.

Admittedly, in Pre-Industrial Revolution days many chisels used by woodworkers of all skill levels would have been made by the local blacksmith. He, no doubt, would have produced chisels to order with custom features and the users would probably have made and mounted the handles themselves to suit their needs. A framer’s chisels would be heavy and wide, while cabinet makers’ chisels would have been more like the ones we know today.

The quality of the steel and the knowledge and skills of the blacksmith would have been very important, and I am sure there would have been blacksmiths who acquired reputations as fine chisel (or related tools) makers that drew in the punters from around the area. Knowing how to forge a billet of steel into a chisel that kept its edge and had a good balance and length was a skill not lightly acquired – and we only really understood and were able to explain this much later, when the science around metallurgy became more established.

The rule that applied to steel chisels then is fairly simple to understand: – a very hard steel would hold its edge well, but at the same time the crystalline steel structure would make it brittle, so it could break if it was hit hard enough.

Softer steel would be able to take more of a whacking, but would blunt quite easily. Even today, site carpenters probably wouldn’t take premium brand ‘workshop’ chisels onto a jobsite because they would be broken by the realities of the treatment meted out to them.

I don’t want to do a disservice to the Japanese samurai sword makers or the forgers of Damascus steel, who knew exactly what to do to produce tough steels, but couldn’t necessarily explain it in modern metallurgical terms. Their solution was to use layered steel with a hard steel on the cutting edges and a softer, more flexible steel to form the spine of the blades to absorb blows. This method is now mostly used by Japanese chisel makers who forge chisels with a hard thin layer of steel to form the cutting edge with a softer steel on the back to absorb blows from a Japanese -style chisel hammer. The best chisels from recognised Japanese makers are treasured tools – not really surprising, as the prices can exceed £100 a chisel here in the UK. You can bet your life that in Japan there are even more elite makers that can charge lots more.

Commercial Production?

I can’t find any history giving details about commercial production of chisels in Europe or the UK. But records show that about 4 or 5 American factories producing chisels opened up in the 1850s. This makes sense because, it was about that time that the movement westwards was happening, and there was a huge demand for housing, barns, and infrastructure. Much of this building was wooden, so there would have been many chisels wanted…

At around the same time, there were many chisel makers in the UK, mostly based in and around Sheffield. Some companies like Robert Sorby and Henry Taylor still produce chisels in Sheffield, but many famous names like Record and Marples no longer have a UK production base.

The Future

Newer steels have changed the chisel scene quite a lot. The addition of chromium and vanadium to the steels makes for very hard and tough steels that are more likely to be made from solid billets of A2 steel, machined into shape and then cryogenically treated. These chisels are the new elite because they often cost in excess of £100 per chisel. A set of 5 Lie Nielsen Chisels made this way would cost £540!! I have a few of these – acquired before the current price rises – and they are simply the best chisels I have ever used.  The blades are clearly superior, but the design of the handles and the balance and feel of them is great.  Each size of chisel has a handle designed for its weight and length – something you only appreciate when you use them for paring out fine details or the deepest recesses of a dovetail. But that clearly doesn’t come cheap.

My Big Question

Where does all the world’s production of chisels go?

Every day chisels must be made in their millions! I base my question on the following observation:-

A while back, I came across a set of photos I took in the early 90’s, of chisel production in a well-known factory in Sheffield. Daily output of chisels literally ran into the thousands. Now, I own a few sets of chisels but in all of their working lives I haven’t broken or lost any of them and they are used according to the task from fine cabinet making to chopping duties on a jobsite. There must be loads of other woodworkers who are the same position.

I guess that thousands of chisels are broken each working day, and some are lost on building sites etc. But do they make much of a dent in world chisel production? I know that chisels are versatile tools and many get used in a wide range of tasks including screwdriving and opening paint tins (We’ve all done it!).

I wonder how many chisels end up in damp sheds or kitchen drawers, rusted into uselessness. Is that the fate of most chisels? There is still a market for old and antique wood chisels because many users swear that the steel used in them is superior to modern chisels. Apart from the superior brands, they may be right.

A wise man with many years’ experience in the tool trade had a theory. He reckoned that many chisels are simply dumped because the owners are not skilled enough to sharpen them properly. Once they have got to the point where the secondary bevel is nearly the same as the primary bevel from regular ‘touching up’ the edge, then a time-consuming regrind is required. Even if you have a grindstone, it is probably not good enough to prevent the steel from overheating and thus drawing the temper of the blade, making it pretty useless. But, what the heck, the reasoning may go, chisel sets are cheap enough and they are often part of special offers – so just get a new set. Not very green, but it has its own cost and labour-saving logic.

If you have any inkling or theories about where chisels end their working lives, please get in touch. It is a mystery I am keen to solve. There could be a whole YouTube video reserved for this!

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