Tagged chisels

Mid-weight mortising chisels

Mid-weight mortise chisels stand fairly and squarely between the massive heavy weights and the bevel edged chisels I have been using in the videos. There are many makers, from Lie Nielsen to Narex and Crown to Sorby, in my experience there is minimal difference between them. Some are well finished and some more crudely made. Chopping a mortise relies on neither feature, but there are features characteristic to a good working mortise chisel that set them apart for mortising holes and the reason they were indeed created was that the worked so efficiently yet had an intrinsic strength to weight ratio that made them popular with those making mortises by hand. My main thrust now is to ensure that new and new-woodworkers are not confused by the confusion caused by magazines and manufacturers and those who present misinformation  for one reason or another.

As I said and subsequently proved, lighter weight chisels are highly efficient in this work, but I agree that some might be concerned that in scaled-up production levels and with young students as yet insensitive to the physical limits of tools and over exuberant in their quest to achieve could bend or snap thinner chisels. My main thrust in real woodworking is to eliminate the obstacles that generally stand in the way of people getting started. Therefor, schools and woodworkers on higher level production will find registered sash mortise chisels a sturdy contestant.
For UK woodworkers, a chisel I can highly recommend is this Sorby registered mortise chisel, which sells for around £22 and can be obtained from Tilgear UK. Tilgear sells 1/8″, 3/16″, 1/4″, 5/16″, 3/8″ and 1/2″ sizes. These robust and well made chisels have split proof polypropylene handles I personally like the size and feel of. The chisels are well machined and will take minimal work to customise if you want to change the bevel or rework the surfaces of the blade, which are precision ground.
I bought this Robert Sorby chisel anonymously in the normal course of business, but I often test tools and I am willing to test any other chisels for comparison should any other maker want to submit them. Robert Sorby has a long history of making the finest chisels and I can recommend any if their products for quality. Our policy is that if a tool is submitted and we find a fault, we let you know what the problems are. We then withhold our findings for six months to make any corrections and when they are made we test again and publish our findings. If changes are made or no, we then publish our findings. If we purchase tools privately for testing we may still contact the maker, unless there is a safety issue to purchasers in which case we make the makers aware of the issues and publish our findings at the same time. We also test tools and equipment for third-party companies such as tool catalogues, stores and schools, to help them assess the validity of the tools independently.

I think that this a good mortising package if you are looking for a more stout, hard-working mortise chisel and a chisel hammer that delivers the exact direct blow you need to compel the chisel’s edge into the wood with unfaltering COP (centre of percussion).

Thorex has made good hammers for decades and they also make a very nice one for sale under the Vaughan name with a hickory shaft. We use these at the school in the US and they have become favourites. hey are actually white not shellac covered. I added the colour because of filming and photographing. More on this to come yet.

Myths and mysteries revisited

Some time ago I decided to go against my better judgment and counter some of the status quo currency by which people create an impressive and imposing posture. That’s not an altogether a wise thing to do and the giants in the world of woodworking are no different than in any other business in that they all have their false gurus (self-professed or otherwise) to try to present fashion and the essentiality of owning information others want and feeding tiny portions of it so that people keep coming back for more. My goal is to give recognition to the past and evaluate whether we need to purely accept what the media in woodworking says, or be prepared to counter it if the information is presented in such a way as to sensationalize in order to sell. Of course that is going to be the case in most cases so it has become increasingly more important to conservationists like myself to recognize a standard of historical and traditional commonsense in the face of the erroneous or flawed contemporaneous information. That’s where I stand and that’s why I do what I do. In no way do I look at issues purely for the sake of argument or to create contention.

Every six months or so I read articles extolling the virtues of using guides to establish primary and secondary bevels to chisels and plane and spokeshave irons. The articles all contain the same information, reason and purpose and is always based on two perspectives. Asa Christiana of Fine Woodworking recently promoted the use of honing guides for “hobbyist” woodworkers because he felt that hobbyists couldn’t establish what professional woodworkers could establish because they spend significantly less time in the woodshop than the professionals did. In reality, I find that most woodworkers in this group can actually spend more of their creative time establishing freehand sharpening and achieve perfect results in a matter of a few hours. It makes no sense to say that hobbyists are less capable of establishing sharpening skills or any other skills because of limited time. Again, in actuality, I find that those I have trained can capably sharpen all of their chisels and planes and get on with their work as they establish these skills. Minor correction is needed occasionally, but this is all part of their learning curve to establish skill and avoid substitutes that appear to make sense. Soon they go to the stones confidently and get back to joint making, planing and sawing as a matter of work. In my book, using the term hobbyist somehow sets a tone. It frames the issue people might find themselves identifying with when actually, I have find that amateurs capably surpass much of the standard many so-called professionals abandoned long ago for the faster and the better and most professionals I come in contact with cannot move without some jig at their elbow all of the time. I do want to emphasise though that, whereas it is true that every so often I come across someone who just cannot get sharpening using the freehand methods out there, that’s only about one half of a percent and in such cases I recommend that they use a simple honing guide as an aid towards establishing freehand skills. I encourage them to use this as a steppingstone and to persevere until they establish the skill and the freedom to take off the “training wheels”. That said, when I was a boy apprentice of 15 years old, I was shown how to sharpen only once. I never thought of myself as an amatuer or hobbyist, even though I had never done this before. I simply took the task and made it mine. I still do it now and have never found anything that surpassed it in speed or quality at the bench.

Another issue for me is the pure assumption nowadays that micro-bevel sharpening is the unflawed standard for all woodworkers and that that is the only method and goal for today’s woodworker. I have never prescribed to this method and have many good reasons that support my stance. But the point is with today’s woodworking no one discusses the possibility of an alternative and no one thinks that they should alter the bevel for other reasons. For instance, I have found that many of the highly touted hard-steel chisels edge-fracture along their length rather than wear. That they have no edge strength or durability that gives them sustained edge retention, which I have discussed in greater detail in an earlier blog. These chisels result in breakage in part or whole along the chisel edge and these can indeed be high-dollar chisels. I found this to be the case with all the Robert Sorby bevel-edged chisels produced after the 1980s at one time. Did I throw the chisels out with their lovely boxwood London Pattern handles and all? Certainly not. I was briefly disappointed, yes, but there had to be a reason and there had to be an answer. First I looked at the wood I was working, old growth long-leaf pine, and then the nature of the work in hand. I felt that the annual rings were too hard and inconsistent for the chisel’s bevel shape as it came from the manufacturer. I was chopping and not paring, two very different tasks with different demands. I found that when chopping I needed to increase my bevel-angle by about 5-degrees, changing it from 30- to 35-degrees. This totally resolved the issue of edge fracture and one of my sons still uses the chisels. The chisel still cut as well 35-degrees when I was paring too, but the resolution in shaping and reshaping the bevel takes only minimal time, one minute or less task, even for getting back to the paring bevel of 25-30 degrees. This is the advantage I find in freehand speed sharpening.

Hammers for chisels – many choices

OK. Heard recently of a woodworking guru describing plastic headed hammers disparagingly and then describe another heavy duty brass mallet as the way to go. Not really true. Reality is, again, it’s seldom an either or, but more likely many or around three or four anyway. Balanced views and balanced hammers and mallets is everything.

My mate Nick uses a cast iron head stuffed with dense raw hid hammer, perfect for heavy work such as timber framing and such. He really likes his and so do I, but it’s not really for driving his chisels so much as dispatching the joints.

I have several wooden mallets I’ve made and used through the decade that I wouldn’t change for anything that are just great, I have seen silly little brass-headed chisel hammers some engineer thought we needed with short shafts that are imbalanced and cute. I hate cute. I posted in the past on my Thorex hammer and then found I couldn’t find them in the USA until a few weeks ago. What the secrecy was I don’t know. I found this hammer. It’s wonderful in the hand and gets the job done without an ounce of excess weight. I love it. Now that doesn’t mean it replaces all other mallets, but for under twenty bucks it gets new woodworkers started with something solid and without compromise. Other mallet types can come later. The name on the hammer is Vaughan and the place of origin at first glance is Illinois, but the hammer is actually made in the UK. This one is also made by Thorex, UK and aside from the wooden shaft it’s the same as the one I use. Mine is Nylon shafted and has nylon interchangeable heads. These heads tended to slip so I roughened the faces and they work perfectly well, but these yellow heads made for the US models are wonderful in that they don’t slip. A slip of white paper on the wooden shaft says made in England.

It’s becoming more difficult than ever to find out exactly where things are made and that’s all part of the shame we bear for deception. This is a good chisel hammer that will last well and deliver the goods. Great tool!

Oh, and remember that these Thorex hammers are available in different sizes and weights and a wide range of head types so you can pick heavier or lighter weight models to suit your personal preference and soft to hard heads to. With these yellow head; I beat one on a concrete step has hard as I could two or three times and could not break one Very important.



Questions answered – chisels and quality

Getting off the conveyor belt post

Re getting off the conveyor belt I posted earlier. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone can follow a vocational calling whereby they earn there living full time from craft work. If the 13 million people that enjoy woodworking in the USA all became woodworkers earning their living from it they would soon find themselves broke, on the dole and homeless. On the other hand you can enjoy the challenges of making your own furniture, building your canoe or boat, violin, guitar or build yourself a timber-framed home, garden shed or anything you choose by following a foundational training in woodworking and then diverting into any specific channel or channels you choose to. Build a shed, a workbench and follow my foundational course from cover to cover and in about 20 days, with about 20 hand tools, you can make a handmade guitar following instructions from another book. That should take you about 2 months total in evenings and weekends without neglecting your families.

If you work with just my book you can have enough to equip yourself for a lifetime of lifestyle Working Wood. How about that for a strategy?

Now then, one of my students emailed a question he thought that you all might be helped by if I answer publicly. Here is his email:

Hi Paul,

Hope all is well back with your family in the UK.

Just had a question you may want to answer on your blog sometime.

I have been working on my dovetails and, after about a half dozen good looking ones in Pine, I decided to try my luck with a small piece of quarter-sawn oak I had. What I noticed right away is that my chisels, while continuing to chop crisp lines, began very quickly to fracture and create a burr on the flat side of the cutting edge. I resharpened, went back to it, and found relatively quickly the same problem. I eased up on the chopping and they came out well, but nonetheless I feel like I shouldn’t have to resharpen two or three times per corner. What’s wrong here? Is it my motion? The wood? Are my chisels just poor quality? Just wondering your thoughts.


Side note: I’ve also noticed a tendency on the smaller chisels to skew to my right. Some are pretty significant. I can fix them, but I assume this is just uneven pressure. Correct?


Thanks Paul.


The issue could be steel quality or type or something else, so lets consider steel type first. Without getting into technicalities of alloys, harder steel can of course be brittle and can readily fracture because though hard it may not be tough. Certain tool steels can have good edge tool qualities that have hardness and toughness in the same alloy. That’s what many toolmakers aim for. A problem with this is that they often require mechanical methods for sharpening, which in and of itself is generally overkill for something that needs only regular sharpening with the quick, simple, efficient hand methods I use and encourage others to use. For a more easily sharpenable cutting edge it’s better to use a softer alloy, but you cannot use steel that is too soft as the edge buckles under pressure whereas the harder edges actually fracture, creating small craters along the edge. This is not what you seem to have. The end result of course is that neither tool will cut well in either condition.

As you know, in general I advise the single- convex-bevel method for all edge tools. Having determined that both steel types have advantages, we should look at wood. Under certain conditions using chisels, as in your case, conditions arise that adversely affect cutting edges. Some pines for instance are even textured throughout the annual rings. The eastern white pine for instance is superbly even textured and has very minimal difference in density and hardness across the growth rings or within each growth ring. With softwoods from Eastern Europe there is often great variance in hardness and density. This can be because of the nature of the species, growth region, weather changes and season changes. Some years, the growth cycle has good levels of water and nutrition resulting in good growth across the seasons. When the weather is less extreme between the seasons, the result is more even texture across the two apparent periods usually associated with softwood growth. In other areas and seasons depending on the year, the growth ring has two extremes of soft and hardness, especially in softwoods. In hardwoods, on the other hand ,the extremes of seasons are much less, and oftentimes the two seasons of early and late growth are indistinguishable—fruit  and nut trees for instance; woods such as cherry or walnut for instance, and dozens of others.

Steel hard and soft – brittle or malleable

This then brings me to the real point. Seeing that hard tool steel is harder to sharpen because of hardness and softer tool steels bend unevenly along the cutting edge, we need to adjust our thinking in both cases. Assuming we have decent steel in either case, because both steel types can indeed produce practical edges, when we shift from paring pressure or slicing along or with the grain using hand pressure or light malleting pressure, we have no problem, but denser hard-grained wood such as oak often require a slight shift in strategy. Your problem may have nothing to do with steel quality or choice at all. It often requires nothing more than creating a steeper bevel right at the cutting edge. Remember that the shallower the angle of a cutting bevel does not mean that the edge is sharper than a steeper bevel, but that it takes a little more effort to counter the resistance created by a steeper bevel pitch. In your case it seems you have more malleable steel that may well be tough, but with a shallow angle the steel buckles. This is often especially true when using mallet blows. Paring pressure may be around 20-30-lbs pressure. Using a mallet blow may increase this to 80+lbs. Under such pressure the edge will either fracture or buckle depending on the alloy and the quality of the materials used. Try altering the pitch by as much as 5-degrees or even more and see if this helps. If it does, most likely it will, you are set. If it doesn’t you may need to invest in different chisels.

Once you have chopped, you can re-establish the 30-degree bevel over two or three sharpenings and need not go all the way back to 30-degrees at once unless of course you need to or don’t mind wasting steel and time.

Re  Buying replacement chisels

My experience proves to me that this has little to do with cost. I have used Marples’ (definitely not UK Irwin) blue-chip chisels since 1965. I am on my third set, but not because of weakness or failure but because I use them more than anyone I ever met and I love them. At the school in the UK I use chisels made for Aldi, the supermarket chain, they are about some of the best I ever used and we really use them heavily, probably more excessively than anyone else. They cost £8.00, $12 usd, for a set of four and a sharpening stone that’s pretty useless. I have so far, after three years of use, been unable to find any fault with them. Now the stuff Irwin makes, and Stanley, with steel tips and ergonomic plastic/rubberised handles, I have no time for because they are extremely uncomfortable, feel really bad in the hand and they encourage a throwaway mentality in tools. These companies are especially bad for craftsmanship and should wherever possible be boycotted until they get their act together.

A New Legacy for New York

Here is another view from my workshops at Penrhyn Castle’s New Legacy School of Woodworking on the Saturday before I left for New York. Isn’t it just preciously lovely to see fields of golden daffodils nodding their heads in wind-tossed cluster groups like this?

I thought that you would like that. A photo never can do justice to a scene like this really, but even so.

Needless to say I arrived stateside safely after a good flight. Unfortunately security couldn’t cope with the extensive arrivals and transfers and I missed my connection even though I had more than two hours between flights. The alternative flight two hours later was overbooked but I took a standby and it came good because of a no-show so I made it in just fine. My friend Tom met me at Albany and we drove on to Greenwich after dinner at a Macaroni grill in Albany.

After a good night’s rest and easing on through a relaxed morning, I spent the afternoon at the woodshop. More going on here than in the New York Stock Exchange

On the outside, very cold in the wind, the guys were raising posts and cross members that form the new porch at the side of the workshop. Mark’s trying to align the long crossties that carry the roof rafters later. The backhoe jib was specially made to help with this and worked just great. It’s a shame that by the time the joints are all together the insides of the joints will never be seen. Nick was busy over the weekend creating this masterpiece of timber framing with a young team of trainees who formed the whole by hand including shaping the arch braces using the notching and spokeshaving methods we use throughout our classes. We have the last bay to tag on tomorrow so I am glad to be around for that.

I have always loved to see joints going together like this. The absolute integrity replicated from patterns laid down centuries ago and still practiced in young craftsmen.

Chisels and handsaws chopping and chiselling out mortises and of course we use some modern methods and drills as well.



I like the scientific approach here—this is Gary making certain the joints seat fully before pegging.





Tom here was fitting a new vice to one of the new benches. The new vises arrive this week and so by next weekend we may have them all in place. I like to see the frames, tops and aprons waiting to be completed. It’s still quite a challenge, but they should all be ready two weeks before our inaugural classes take place mid April.


One thing I’ve grown to appreciate through my more recent years, perhaps a decade or two now, is watching and working with groups of willing team members team-working together. Oh, I can find dozens if not hundreds of individuals working hard alone, that’s not the point. We all know that anyone can do that, no, it’s finding people that can put aside their own aspirations to work on something bigger than just me, me, me. Now that’s the real challenge. I have worked with many people who talk of being team players and part of a team, but at the end of the day, as long as they are the ones that score, they don’t mind who helps them.

Ask yourself a question I was asking myself this afternoon as I watched my friends working together. Why would young woodworking craftsmen put so much effort into making something this way? Just why would they do that? I will give you the answer to that over the rest of this week. Meanwhile think of the Northeastern Woodworkers Show this coming weekend and be sure to look me and my friends up at the New Legacy New York booth.

Classes in wood and working

Shavings were plentiful tonight. I swept the shop and sharpened the planes and chisels for the next class. I did all of the saws after last weeks class so they are in good shape. I look over the empty benches for a last check before I go home. The benches are cleared except for the tools, the wood is milled in boxes by my bench and all the vises are drawn tight.


For the students, order is everything. A sense of confidence comes with order I suppose. Sharp tools cut well, planes adjusted shave without faltering and saws somehow ease their way through the long cells. It takes practice, but confidence develops with each stroke they make and I see growth minute by minute. Sharp dovetails don’t come from dull chisels so in the first hour we talk through sharpness, quickly and simple.

In last week’s class I saw men and women enter that passage of uncertainty I’ve seen so many enter before them. I admire them. Some come with no knowledge of woodworking tools and never made anything from wood, but it’s at that minute that they somehow become woodworkers. That’s why last week’s class and tomorrow’s class and all the future classes are important.

I’m not a businessman but an artisan. I work with my hands and make wood work. We all invest together and in a few days that serious speculation becomes something worthwhile.


I rest tomorrow



It’s a rather unusual thing really. When I arrived home this evening I tried to think how many things have given me as much pleasure as teaching woodworkers my skills and passing to them my working knowledge. It’s not necessarily an all too easy task, even though I have been doing this part time since 1989. I have started successful ventures, businesses, woodworking schools and such, but it’s only now that I really see my skills reproduced in the lives of others both past and present.


Joseph has been with me these past few days, despite the fact that he has also had lectures at university. The class is easier when I have him with me, but what makes the classes easy is the fact that my students love to be here.



Anyway, my thoughts on the past three days are that despite my feeling less than in the best of health throughout each day, we made it through to success and joy. For me, that means each day was progressively forward reaching, challenging, fun and rewarding. Planes began to work and saws finally cut straight and to the line. Chisels chopped and pared wood, dovetails fit the pin recesses and hinged lids were done rightly.  I am so thankful for my apprenticeship days. All I learned stayed with me through the years and now dozens of furniture makers through the years now practice the art of furniture making, woodworking and wood turning in their own businesses.

We enjoyed lunch in the Penrhyn Castle cafe today and John had cooked bangers and mash for us, the others are in another room. Sorry I missed you out!


A close to a very busy January month

January 1st I arrived in New York. I had my birthday 4th January and taught three days of master classes in Baltimore, Maryland on the 6-8th January. On Tueday10-11th January I trained my friends at the new New Legacy New York School of Woodworking during the day and spent the evenings of the same two days teaching hands-on workshop for parents who want to teach their children woodworking at home. On Thursday 12th January I left for Springfield Massachusetts and on 13-15th January I taught three days of master classes there. On 23rd January I began my journey home and had my flight cancelled 24 hours. I got a good day of rest in Philadelphia and arrived home Wednesday 25th January. On the 26-29th January I taught my first UK class of the year and it was so much fun.