Robert Sorby chisels compete with the best

Sorby chisels cover the spectrum

I think many people feel the same way I do and that is that plastic handled chisels work well and will equal the performance of some of the most expensive chisels produced. I try to present tools of value that are suited to task first, affordable and comfortable to use. We have covered some of the less expensive chisels recently and so I wanted to tell you about some of the best chisels on the market that are still affordable, well made and of perfect conformation. These Robert Sorby chisels are, well, lovely. And, of course, you cannot dismiss the aesthetic appeal wood has in the hand. Boxwood handles far exceed all other handles for several reasons not the least of which id the incredible strength boxwood has and it’s resistance to splitting and end-grain collapse.

The three sets I ordered are two sets of boxwood handled chisels and a set of plastic handled chisels made from a plastic known as C.A.B (Cellulose Acetate Butyrate), a virtually indestructible material producing the ultimate unbreakable handle.

I have expresses pretty strong views on some tools and especially the heavyweight planes that dog us and have unfortunately displaced truly wonderful planes that stood the test of time for over a century. My perspective is unlikely to change on this issue and those who have tried to change my perspective inevitably found the benefits of a #4 Stanley or Record had many more advantages to enhance their woodworking with. When I run heavyweights alongside my plane-Jane #4 Stanley, the comparison is the equivalent of racing a working plough horse against an Arabian stallion or an English Thoroughbred breed. Heavy and sluggish, the too-heavy draft horse is strong and powerful for lulling, lugging and ploughing but far too overweight for the task of running, jumping, dressage and high demand sports such as polo where agility, speed and spirit give perfected versatility. Some of our modern chisels fall into this category and have become sluggish, imbalanced and dead ugly.

I ordered three sets of Robert Sorby chisels because I have used some of their classic London pattern chisels for about two decades now. First off is that the chisels present well in a quality cardboard box on arrival. This then places a real sense of value in the product and that alone speaks of how the Sorby name for quality continues today. Having been familiar with the high quality of Sorby’s full range of woodworking chisels, and I’ve also used their turning tools for almost three decades, I had high expectations for what I hoped would be a continued production of heirloom-quality tools. I have wanted a domestic chisel I could recommend for some years and decided to visit the UK to see if Sorby was in fact still equal to my expectations in producing the quality they were known for back in the 80’s and 90’s. I was not disappointed. Unlike many UK manufacturers importing from Asia yet increasing their prices but buying cheap so that their bottom-line profits are uppermost, Sorby still make their chisels here in the UK. Had the standards declined? Not at all. The chisels arrived and matched what they were 20 years ago.

Fairly standard to any chisel is that they are ground to 25-degrees. I really don’t want a chisel to arrive polished and sharp. It’s of little real value or purpose. With an hour or so they need sharpening anyway.

Sorby chisels are individually tested for hardness before they leave the factory so expect the small dimple from their test in the flat face of the chisels. Their hardness standard is complying to BS 1943, which sets the required standard for hardness, bend tolerances and flatness. The chisels are plenty hard enough yet still tough enough for a durable and long-lasting working edge. I want a chisel that flexes slightly yet doesn’t break. The bevel quickly transformed from the standard flat bevel to an ideal convex bevel and soon I had  the polish I needed for a pristine paring capability.

In my class today we examined the chisels and sharpened them up. They were resistant enough on the EZE Lap diamond plates and flat enough to be lapped dead flat in a minute on the granite slab. You can see the grey dot from the diamond tester about 3/4″ from the cutting edge and also the abraded surface that must be further refined to get the optimum cutting edge that parallels the bevel in quality.

The first set of chisels felt perfectly balanced and I liked the larger boxwood handles captured in the traditional  brass ferrule and the integrated leather shock absorbing washer.

These chisels are indeed heirloom quality and anyone could work them further to personalize them  as many people like to do.

11 Comments

  1. rroselavy on 5 December 2012 at 1:17 am

    I recently acquired a set of vintage Marples boxwood tang chisels that are not unlike your Sorbys, except that the handles have very little to no finish applied. The boxwood is so dense the grain is barely detectable, glowing with an almost translucent quality. The lack of finish gives the handles a very affirmative, tactile grip. These chisels are quite thin, perfectly balanced, with minimal lands, and flex ever so slightly as you say. I suspect that I will always cherish these English chisels, but I do worry about using them for morticing since they seem almost too delicate compared to Lie Nielsen and others.

    -ScottV



    • Paul Sellers on 5 December 2012 at 6:25 am

      That is a real concern and so I think the important thing is whatYOU feel as you work with them. I have broken a chisel mortising on one occasion, but have never broken a Marples or a Sorby. That doesn’t mean they won’t break but that I am careful. I think it depende=s on how many mortises you will be chopping. I have made literally 50,000 mortises using bevel-edged chisels and broken only one chisel, which I later found to be flawed.



  2. Patrick Anderson on 5 December 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Paul,

    What are your thoughts on the Ashley Isles chisels?



    • Paul Sellers on 5 December 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Everything Ray Isles makes is good stuff. I have his mortise chisels that he makes for Joel at tool forworkingwood. They are the best in the heavyweights. I love them. I used to know Ashley Isles from years back. Used to meet him at tool auctions. Ray Isles is a fine tool maker. I haven[t tried his bevel edged chisels. Would like to though.



      • Patrick Anderson on 5 December 2012 at 9:57 pm

        Good to know mate as I was giving them some serious consideration.



  3. Erik on 8 December 2012 at 2:36 pm

    What was the other set of chisels you bought? It looks like you have the 166 in the picture and you said you had the plastic handled ones as well. A good number of people at school have these chisels and absolutely love them. I’m using my Narex chisels and they are working fine, but I had to severely increase the angle, up to almost 40 degrees, for them to be able to function in the quartered oak I’m using. I’m just thinking about this for down the road when I can make that choice. Your thoughts? Are the chisels such as the old blue chips or these sorbys just on another level than something like Narex? Thanks Paul.



    • Paul Sellers on 9 December 2012 at 7:47 am

      we used the Narex at 30-degrees in the month-long class in the US and they worked consistently well.
      I ordered a set of the 166 the 510 and the 500, which is the one with red plastic handle. Surprisingly, I found it hard to decide which ones I preferred most. The 166 handle is about 1/16″ smaller on diameter than the 510 model and I liked that. On the other hand I was surprised how much I liked the 500 with C.A.B (Cellulose Acetate Butyrate) handle. This felt so balanced as i worked with it. I liked the slender bevel of the 500 and the fact that even in a student demo where I took the chisels from the box and sharpened them, polished the flats and demonstrated them, it only took me 20 minutes to have all five chisels ready for action because the flats were indeed flat apart from one which had a slight dish which doen’t matter anyway.



  4. Brian on 9 January 2014 at 1:48 am

    So I broke down and bought a set of Sorby 166’s. mainly because I’ve always been intrigued by the Sorby line and I got an awesome deal (see below).

    Here are some quick impressions…
    1. Super light. My daily users are vintage Marples blue handles (NOS off eBay…1/8-2″) so they probably weight twice as much.
    2. long. Approximately 3/4″ longer than my Marples. Before I got them I was actually thinking I’d like something a little shorter than my marples. Is that irony?
    3. The fit and finish wasn’t exactly what I expected. Here’s why:
    A. The 1/4″ and the 1″ hand the handles installed wrong! The 1/4″ was upside down and the 1″ was twisted about 90 degrees. So what? Well, the handles aren’t shaped symmetrically so the 1″ looks like a banana. Pain in the rear for sure.
    B. backs were no where near flat. Grossly off. I can deal with a little concave, but these were ground with a twist…needed about 45 min to hone for each of the three “good” chisels
    C. This is nit-picky, but when you add it all up it goes toward a not great feeling. The handles weren’t seated to the bolsters. Yes, I know. They’ll settle in, but I have a hard time imagining a set of Lie Nielsens leaving the factory that way.

    So after all my whining, I’m the owner of a set of chisels I’ve waited over a year to buy and I don’t love them. I’m sure I will but Blue Marples wasn’t a really high bar. My Sorbys fell short. I’ll wait for my two replacement chisels and try and love my new Sorbys as I had hoped to.

    Anyway, if you want a set of your own, I got mine at hatrvilletools.com. If you enter wn15 in promo code box, you’ll get 15% off. Also, they don’t charge shipping. I was out-the-door for $129. (Or maybe just pony up the extra hundred and get the LN 01 set)



  5. Keith jepson on 13 April 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you for saying that stanly is not made (or you think) in England. I would like to buy British but really didn’t know which chisels to buy at all. I’m just coming into woodworking and need a set of chisels and have know idea Which are descent or not, as every set I look at are ‘Premear’ chisels. Wether they are free in my Christmas crackers or a hundred pounds each. So to see u saying that Robert Sorby chisels are made in England and the price isn’t to bad for 5, £95 cheapest so far, is a done deal for me, thank you very much.



  6. Jim on 7 December 2016 at 8:17 am

    Really interesting. I have a set of Sorby chisels that I bought new decades ago. I sharpen them these days with a worksharp. They are comfortable and take a sharp edge. What more is needed.
    Your comments about heavy planes ring true. I bought a Qiangsheng number 5. It works fine and the tote and knob are more comfortable and beautiful than my Stanley, but it ain’t arf heavy. I find I use my Stanley with an upgraded blade more often. It planes as well and is less effort, and I can feel the wood better.



  7. Jeffery Oliver on 25 May 2018 at 1:13 pm

    I used to have a set of the Sorby chisels with the hexagonal handles (I found this handles uncomfortable to use for ling periods). I spent some time trying to find a replacement. They were also from Sorby (the boxwood handles classic chisels instead of the “gilt” line). I thoroughly enjot using them – alongside my Sorby paring chisels and my Ashley Isles Dovetail chisels!