Questions on chisels – Japanese, Western?
For more information on chisels, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.
I have been doing a lot of reading recently and trying to find tools. I have been looking for chisels and recently stumbled across Japanese chisels and was curious as to what you thought on those vs western chisels?
Thanks for any help
Well, much of what we woodworking apprentices did back in the 60’s relied on who taught us and what those teachers used. That hasn’t changed. We all tend to play follow the leader when it comes to methods, techniques and tools and of course cultural differences and styles that once wonderfully defined a people enriched our lives as we discovered Taiwanese woodworking differed from Belgian joinery and that the Swedes used methods and woods unknown to South American craftsmen. That has very much changed. I like to watch Japanese woodworkers perform their creative tasks in ways that I could never work wood and so too, according to my emails, they like to watch me make joints using methods they would never use. When you use something that works you tend to stay with that and not try out other things because it seems, well, I suppose, unnecessary. Fact is, it’s interesting to try different methods and techniques and of course tools too.
The short answer is that I wouldn’t generally recommend Japanese methods or tools for woodworking mostly because it’s not me. I’m a western woodworker because that’s what i was exposed to long term in my formative years. Japanese tools and techniques came into the Western world about 30 years ago and took a firm foothold. Western methods work equally well, in my mind anyway. I personally pushing saws and planes for a variety of what seem to me good reasons and I am sure the Japanese woodworker would feel the same as I do about methods they were raised with and use. My body, my arms and my hands are used to Western chisels. They feel balanced to me, whereas the Japanese chisels don’t give me the same sense of wellbeing I get from Western chisels. Unfortunately, for the main part, I cannot recommend most Western chisels supplying the Big Box stores because the maker/engineers from the main suppliers somehow deemed that Western chisel needed ergo designs with rubberised inserts and steel caps held in polypropylene handles so that carpenters could use steel hammers on them. This is a bit like when I read (and I just read on a forum) that woodworkers should build a certain type of bench so that they could “beat the snot out of it.” Who needs a Western chisel they can beat the snot out of. The wooden marples bevel-edged chisels I am using now were made in the 1940’s and 50’s. One of them has a slight split, but it’s probably been split for fifty years. That could have occurred because of drying and not mallet or chisel hammer blows.
It is hard to say try both and decide for yourself because there will be merits to using both that cannot be discovered in a few minutes of use at a bench. I am sure that those conventionally made ones in either camp are wonderful tools. It takes time, a few weeks, to determine which tool becomes a favourite to reach for each time. It is unfortunate that many copies of Japanese tools have come up with a look alike but, for instance, have been massaged just enough to deceive us. Hard-point teeth on Japanese-style saws have distorted what was a wonderful Japanese tradition to ensure that these saws became non-sharpenable and disposable. Don’t be side-tracked by Western makers and suppliers. They tell us that hard point teeth last five times longer than conventional teeth. They don’t tell us that they cannot be resharpened and you must throw them away.
My personal view is that you buy Western chisels and then consider Japanese chisels to compliment later and reshape a new future. You don’t need to spend a lot. Not knowing where you are in the world, here are some considerations:
In the UK:
At the lower end, consider buying a set made under the Faithful brand. This company enters the market with cheaper tools and they don’t have the best reputation in general. Here is a set typically sold on eBay for about £32 for six chisels in the set. They are also available individually. These are good chisels and have good edge retention. The handles will not split and I have used them for several years. In my tests they work as well or better than more expensive brands but may marginally lack some of the more detailed refinements.
If you want another well tried and tested maker, try the Narex cabinet makers set of six for anywhere between £60-70 per set or £10 each depending on size. These are good chisels and they are widely available. Try a set from Workshop Heaven here. Ashley Iles on the other end of the spectrum make one of the finest chisels and these will cost you five times more than say the Faithful set but they are genuine tools made in Britain by one of the best makers. They are well defined and refined chisels, again, try Workshop Heaven here.
In the US
Well, you have many choices there, but you won’t find the Faithful set. Go to Highland Woodworking for a wide range and good prices on the Narex range and who also sell those made by Lie Nielsen and the Stanley Sweetheart range as alternative considerations. Also go to Tools for Working Wood and find the Ashley Iles range there if you fancy a good British maker. Don’t forget Lee Valley & Veritas for a positive supplier with unparalleled customer service. It seems to me that the best offering in the US is the Narex cabinet makers set. I have been very pleased with the Narex chisels and use them in the US school. They are excellent lifetime chisels.
Some time back I read an article on woodworking tools and the author mentioned that while he did recommend a certain style of Japanese saw in this instance (I think the article was oriented towards including kids in the workshop) he didn’t want to get into Japanese tools as a whole because he felt that to talk about those tools without discussing the philosophy of woodworking that created them would be a disservice.
That concept, of a philosophy driving the design and use of tools that was necessary to grasp in order to appreciate the tools and techniques, was an eye opener. I had just stumbled across Paul’s works and was avidly catching up on prior posts and I realized that Paul was also discussing a philosophy that drove his selection and use of tools.
It was a one-shot opportunity to get a set or two. Aldi only offers them once a year. I sharpened my 1″ chisel for the first time after almost a month of use; not because it was dull but because I was sharpening up. It’s an amazing chisel for edge quality and retention.
Paul, you mentioned the Lie Nielsen chisels. There are aspects of these chisels that I like, but I have a problem that the handles often fall out when I least expect them to. I’ve almost been cut when this happened and almost dropped the blade to the floor. I’m guessing there must be something to know about socket chisels, a trick to not have the handle separate from the socket when you don’t want them to? I know the handles should come off with a sharp rap, and they do, but they also come off at other times it seems. What’s the trick?
Hi Ed, I mentioned Lie Nielsen chisels as a matter of course and not because they do any more than most any other chisels. Their engineering standards are the highest of any modern maker. The quality of steel finish is better too. I like that. I also like the thought that they are providing US jobs as a domestic company eschewing Asian imports. Beyond that the loose handles was a problem from the beginning of Stanley’s introduction of them in their line of tools and it seems nothing has changed. It is a pain when the theory doesn’t match the actuality. I think that the issue is that wood is and always will be ever changing. It shrinks and expands when we don’t want it too. The tapered cone-point of the wood needs to shrink only marginally and it will indeed pop out. This happens also when the same wood expands because it then pushes itself loose because of the tapered aspect of the cone and socket. Furthermore, with a mallet blow, the handle tightens in the socket, but when chopping and then pulling in successive actions, the handles often pull from the socket. This also happens when paring too. Beyond that, West Systems epoxy will take the beating and will not turn loose of glued components on the benchtop or under the ocean. Make certain the handle is in its shrunken, low-moisture level condition before gluing and maintain that until the glue is cured. 24 hours is good.
You described it exactly right: One moment I’m paring and the next i’m wondering why I’m not in the hospital. Imagine having the handle come loose as you drive from the hips paring a shoulder. It is hard to be definitive and confident with these because I’m always guarding against tool failure. What I like very much about these chisels, though, is that the handle is very lightweight, so when I hold the blade in my fingertips like a pencil, perhaps when dovetailing or otherwise deepening a knifewall, it is less fatiguing and gives a greater sense of control. Maybe the epoxy will do the trick. I got these before I learned about Narex from you. The Narex are nice, but don’t have this “towards the tip” balance which seems nice for some things but is irrelevant for most.
I’ve always wondered if Japanese chisels (super sharp but brittle?) are tuned for the most common Japanese woods (softwoods?) while western chisels (not so brittle?) are tuned (less brittle) for common western woods (more hardwoods?)
You say about Lie-Nelisen chisels: “Their engineering standards are the highest of any modern maker.”
You might consider chisels made by Harold & Saxon or by Henry Eckert Toolworks before speaking from your pulpit
Sorry Douglas, I am not really sure of your point. These Australian makers may be better known in Australian circles but not particularly in the zones in which I move. I was in no way being mean spirited or judgemental from, as you put it, “your pulpit”. I see a rise in boutique makers of tools catering to collectors in the upper echelon and there is nothing wrong if that’s your audience. I can’t imagine myself or the common woodworkers like myself paying upwards of £140 for a marking gauge or say £500 for a set of six chisels but we can admire the craftsmanship if indeed it is skilled work and not merely a CNC production line which much engineering is these days. Your comment makes me think that some of the lesser makers are good value for money. Maybe your cited makers will get some more business now.
hi, i purchased a set of LN chisels (which i keep in the workshop not for site use!)when i became fed up with spending hours flattening the backs of a ‘new’ set of chisels to get 1/2 inch of useable steel on belied/abused second hand chisels or the appaling new marples/stanley which wear out my water stones and my limited patience with their huge grinding marks right up to, and diving away from each edges to a corner of their choice.
I brought the handle falling out problem with someone connected to LN and this does seem to happen occasionally. He reccomended using hair spray and then seating the handle in the socket in the usual way.
I also noticed that if i am working on site for a couple weeks and then come back into the workshop the handle falling out seems to happen, so i guess constant use might help keeping the handle tight.
However there was one handle i could not get to stay in its socket so i pared a little off every once in a while and recut the shoulder of the handle and reduced the length of the end of the cone which inserts in the socket, plus hair spray.. seemed to work as of the last month, hope this helps.
That said the steel is great, every time i have worked the back of a new one it is as flat as a pancake and they just feel great to use. I also pound pretty hard on them at times with the mallet and after 5 years regular use i have yet to split a handle. I removed the existing ‘varnishy’ finish and applied my own oil finish to the handles as i prefer the feel of it.
I believe from trying some friends Japanese chisels that the high quality ones do take a very sharp edge and retain it very well, they have a lovely feel to them, are quite beautiful to look at…. but my friends are a lot more advanced in their tastes, so for me the damascus finish and nickel running through the grain of the metal are examples of beautiful tool making or art….but as much as i would like i cannot justify prettyness to my wife as a reason to spend a couple of hundred on one chisel (think she would get jealous!!)…..horses for courses. but they cannot be used to lever wood only to cut or slice (pare) as the hard part of the blade is apparently quite brittle?.
I also have 4 sets of the Aldi chisels which i use for site work on first reading pauls blog, after very little work they are generally as cool as!!!!! my only complaint appart from the very occasional warped back is that Aldi do not sell more sizes of them.
I don’t really see why people have to live with a flawed product. Not that it is a manufacturing quality of materials or even engineering but it does seem to be a design flaw at the very least. It was there a long time before LN started their copies so they inherited an issue and never saw the need for a solution is suppose. I don’t believe this to be an occasional problem as too many people have brought it to my attention to give them an answer. I am not sure why hairspray should work long term but, hey, I suppose it could. The answer is West systems epoxy. Ten minutes in the shop and glue them into the sockets. Problem solved for life. West systems epoxy is used by boat builders. It will not turn loose once cured and it will take any and all types of pressure including mallet blows.
Sorry, with regard to my last comment when i said cut in relation to the Japanese chisels i meant they can be used to chop with using a mallet, but not to lever wood with as i am prone to do with western chisels when on a price. At least this is what my friends who own them have told me.
I also note that there are paring and striking japanese chisels availible
I have yet to break an Aldi chisel and funnily enough, none of the students have bent or broken any of the ones we use in the classes over the last five years now and that’s even more amazing to me. We are about to refine a set of Aldi’s by adding brass ferrules and refining the steel work to see how good we can make them look. As far as edge retention and hardness goes, they are flawless. I have also polished up the flat faces and rarely are they more than a minute or two from dead flatness on the diamond plates. I still see them in the stores here and that shows that they must have ordered more in to supply the demand. because in our store here they had over a hundred sets two weeks ago and had to reorder.
thanks paul, will try the epoxy next time (then the wife can have her hair spray back!!!!) Also just found out after writing that LN actually advise picking their chisels up by the socket and never just the handle so point well made! Thanks for the cool blog!
I remember the same issue with the old Stanleys that turned up at garage sales in the USA with handles missing. I wonder what the new Stanley’s do?
Yes i totally agree, just wish Aldi made them in a few more sizes, they really are amazing for the price. Hope you get time to make a video when you improve the aldi chisels finishing (your youtube video’s are excellent and will be purchasing your dvd’s soon). I’m good at preparing flat backed and sharp blades but not so good at metal work like ferrules etc would be very interested to watch. Have only just started to make things like basic brass escutcheons and stuff for my own personal projects (not for customers yet)
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