Which Chisels Should You Buy?

In the past this would be an easy question to answer. Stanley, Record, Marples, Ward and a dozen more. Not so today. Most of them are not made in the UK and those that are may not wear or fare as well as the imported counterparts anyway.DSC_0005

 

This question came up twice in the same day. “Should I buy Veritas or Lie Nielsen?” One of the questioners said. “I can’t afford to spend much,” said the other, and offered three types offered by B&Q, ScrewFix and Wilkes. Pretty much all of the cheap offerings will be Asian products and at one time I would have said the steel or the plastic or the wood would be inferior and would not take a good edge and if it did it would not keep it for long. I can’t any that any more and probably any chisel will do all of the above. Buying lower cost chisels will bring it down to the refinements or lack of them usually. If you need a starter chisel you can make the low cost ones work and they are good to practice on and with anyway.

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I have used four chisel sizes made for the Aldi food chain for over five years and found them to work as well as the best I own. They cost £8 per set of four. Where they are made I am not certain. They have German details on them but not where they are made. The problem is that they are only offered in the UK and Europe about twice a year. I usually buy a few sets for friends and students to take away when they come to the workshop. If you want to refine them they will take it. Replace the ferrule, reshape the ash handles and you have a very nice chisel for an hours work and eight quid. In the US and the UK a mid range chisels that have proven well for me are the Narex bevel edged chisels.

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So, what about the two North American makers?
Both companies have eh easily invested in their own versions of what existed before. Socketed chisels from Lie Nielsen and tanged chisels from Veritas. Both are very nicely made and carry the usual guarantees all chisels carry, even the cheaper ones. Customer service counts if you have a problem and both have a good standard of protocol in this area. The cost factor doesn’t mean you gain much more than with cheaper models but it does mean better refinement to the point that you will have no work to do when they arrive. They will arrive dead flat and sharp enough to start out with. Sharpening of course is something all chisels need throughout their lives so that then puts the cheaper chisels on a par with the best.

There is a compromise. As far as looks go both companies produce good looking tools and as far as functionality goes they are pretty much at a parallel level. One company copies the old designs while the other pursues the innovative new. There will always be a price to pay for good engineering and both have always striven for the best.

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These are my favourites and no modern maker matches these so eBay and secondhand suppliers work best
Secondhand chisels are readily available here in the UK and the US but shipping costs outside of either country comes at a premium. That said, it is hard to beat a good old Marples or a Ward. If you don’t kind a non-set set you can buy individual ones and make a set for under £50 that will last you a lifetime no mater how old you are or how much you use them. That would always be my recommendation anyway.

43 comments on “Which Chisels Should You Buy?

  1. Another mid-range option are the new Stanley sweetheart socketed chisels (not their hardware store chisels) which I believe are made in the UK. What about the current Ray Iles chisels?

    • Kerry,

      I’ve owned Record blue handle chisels, marples shamrock like Paul’s (I’ve owned the socket variety and the tang–which I love). I’ve owned Lie Nielsen (pretty to look at and hold but never felt like I wanted to actually USE them and Henry Taylor firmers and Robert Sorby. The sets currently on my bench are the Henry Taylors and Ashley Ilses from thebestthings.com. They are a fantastic chisel!!! Take a phenomenal edge, hold it well enough and are beautifully made. Backs are slightly concave which I’m a HUGE fan of. Took 7 minutes to polish hone and polish 5 chisel backs. Yeah the ferrules jiggle loose occasionally and the handles arent lie nielsen, but I promise it’s the BEST $150 you will spend on chisels. And I don’t mean for 2 of them. Besides, UNCONDITIONAL MONEY BACK GAURANTEE… If you don’t love them just send them back and move on. Also, you can get them directly from Ashley Iles and they will either send them as shown, without handles or as they told me in an email with a tradional carvers style handle like the old marples and sorby.

      Can’t beat em

      Brian

    • Quite superb chisels – the equal of any older Sheffield-made chisels, and at a far better price than the (very good) Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley chisels. Best for cabinetmaker’s bench work, especially when a chisel with very fine bevels is needed – too delicate for ‘site’ use.

      Paul – you need to try a couple of these. They are the best ‘proper’ bevel-edged chisels (as opposed to bevel-edged firmers) to come to market for decades.

  2. Paul,

    We have an Aldi’s Supermarket here in USA. When I look at the products outside of food I don’t see anything I want. If the chisels ever come my way I’ll take your recommendation on them. Bought a hand plane from Grizzly a while back. Haven’t used it yet. 22 inch( made in India?) But given your discourse on Sheflied products it might not be a bad deal.

    I have no idea on “how long” a time an edge should be sustainable, but I am sharpening my full tang Stanly’s that I do construction work with more often.

  3. I have purchased the narex chisels, like the way I can quickly get an edge, however not a fan of the factory handle shaping. Looking for another that I like before I try and reshape the narex.
    BrianJ

  4. Indranil, I have used Japanese chisels for several years. Nice tools but nothing magical. They are just O1 or
    A2 steel forge welded to soft steel. They don’t lend themselves to Paul’s methods of working very well.The back being hollow doesn’t counter the force on the bezel in the vertical cut and tends to deform the knife wall. Being butt chisels they don’t register as well as a bench chisel when using the stabbing move and tend to dive.Sharpening has its own learning curve also.The metals aren’t the same so they abrade at different rates. The weld line creates an even harder area.I would either buy the Narex or some nice Ashley Iles.The best chisels are the ones that fit your hands well and that you can keep sharp.

  5. Do “cranked” chisels work? Here’s a picture of what I mean: http://www.leevalley.com/us/Wood/page.aspx?p=51576&cat=1,41504,41539&ap=1

    I keep hitting situations doing work around the house (more carpentry) were I want to pare something flush to a surface, but the handle is in the way and I cannot come from a different side. I’m forced to work bevel down, but the control isn’t as good as having the flat on the work.

    Do cranked chisels work, or does having the handle out of line with the cutting edge cause trouble? I might get just one to have on hand. Maybe a 3/8″ (and someday it will be useful in a common dado or groove width.

    • I can see that these would be handy to own although I have never had the luxury of owning one. I can do just about everything I need with a bevel-edged chisel and so can’t justify spending on a chisel I might find use for once a year. I can see that for certain work as you describe a 3/8-3/4″ would be a good addition though.

    • …No. 71 router plane will work in any housing you can dream up. And pare tenons, double as a marking gauge, hog material from a seat bottom……

  6. I am a big fan of the Blue Spruce Tools bench chisels. Being new to woodworking, I have not had the opportunity to try very many brands. Previously I had started with the Robert Sorby chisels, very nice but not quite the Blue Spruce.

    • Interesting point and comment. Here are some thoughts though. Tools can look beautiful and very tempting, but I worry that my readers might think expensive chisels are the only way to go, or, worse still, that they are necessary for fine work and that’s not true at all. I cut dovetails just as well with $2 chisels as I do with $90 ones. Only a few of my blog readers could afford expensive chisels regardless of who the maker is and I feel compelled to offer practical and inexpensive solutions as practical alternatives for the everyday guys. This is in no way some kind of moral high ground. I often worry that woodworking often tilts more toward an elitist group with very expensive tools that create an illusional fantasy based on looks and impressional collectivity alone rather than an enjoyable way of working with your hands. I do however appreciate your sharing your thoughts and suggestions though. We are a global entity and advisory resource now, with a following in every corner of the world and my worry as always will be what can people get their hands on to make wood work? Just my concerns that’s all. Please keep commenting.

      • I started with a set of three bevelled chisels 3/8″, 3/4″ and 7/8″ no name stamped but well finished with a brass ferrule around the tang and I think boxwood handles, there are some similarities to the one of the chisels at the top of the picture above. I also picked up an 1″ firmer chisel, F.Woodcock Sheffield at the same time. These were purchased from a second hand shop when I was 18 in Albany Western Australia (fairly old town by our standards). I use them nearly everday when site working and the cost was $60 Australian. At the time to me it was a lot of money even though $15 each is not huge but they all hold an excellent edge and I am using them still at the age of 42. I have quite a number now, almost all bar two have been purchased for even less then the original set I purchased or been given to me by generous clients who wanted to see them being put to good use. I think the concern you hold Paul in regards to what people can get their hands on has been somewhat overcome by yourself! I now have several Sorbys and a random range of other English made chisels which I have rehabbed with the skills you have supplied because of the ease with which you have demonstrated methods by which to do so. Seperate components from different sources can mate up very nicely to produce excellent tools. I do not look past any broken tools these days, even if they are damaged beyond feasible repair, parts or materials can be used quite readily. As long as there is a dominant society of throw away culture in countries which are fortunate to have had the tools in the past they can be found if we look hard enough I think. Or, they will sometimes come to you as I have had.

      • Another point of view is that as woodworkers we hope that people appreciate out hand-made creations and the effort that has gone into the work. In some cases machine made dovetails in items from the Far East will be more precise than mine, but mine are hand cut and that counts for something – I hope. In the same respect, I like to buy hand-made tools. i can aford them in small number and I love to use them because I know a guy from, for example, Ashley Iles (who have been mentioned here) ground them by hand. If we only promote cheap mass-produced items then why do we bother doing woodwork at all when it can be churned out by machines – is there any value in hand-made? I find it quite depressing when I shop for tools in large stores to find that its nearly all cheap and mass produced, and i’d argue a lot is rubbish and won’t last a lifetime at all (so I don’t buy it). In addition to all this, buying the likes of Ashley Iles and Clifton planes supports local craftsmen, when the craft has largely died out. If we as craftsmen don’t see the value in the crafft of toolmaking, why should we expect others to value our craft of woodwork?

        • I agree, provided the tools are indeed good tools. Unfortunately, for instance, many of the British tools made are now poorly made and poorly finished. Stanley planes for instance. I’m afraid also, some are being made in Asia anyway, Spear and Jackson saws and Record Irwin’s chisels. I did and still do feel that Aldi chisels are really good. As good as those made in the Uk anyway, and it’s not everyone can afford high-end chisels right off the bat so that can at least get going. Any tool maker needs to earn and then keep his reputation just as we all do. They are indeed well worth supporting and I much prefer to buy local wherever possible.

          • No doubt you are right about the mass produced items you mention, there are few positive comments on the net about Stanley (an American company), and Record is part of the American Irwin Company and has gone down hill as you say. They aren’t really British tools though, even if some are still made in Britain. However, I would be surprised if owners of Thomas Flinn saws, Ashley Iles Chisels and generally, Clifton planes, (especially the later ones), amongst others, agree that these tools are poorly made and finished. The problem with stating that many British tools are poor on a very good and widely read blog, really damns the lot so it becomes damaging to the name of the good manufacturers. Sorry to sound like I’m having a rant but I think that British industry gets bashed, often unnecessarily (and nearly always by the British) and I, for one think the good UK tool manufacturers deserve support.

          • I can gladly look at tools on an individual basis, I do it at my personal expense all the time. but if I were to name the tested UK made tools that no longer are really fit for purpose it would be a very telling list of the British demise. I think you did pick a couple of higher-end makers to compare as examples of all British goods and that is not really as balanced as it would be with a wider cross section. Many UK makers, as I have said often enough live on former reputations established by previous generations. I would gladly give a list but it would be too damning. I don’t want to carry this on here because it is dispiriting. I buy in tools to test out so that I can answer a hundred emails asking for tool choices I recommend. I love Clifton planes. They are well made and owned by Thomas Flinn Co now. I think that they will make the company prosper and I will do what it takes to help. Can I recommend these to a 21 year old student over a Stanley 4 that will do the same job? I can’t in integrity do that. That doesn’t mean I then recommend British Stanley made goods because they are terribly poor quality. I can’t recommend Clifton planes except to a limited few buyers. I probably wouldn’t because they don’t need my endorsement at all. The tools stand up for themselves. Also, I have looked at the grind marks left in four British makers of supposedly higher end chisels and they are indeed worse than Asian imports including Aldi chisels. I think then that you are saying one should still recommend UK manufacturers over better quality tools that are quarter the price just because they are British. I think this needs a different perspective. Most British made tools have gone down and not up. Why not say to British makers up the bar with two minutes more work. I would love to see them do that. Look what Tom Nielsen did for the plane industry in the US. He raised the bar for world makers and Clifton came into being as a result. Look at his spectacular standards with the Stanley Sweetheart chisels too. So much he stirred Stanley to jealousy and made them go back to the drawing board. He makes blemish-free tools, unparalleled. Veritas in Canada too. What about the saws made in the US? Again unparalleled by any British maker until recently when Thomas Flinn brought to the table some pretty stunning improvements to their saws. They can do more but it’s a good start. Wenzlof saws are incredible and a similar price to any UK maker too. These are the makers that really raised the bar. Credit where credit is due really, Richard. I don’t really think I so much am “damning the lot”; lets get the standards back, reestablish pre-war workmanship quality. Encourage them in that direction. That’s my two-pennies worth. I would love to see that happen.

          • Hi Paul, No doubt there are new UK-made tools that are well avoided – some older ones too, That is true of anywhere. Some of the poor quality ones I have seen have been terrible. I think that balance that you mention is what I was after by trying to make a case that there are still some very good British tool manufacturers around – and thanks for acknowledging that. As I have mentioned Ashley Iles (and I like mine, and have just been using them) I’ll continue with them. They seem to be a good quality product with excellent backup service. They are hand made by craftsmen and don’t cost the earth. I can understand that students might not want to part with too much cash but its a small investment over a lifetime of use really. I’m completely with you in that it would be great to see an equivalent of Tom Lie Nielsen in the UK and some of the poorer manufacturers lift their game, I’m not advocating buying locally made if its rubbish (and certainly not recommending modern British Stanley planes, – they are made for a price for a large US multinational), but it wouldn’t be unethical to give the companies that strive for an excellent product a mention as a slightly more expensive local alternative to the cheap (and functional) mass produced imports i’ll leave it at that. All the best.

  7. I got a set of Stanley Bailey chisels in the leather tool wrap and the cost and the quality were perfect. I am totally pleased. I beat the stuffing out of them when I chiseled the housing dado for the leg assemblies on my Paul Sellers bench. And, I use a Norton waterstone set to keep them pristine sharp. I would recommend this set to anyone. It’s good quality and not overly expensive.

    • I also have a set of the Bailey chisels. It took a few minutes of work to remove the machine marks from the back of each chisel, but you only need to do that once. Other then that they are quite good…

    • Unfortunately I can’t say the same.
      Really wanted to like them but the QC was so inconsistent especially on the backs.
      The rust proof coating was thick and extremely hard to remove.
      My set was horrible where the steel was concerned, handles were nice and very comfortable but that’s where the romance ended.
      I will no longer take anymore chances with new tools.
      Most of my hand tools are old for a reason and somehow I lost my way when i bought these Baileys.
      Glad you enjoy them which is really what matters.

  8. Interesting post, I have both the Blue Handle and the wood Boxwood Handle Marples Chisel’s and love them. I also own a vintage set of Witherby’s which are my favorite and a few mixed vintage chisels as well. I guess the point I am trying to make is I think the old vintage chisels IMO is the way to go.

    Steve

  9. I like mine Stanley 5001 and 5002 from the 1960’s, i inherited them after my grandfather so they mean a lot to me. Beyond that, I have mostly old Swedish chisels and they also get the job done in a satisfactory manner. With that said, I think the heart also tells you what is a good tool. Excuse my bad English, I’m from Sweden.

    • What do they need protecting from, Cody? In 50years I’ve never applied anything to mine, but I do use them every day. Do you live or have them where they are exposed to damp, then just apply a little light machine oil periodically or after use if leaving them for while.

      • I live where it is fairly humid 6 months of the year. I have had tools that, have been freshly cared for, start to rust by the end of a day. thanks for the reply!

        • There are other protective coats too. The best and most expensive is Boshield T9, it lasts for months and was developed for aircraft use I think. Could be wrong. Here is a link. A spray can goes a long way but fills the atmosphere with junk we don’t need so you might look for the same stuff in a non spray can as you will be applying directly on easy access equipment.

          • Hi Mr. Sellers,

            If I may, I’d like to add that I use metal polish (Simichrome) as my protective coating on pretty much all my metal tools. I use Boeshield in the little squeezy bottle and it does work nice, but the only way I’ve been able to ward off rust for months at a time is with the polish.

            I think the fact that you use your chisels every day is a large factor in keeping them rust free, specifically the oils from your skin. But, respectfully, for those of us who don’t use our tools every day 🙂 using them once then putting them away for a week or 2 pretty much guarantees rust. I’ve found wiping them after use doesn’t always help and is sometimes impractical. The metal polish is the only way I’ve found to prevent this. Simply my 2 cents.

            Also, if you want Boeshield but don’t want to pay shipping for a single small item, check out your local bicycle shops. They sell Boeshield marketed as a bike lubricant. The only thing missing from the label is the T9. Otherwise it’s got all the same claims, that it’s made for Boeing and so on. Of course there can be no guarantee that it is the same formula, but I’d bet a steak and a beer that it is.

            Thank you, Mr. Sellers, and Happy New Year.

        • Camellia oil is what I use. Not cheap, but a little goes a long way. Just make sure you get the real thing, not fish oil scented to smell like camellia oil. It’s readily available from Asian grocers, health food shops, soap makers etc. Using this and silica gel sachets in my tool drawers has made a world of difference.

  10. hi could you tell what year the stanley chisels are with the black plastic handles with yellow ring?

    Are they the 5001 range or 5002 range?

  11. After reading about chisels for days and days I have ordered a Veritas PM V11 chisel. I thought I would share how I came to the decision. I have a collection of old chisels collected over a while (a mix of old Sheffield chisels, Footprint and some Marples).
    In the end it came down to one thing – sharpening. I can get a fantastic edge on every single one of my chisels – but it does not last. I work in oak and elm and I find I feel I spend too much time sharpening my tools instead of using them.
    I have had to work on the back of every chisel I have. Interestingly I have a few Lie Nielsen and Clifton planes and although I think they are truly brilliant I still had to work hard on the backs of the irons.
    When I have used my new PM V11 chisel I will post again to tell you how it has gone.

  12. So the chisel arrived today.
    First things first – it took 2 seconds to hone to a razor edge. The surfaces are extremely flat and well finished. The back was very very very slightly concave (less than 1/2 a thou) and it literally took a few strokes on a waterstones to get a polish on the end. Six strokes on the bevel side and it was ready. I almost feel cheated – where is the hours spent fettling to flatness.
    I have spent the afternoon chopping out some recesses for handles in an oak. This chisel put my others to shame. It took hours of hitting and paring and was only then just beginning to fade. A few strokes on a waterstones and it was back to a razor.
    I was unsure about the weight and the handle at first but after a few hours go use I have grown to like it. I personally like the shape but I can see why others find the edges a bit harsh.

  13. Well here is an addendum. After a good few sessions with this chisel with lots of different tasks here is my assessment. The edges are indeed too sharp. I spent a few hours chiseling some blind grooves (the sort that can only be chiselled) and at the end of it my fingers were really sore. There is no need to run the edges so sharp. I have ground the edges and it has improved things. I am even considering taking the edges to 12mm (0.35 mm off each side) to get a metric size anyway.
    I am also finding the whole chisel quite light. I have many other chisels and I just think a slightly heavier chisel feels a bit better.
    I still think the edge retention of PM V11 is great. I just wish the profile was not so aggressive. I have cut some dovetails and the difference between a knife edge and a 0.35mm edge is not worth the discomfort.
    I have also used the chisel for paring and the lack of any side profile at all makes the chisels cut edges when you do not want it to.

  14. any opinions on the crown hand tool chisel set from Sheffield England I made a quick impulse buy on ebay because I was tired of seeing all the big name stores have garbage that works but I want something to be able to pass down and also keep for years to come

  15. I would like to know more about your marples chisels that you like. which model are they I would like to find a set too.

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