Changing the Shape of Ash Chisel Handles

Ash Chisel Handles Are Still Great

Wooden handles are always preferred to plastic ones, at least that’s how I feel and that’s how most people feel, and and yet manufacturers of mass-market chisels seem intent on supplying only plastic handled ones with metal caps to protect the plastic from hammer blows. Plastic does of course hold up well, but, somehow, seeing the steel caps to me seems as though it launches the user into a different sphere of workmanship and I hear carpenters from time to time say they like the metal capped ones “because you can really beat on them and you can’t hurt them.”

On the other hand you might see boxwood as the choice wood for chisels because it’s so hard and long-lasting yet I think I see more chisels with split boxwood handles than any other. So, that begs the question, just what is the difference and the best choice wood for chisel handles?

DSC_0007 2Traditionally the three most common handles for chisels in the UK has always been beech, ash and box. These three woods reach back centuries with ash being the most common handle of all. In the US there’s an additional choice and that’s hornbeam which is extremely durable too.DSC_0018

Recently, John bought an Ashley Iles gouge that split with the first gentle blow and it took a bit of reconciling with the supplier and with Ashley Iles too. Eventually he got it sorted but ended up doing all the replacement work himself, but that’s another story. That said, tanged chisels still prove the best choice for me as we do in fact spend as much time pulling on the handle as we do shoving and  tapping it. That means we want the handle to stay connected to the metal bit and tangs do stay holding inside the handle better than sockets. Don’t be deceived by thinking socketed chisels don’t split and tanged handles always do either. Socketed chisels have their own annoying problems too. If you do decide to buy an old chisel and the handle is not split, the chances are it will never split. You must decide if you want a handle that stays in place or one that pops out of the socket regularly enough to be annoying.

When I first discovered the German chisels made for Aldi and Lidl I had to take a second look because they were made using ash for the handle. I was surprised that they hadn’t gone the plastic and metal route because, after all, they are mass-manufactured. I was also very glad to see that they had indeed chosen ash because ash is about the best general chisel handle that seems to be the one that doesn’t generally split.

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In a moment of up-cycling madness I decided to see what I could get from the existing Aldi and Lidl ash handles; to see if what I ended up with was a viable improvement in any way at all, but I wanted to make it doable without any specialised equipment such as a lathe and turning tools. Now it wasn’t at all because the chisel needed a functionality upgrade but  simply to improve the overall appearance. I wanted to change the looks with the tools I had.

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To remove the chintzy looking steel hoop and ferrule that cheapen the appearance I used a nail punch and tapped from each side. I was surprised how readily they came away as they are pressed on onto a shallow groove. I didn’t want to drill into the dimpled hoop because I wanted to keep as much original wood as possible.

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To remove the ferrule I had to first remove the handle from the chisel. At first I used the same nail punch but found it pierced the ferrule and so used flat head screw driver (pic above) which worked best for this as it distributes the pressure over a wider area.DSC_0001

The nail punch quickly separated the ferrule working it from opposite sides.

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With the ferrule removed I used the rasp to create a leading edge to receive the ferrule.

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I continued to fit the  brass ferrule by using the fine rasp to reduce the diameter of the wood. Once the ferrule fits far enough onto the end, about half way to two thirds on, I start tapping the ferrule onto the end. I follow marks on the wood as reference bruising to work my cuts to with a chisel. I keep trying the ferrule as I don’t want it to be loose at all but dead tight so that it must be finally hammered on.

With the ferrule secure and in place I use a flat file to file the ferrule flush with the endgrain of the handle.

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The two recessed sides are nice to have as they help present the chisel to the work squarely and improve grip. I kept them in the chisel and simply removed the signage etc with a card scraper.

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I used a spokeshave for the initial shaping and to redefine what I felt would make a better shaped chisel minus the metal hoop. By carefully removing the waste i just left enough to shape the final shape with the fine rasp.

Now that the shape is established I used the thin and flexible card scraper to clear off all rasp marks before final sanding with 240-grit sandpaper.

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Knocking off the handle from the tang wasn’t hard either, although it was positively firm. You can see that the tang is indeed robust, which accounts for why we’ve never had a single chisel break or even bend slightly. Brass really improves the appearance of the chisel when compared to the original.

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Another thing that proves the quality of ash as a handle wood for chisels is that, though the ferrules are unusually thin, and through shrinkage might be loose, the wood has never split on a single chiseling action in the school. All of my ash handled chisels are in good shape too. Where most ash chisels fail is not through the wood being a flawed choice but some brute beating on it with a heavy steel hammer. All metal hammers are hard on wooden handles including brass, copper and especially steel ones. Now there are some cutesy little ones with stumpy, curvy handles I’ve seen around. Not really too sure about them though.

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The finished chisel shaping looks appropriate now and I like how it looks and feels.

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A scrape and some sanding finishes all the shaping work in preparation for applying finish.

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I apply three coats of shellac and coloured the first coat to take away some of the stark whiteness. A coat of wax paste polish makes it feel good to touch and I have good working chisels I can work with in comfort.

I have always felt the these chisels were well designed as far as ergonomics go. The best really. My changes did improve the feel a little more, but so marginally I could almost say it was unnecessary. But this is what ergonomic design is about. The chisels we generally accept as traditional were designed to come straight from the lathe. It was fast and effective to produce them this way and took only seconds per chisel handle. The Aldi/Lidl chisels are indeed turned and turned out in a heartbeat by rotating the blank into a cutter head. The simple flats scalloped top and underside added an ergonomic advantage over other chisels that create a near perfect chisel handle.

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33 comments on “Changing the Shape of Ash Chisel Handles

  1. Hi Paul, I just wish these chisels were available in the USA. I’ve even watched on eBayUK in the hope that a set might be offered there, but so far, no luck.

  2. I’ve never seen a chisel with a plastic handle here in Germany, on sale or elsewhere. Though, perhaps I just choose not to see them.

  3. Hi Paul. this may be a daft question, but where can i obtain those brass ferrules? I’ve got a set of Aldi Chisels and I’d love to do this to them.

    • I have bought brass rod via eBay and this gives me the best ferrules yet because the wall is usually a little thicker than the typical ferrules you buy. It’s also a lot cheaper than buying precut ferrules too and you can indeed size to what you want.

  4. It was thoughtful of you to remember your US readers on Thanksgiving. You have inspired me and I am now in the process of working on the aprons of my “workbench” in process. I wonder if you will be in Indianapolis, Indiana in January. I tried to find information on the traveling shows, but I was not successful. If you are coming to Indianapolis you have a standing invitation for a home cooked meal. – Peace

  5. For those who are still searching for a set of chisels on ebay. There is a german premium tool trademark called “Kirschen” which has two cherries as emblem. I had the luck to buy a second hand tool set which contains 13 of these chisels, a Bahco panel saw, some knipex pliers, an E.C.E (another german permium tool trademark for cabinet makers) brace, some squares, Bahco files, an E.C.E marking gauge and sliding bevel, 2 clamps, and some hammers for all together 80Euro.
    I think that was really a bargain.
    These “Kirschen” chisels work very well and keep the sharpness very long. I can recommend them. Perphaps Paul knows them too and can say something more profound on that.

    In my experience it is more promising to search for “old tools” or something like that on ebay than especially for “chisels”.

  6. Thanks for this. I’ve been looking at the Aldi/Lidl chisels next to my others and thinking that, although they’re good, they don’t look as nice. Also the flat end and ferrule make them OK with a chisel hammer but a little uncomfortable using the heel of my hand and I’ve wondered about modding them myself. Seeing you do it makes me think it’s time to ring the changes with my chisels.

  7. Here in the States I use Hickory for chisel handles that get struck hard such as corner chisels and framing chisels. Extremely tough and with a hooped striking end will not easily break or split.
    I have used Dogwood (very very strong but hard to come by) and hard Sugar Maple with success also.

  8. Hello all,

    I would not give the Two Cherries brand a recommendation. I bought a set for my father for Christmas a few years ago. They come in a nice wooden case and then are very shiny and good looking. However, be very cautious. At the time I didn’t know that these chisels appear to be chrome plated or at the very least massively polished on a buffing machine which means the backs are seriously out of flat and the edges are non existent as they have been buffed so much.
    It took hours to try to flatten and sharpen these chisels.

    Now that I have a few more years of experience under my belt and find I am more able to spot a good tool from a good looking tool.

    The Aldi / Lidl ones seem to be great value and much closer to being ready for work than the Two Cherries.

    Does anybody know when they will be back in stores?

    Thanks, Stephen.

    • I have felt disinclined recommending Two Cherries because of saws they supplied under the US brand Robert Larsen. Here is the blog I did. As soon as any company downgrades in a manner that purports to be quality and sells something as bad as this I feel to totally disengage from them. In this case two companies corroborated to bring a tool to market that was about the very worst tool you could imagine and so rather than promote them I would rather say they have lost credibility because of their irresponsibility.

      • Perhaps I had luck with my chisels. They are flat, hold the edge and work fine.
        On amazon I read some ratings on these chisels. It seems there are bent ones mainly under those polished ones. The unpolished ones are said to be flat in the majority of cases.

        I was shocked when I read your blog on 2 cherries saws. They are totally crap. I bought a new looking WILPU back saw on the flea market for 2Euro and the tooth of that saw looked like those on your 2 cherries saw. Cutting wood is impossible with that saw so it was a good candidate to practice your saw refining technique. I filed off all the teeth and cut new (12tpi). It’s my saw to experiment with fleam and rake and practice saw sharpening.

        Thank you for opening my eyes. I think I won’t buy anything new of that company.

  9. I have never owned a socket-handled chisel I think if I bought some, I would go to the trouble of drilling through twice, at right-angles, and putting in rivets of some sort, to keep the handle in place.. It’s academic to me mind, as I prefer tanged, London pattern chisel handles, as they don’t roll off the bench so easily.

  10. Thanks for the tip Paul, the chisels arrive in store tomorrow according to the web site. I’ll get three sets, one for me and one for each of my daughters.
    Also, I think I have found the same make in a gouge set, I’ll sent details and photos when they arrive.

    Charles

  11. Hi Paul, I am hoping you can help me decide on wood handle choice. I am going to purchase a set of Robert Sorby chisels. I have the option of purchasing the set in either American Ash (not sure exactly what ash that is), or the exact same set with boxwood handles. The business end of the chisel set is the same, and the cost difference is only $2 US.

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