Chisel unsurpassed



I looked at some of my chisels this week and thought that despite today’s advanced industrial technologies and engineering, many modern makers seem unable to match the simplicity and qualities that give me what Sorby, Ward and old Marples chisels gave the craft a century and more ago. Why that’s the case I am not altogether sure. I am often told of better steel alloys to give better edge retention and edge establishment but have yet to find a match for these old ones either in taking an edge or holding it, but perhaps that is just me. Actually, my Aldi chisels have still proven about the best in the modern day range when it comes to taking and keeping a good edge. The process of making new chisels like these takes only a matter of minutes and very minimal skill. On the other hand, this chisel took care and skill that is proven through a century of use at the bench.DSC_0274 Even so though, handles in boxwood take seconds to turn even by eye and hand and of course making brass ferrules about the same. I once watched a man make a 1″ auger bit in under three minutes too. The speed, dexterity and skilfulness seemed wholly impossible but there he was, a man working by eye replicating one after another for hours on end whilst the whole time talking to people around him about everyday topics affecting their lives. I looked at my chisels and saw how well I was provided for by the men that made them. Each one has its difference and in that difference a loveliness of individuality, strength and quality about it.DSC_0295

The chisel set alone above is a chisel I use and like that stops me every day to ask why the modern maker seems awkward in matching such levels of fineness. By fine I mean unfancy, without machine marks; and I conclude that at some point they become somehow just rigidly mechanical––soullessly replications. My chisel has no maker’s name and likely never had. The stamp just says warranted cast steel. DSC_0278I have others like that that I do like well enough but this one I found some years back and almost passed it by. I of course know that manufacturing processes have changed and that more technical methods of engineering replaced the hand eye coordination skilled chisel making work once demanded of smiths and such. Even though I might recommend one more modern chisel over another I do lament the loss of seeing skilled work when I see chisels come from manufacturers with identical grinder marks that speak of being mass made. DSC_0300There is something about this chisel that goes beyond the pale for me. The older Marples and Sorbys do the same and so too Wards and others. Truth is the old chisels have aesthetics often sadly lacking in the ones available today. This one, and others I have picked up, are superb chisels to work with. The handles never turn loose, rarely split if used as intended and that edge retaining quality, well, what can I say?DSC_0301

With a little abrading work I can make this chisel suit me more, but it will always be a product less cared about than those of days now long past. Oh, I know, the chisel will work just fine. Of that there is little doubt, but it is how it feels in my hand that I really care about. Will that sense of sensing be gone when people like me pass from this world? Will it really matter if a new generation thinks it has bettered through the industrial evolutionary processes? Or will someone pick up a chisel from the guttered cellar and marvel at the simple words, WARRANTED CAST STEEL and the feel of the steel and the brass and and the boxwood handle and go “WOW!”




48 comments on “Chisel unsurpassed

  1. With reference to the “Aldi” Chisels, (actually from “Lidl”, but the same German source – Abraham Diederichs – Paul says), I recently bought a set – and immediately sharpened them all. I noticed that the burr produced was not so much a wire, as a thin trailing film which made me think the metal was perhaps a bit softer than my other (Marples) chisels. The 8mm and the 13mm chisels seemed to work OK, but the edge on the 18mm chipped after 2 blows with a chisel hammer. After almost an hour of abrading back I have still not entirely removed the chip-out; it works OK for mortising, but paring is not really feasible as the blade catches on the chip-out. Over time I will sharpen the chip out of the edge and hopefully the breakage will not happen again. But then for £7 for 4 chisels I don’t suppose one can complain too much.
    I guess it just goes to prove Paul’s point that modern day manufacturing just does not compare to that of 50 years ago.

    • Of all the 200 or so Aldi and Lidl chisels we have now used for 6 years now we have never had a fractured edges, soft edges or poor retention in one of them. They may not be pretty but they are excellent chisels and compare with chisels made in the UK 8 times the price.

      • Paul, Just so you know That feeling will not be gone after you are because you have taught this to me. Two years ago when I first joined the Master class site that was the first thing I noticed was the type of chisels you were using so I went on a chisel hunt.
        What I found is the huge difference between the metal in the same chisel maker but obviously a different time period of the manufacturing. You might not remember but I bought a set with the older markings on the handle but the metal was etched and not stamped. My conclusion was that some slick craftsman had changed out the chisels and kept the good ones. Because I kept searching and buying and then after about six or seven sets I finally got two sets that the metal is so much better than all the rest. Its readily seen when you chop a dovetail and the the point rolls over on its back, But the two sets that Im speaking of do not. Atleast not like the others.

        It was on the current project that I first used these sets of Marples. You should have seen the smile on my face when I put that chisel in my baseline and taped on the top.

        The chisel cut cleanly and did ” NOT” move the baseline back like all my other chisels.It was so sweet that anybody could or should been able to tell the difference.

        So I went on a mission to find out why this was so. There are people out there that have spent a lifetime out there researching old records, court records , Pat. dates numbers and such so I started speaking to some of them and asking question after question. Unfortunately some countries didnt keep very good records if you go back to far so some of it we will never know especially in old saws. But the chisels have a little bit more information atleast the ones were talking about. I dont know how true this is so please understand Im only repeating what I was told.

        In talking to a good friend of mine at the MW TCA and he told me that he had read that at one time that some of the manufacturers in the UK were importing there ore minerals from the Swedes. And that the metal that was produced from these high quality minerals produced an excellant tool. Even in there saws. So I wonder If thats why we see differences in one tool from the next.
        I think a tool is like a Musical instrument it can vary from one to the next even though there made at the same time and the same manufacturer.
        What Ive learned from this experience is that your going to have to try out the tool to see what you actually have regardless of who made the tool.or when it was made.

        I just bought two sets of the UK made BE and Butt chisels with the Bubinga handles so I see what your talking about and agree, but they are the closest Ive found that feels like the older boxwood handles Marples, Ward, and sorby. There a little bit beefier in the hand but thats not so bad.
        I do know that the Bubinga wood sure is tough. I bought one of those plane kits from Highland that Ron Hock puts out and when I tried to pair the end grain I thought I was going to have to get out my chainsaw. I tried all my so called Premium chisels, A2. PMV11, and believe it or not it was an Old Marples that finally did the job
        There is a set of James swann chisels that I was going to try out to see how they hold up. Have you ever tried those? Im told there very good but they are expensive.

        In addition I have two sets of the old Berg Chisels I will say they are probably the sharpest Ive ever seen But Ive never used them for chopping only paring because the handles dont seem like they will hold up to a mallet. Maybe the thor mallet would be ok. But The polish is remarkable.
        I bought an old set of Charles Taylor Firmer Chisels called” The Screw” And they hold the finest polish I have ever seen on a chisel. And yes they are so sharp that there dangerous.

        The only thing I can come up with as far as the quality of the chisels today might be the minerals thats used to make them. Because I think that some of the smithing thats going on there is old school. But what I dont understand is why there not teaching the trade in order to replace themselves. and to supply your demand. It took me Eleven Weeks to get those UK chisels made.

        In 1850 a contract was given to a file and rasp maker James Horner at the Sing Sing Prison in New York, Since James Horner never made a hand saw he contracted out the job to two saw Makers Cortland Wood and John Lyman who were already making saws in NY. By 1851 employing 88 prisoners they were making a top notched saw. The contract didnt last long because of Law Suites ect. But it just goes to show you that you can teach the trade in a short amount of time if you want to. Why this is not happening today has me confused.

        To be honest I would much rather pay more, and get more. Than to pay less and get a whole lot less. In all my tools.
        So the question is Paul What can we do about it. Talking about it is a great start. Is it even possible with the way the market is today.
        I tried reaching out to Wenzolf and sons to buy one of there saws and they wont even return your email. Period….. Ive tried three or four times. Why even put on your website to email if you have any questions are want to purchase our products if your not going to reply. Thats like buying a lottery ticket but never checking your numbers. Duh…..
        Thanks For the Post.

          • Yea, I’m sorry about that long message , I will keep them down to a short paragraph or two for now on.
            Paul I see where you are always advocating what you can do with so little tools all the time and for folk that are just getting in to woodworking there are several sets of tools on eBay right now that are excellent deals. It’s Martin Donnelly’s site called Greatcatalogue , that’s the sites name. Anyway they have about 10 or 15 sets of tools with everything in that will get someone started in woodworking. Also they have lots of tenon saws at good prices. I thought I would bring that to your attention . It’s worth taking a look.

      • Paul, why aren’t tool makers making good tools anymore. Is it the ore used to make the steel? I mean some of the high end chisels look nice, they certainly can be sharpened to be extremely sharp. In your opinion is it the design and the fit and finish that seems to be lacking. Or ?. I finally found a Woden #4 it will be here tomorrow I’m more curious than anything else.
        Was Woden in business long enough to drop the quality of there Hand Planes? My luck I always get the dud. It looks to be in excellent shape . Got it from Martin Donnelly here in the US. They have Xmas specials for less than $200.00 where you can get a plane, hand drill Spokeshave, saw, marking gauge. Sliding bevel and a few other tools for about $150.00. Not bad for a beginner .
        I’m curious about why tool makers today arnt making excellent tools. I get it about the bottom line I understand that . But really how much more work would it take to make the tool of years back? Or is it the quality of the metal?

        • Standards of workmanship and individual responsibility for what a man produced by skill was replaced by mass-making methods and production lines. All makers do things this way. it was Henry Ford that developed everything that way with car production. Blame him. When you only make a small part of the whole you lose interest. Then we have what industry calls teams that are not really teams and you pitch one team against another. before long people start believing in the team but everyone wants to be recognised as the goal scorer. You can use things like emotions to manipulate people and control them. Add pay according to production and you end up up with companies like Barclay’s Bank and bankers in general who actually don’t make anything and whose only ambition is tp make money and they end up owning the businesses all be that indirectly and without any risk. No wonder the end result is low skilled work but called skilled work. The same happens in education. A good job is determined by how much you get paid. Again, how do schools and colleges and universities know much about real work when the teachers never leave school themselves. That’s how we ended up here.
          Oh, don’t believe what you read when it says the Woden planes were bought out be Record as lesser quality line. Woden planes are superior planes in their own right.

          • Thanks Paul, I swear I dont know how you find the time to do all this, Teach, Blog, Facebook? I guess, Masterclass, Father, Husband, Repair Man assuming that you repair broken things around the
            I got the #4 Woden Plane today. I see what you mean. Its a solid little plane for sure. I suppose that I will change out the blade this plane wasn’t ever used much at all. It appears that its been sitting in someones shop for years without ever seeing much wood. The only thing I see that needs to be done is I need to shorten the long double threaded shaft that holds the tote on. Its bottoming out inside the hole and raising the tote. No big deal.
            Oh, The blog you put up showing you and your son making that Cello fired a spark, < Let me rephrase set off a bomb inside me so for the past few days now I have searched and searched for Plans, Hardwoods and tone woods and found a supplier in Germany for some Sitka Spruce, He fells, drys and splits his own wood.And a dealer in Alaska also for tone woods so I'm going to start Playing again and start building Classical Guitars in addition to Furniture of course. Anyway Im very excited . I haven't picked up an instrument now since 2004. So its long past due. Thanks for that by the way. Cheers

  2. Barr Quarton hand forges chisels that take a remarkably long lived edge. I own one (just one) and use it for mortising. It is a standard bench chisel. After about 4 dozen mortises in oak and sapele, it is still scary sharp. Old school craftsmanship, for sure. Just fyi.

  3. Paul, if nothing else I get joy out of watching you work with those wonderful chisels. They definitely have a glowing beauty in those boxwood handles and brass ferules, with shining steel.

  4. “Warranted Cast Steel.” Were there ever three more words that warmed a woodworker’s heart more?

    “Free Wood Here” maybe..

  5. Unfortunately, most of today’s manufacturers care more about the bottom line and not about making the absolute best product possible for the customer. I really shudder at the expensive, mediocre quality tools I typically see at the big box stores. I really hope the next generation sees the true value of quality craftsmanship.

    • Hi,

      There are plenty of good modern chisel (and tool!) Makers. Sorry, the constant “they don’t make things the way the used to…” attitude I see in hand tool woodworking is mostly nonsense.

      Talk to the small tool maker and ask them if they care about craftsmanship.

  6. I have far too many old chisels, and NO, I will not let them go. They feel too good in my hand. Most, however, are ‘firmer’ chisels.

    I have a set of the ‘good’ blue handled Marples chisels, now I might let those go, when I have all the same sizes in bevel edged old ones. Still looking out for them.

    • I have the first set of blue chips from the 70’s that are about half length now after using them for so long. They did work well and have been archived with some of my other now retired tools.

  7. I have in the past Month refurbished an old, skew backed, tapered sided saw labeled as “warranted Superior” on the medallion that I found on my great grandmas farm in a shed corner dressed up as a small work area. It was missing a couple of the screws that hold the handle on( I can never remember what those things are called) so I bought a not so good saw from the pawn shop to replace those. Anyways to get to the point, I did my best to sharpen it, and it is far from being to its full potential but I enjoy using it so much more that the “throw away” saw I have been using for all of my work. The weight in the old saw just pulls it to task and the handle, to quote Mr. Sellers, “fits like a glove” . You can see that saw in the back ground of the picture I put up of my mahagony wall clock.

    That bring me to a question I have for you Paul, you said in your saw sharpening video that you would be making a video on how to sharpen cross cut saws in the future, but I have yet to find it. I know you must be busy, but I would love to see how to do that properly by you.

    Thank you for everything you do Mr. Sellers, I have the highest respect for you. You have taught me so much more than real wood working. Wood working with hand tools gives me a feeling that is indescribable, and it feels like much more that just wood working.

    • I found a hand saw with the exact same medallion for $1 at a garage sale this weekend! Apparently that label was used by a variety of manufacturers for second run tools that they felt were unworthy of their name. Anyway, I spent an hour rehabbing the saw, and not it is a very fine tool indeed!

  8. Even retired, it seems that everything around me conspires to take control of my time. But I now have the wood, the blanks cut for walking canes, and the four Aldi chisels laid out in a row to flatten and sharpen.

    Thank you so very much for what I anticipate will be a lovely holiday season. I don’t mind at loaning out the Bahco bow saw to a neighbor if he cuts a small tree for us, also.

    (What they say about loaning out your good tools: well, my driveway and sidewalks are between his house and my snow-thrower storage spot. A mutually profitable loan indeed.)

    • It is funny the things we set aside to look forward to. When I was at the woodworking show a few weeks ago `i I bought a couple of seconds chisels and put two boxwood handles on them and I enjoyed the doing of it. I think I have a few hundred chisels for the school, for testing out and researching and so on, so I didn’t really need any more, but it was a pleasing thing to make the chisels ‘firsts’ and then test them out.
      Most tools that are reported on in magazines and catalogs don’t really measure up to the tests and reviews because of course the experiment influences the result by what’s referred to in science as “observer effect” and in reviews and tests this is rarely scientific at all. So tests at the bench carry the greater weight of realism and of course subsequent reviews after periodic longer term testing is all the more valuable in my view. That is why if we do review we might publish an opening opinion if for instance there is a safety issue or erroneous information, but we then follow up with a six-monthly and twelve-monthly updates. A good instance of this was the York vise where it worked well but after a short period proved flawed. Follow up was not correcting flaws but replacing damaged parts. Thos was after a very short period of use. As I said elsewhere, I am using old Record and Woden vises well over 50 years old and some of them 80 years old that have never had any parts replaced nor been repaired and they are still working perfectly.

  9. Hi Paul,
    It seems there’s an abundance of firmer chisels on eBay and car boot sales, and they tend to go much cheaper than their bevel edged counter parts. Have you ever experimented with grinding side bevels on a firmer to make into a bevel edge? If not, how would you go about it?

    • I think you can do that but it is quite a bit of work without the right equipment. I have done it once many years ago but of course to make it look right and in a set of chisels accuracy is key and harder to accomplish.

  10. I’ve become a bit of a ebay shark these days, I’m building up a reasonable starter tool set almost all pre-war high quality tools for far less than their modern equivalents and after a little fettling and footering they work about 10 times better.

    I’ve been noticing that many if not all of these tools are coming from hospices so every auction success has a tinge of melancholy with it and that part of this has been playing on my mind. I think I’ll make and donate a few pieces to the local hospice when my work reaches a better standard as a gesture of gratitude.

  11. High carbon is about 1% (by weight, I assume), the other 99% being just iron atoms. The hammering, drawing, fullering and shaping of a blade all contribute to stress reduction in the finished tool. When steel was still scarce, the Sheffield smiths laminated a thin layer onto iron. This served not just economy, but the iron absorbed shock better than solid steel. Drop forged steel chisels, cheaper to make, are also magnetized by that impact, and collect swarf as you sharpen. Not so with hammered blades. Every hammer blow is energy, and intent, from the smith directly to you. Use those old chisels with the respect they deserve.

  12. Paul,

    I have a question about the sides of your chisels. Do you grind them down a little to make them thinner? If so, does this allow for better accuracy when chopping dovetails? I’m asking because I’ve heard you talk about taking a little steel off the sides of new chisels you buy.


    • The only time I have worked the sides of chisels is if they are not square edged, badly pitted or a safety issue as with the Veritas-V11 chisels where the side bevels meet the flat face and create a sharp long edge. The issue of safety is that this side bevel on Veritas chisels form a sharp cutting edge so those hand sharpening cut the ends of their fingers and then at the bench, in the work, the sides of the fingers are often cut too.
      I generally don’t touch bevels unless I want to make them smooth and refined.

      • Paul,

        Perhaps you should give a thought to the way Alan Peters used to grind the bottoms of his paring chisels to give a rounded shape to them. This meant there were no edges to annoy the hands, nor any obstructions to paring into the bottoms of any restricted cuts, such as dovetails.

        It is not so much the age of the tools, as the way that aged craftsmen always made the tool fit their own hand.

  13. Thank you Paul for all the good lessons that you have given. On the subject of chisels I can understand your fondness for the old ones made in Sheffield. I was fortunate to find a W. Staley (from about 1830) firmer chisel in the $1.00 bin and the steel is unbelievably good…I like it better than the Witherbys or the Swedish made Bergs or Jernbolagets. The tang type chisel seems to be a little cheaper in my part of the world (as compared to the socket type) and just feels more balanced in use. The Aldi chisels are working fine for general work but I always take off the first 2 mm on a new chisel to get past the brittle tip and into the good steel.

  14. Hi Paul, your old chisel seems to have escaped the makers stamp. I say escaped, because a boxwood handle suggests top of range, ergo why no stamp ? An old Sheffield hand once told me that grinders rarely lived beyond 40, if exploding wheels didn’t get them, the dust did,even on the wet wheels.Probably the reason why as people became more affluent, they chose other jobs. As for why machines can’t replicate the handwork, probably for the same reason factory furniture doesn’t look like handmade. What is always a wonder to me is if these mechanised factories are churning out thousands of chisels a day, who uses them ?

    • From what I can see a lot of chisels are purchased and never sharpened. They get used, chipped, made blunt beyond belief and then thrown out and a new one purchased. It’s the throw-away-ism that further fuels cheap made chisels, saws and such. Most people would know where to start with sharpening and they think its a complicated task to achieve.

  15. Thanks Paul for this. It helps confirm that I am on a good track with my antique tool purchases & refurbishments.

    A (very) specific question, if I could trouble you. I am about to turn a new handle for a chisel that is the prodigal twin to the first one pictured on its own in your blog entry. Mine has lost the top part of its handle – mushroomed and split from abuse before I found it. Could you provide the dimensions of yours please, at least the overall length of the handle? Then I have a better chance to fully return mine to proper condition. Many thanks!

  16. I appreciate all the information in this discussion. I don’t say this to criticize, but I was always chastised to keep my chisels from touching steel on steel. It caught my attention right away that the chisels in the drawer were not protected from the steel touching other steel – when the drawer is opened and closed, the edge that was so carefully obtained is bumped by another steel and some of the sharp edge is lost. My woodworking buddies would chastise me if I did that. You must have an answer for this, Paul, because I can’t imagine you would do this if it were wrong. Is this just another old adage like parking a plane on its side? If so, I will relax a little! And, perhaps it will give me an answer to anyone who is upset if my chisels touch each other!

    • You make a good point that comes from the ‘other world‘ of woodworking, Joyce. Some silly things creep in all the time, not the least of which is other people writing little laws for you to adhere to. Whereas at first you can accept such suggested advice, eventually you will work out what’s best for you. Were I to lay down my plane on its side every time I stopped using it to reposition my wood I would be worn down and worn out. It doe not work practically and neither does chisel alignment the way you describe. I used to watch car mechanics semi-toss their wrenches into trays when I was a boy. It took me a few years to realise that the toss was efficient management of time and effort and the wrenches were never damaged any more than when the were applied to the work they were used for. As far as I know I have never damaged one chisel edge piling them in the chisel trays as I have and do and will continue to do. it’s u to you whether you accept the legalists of woodworking and adapt their ways or whether you try something new. I watch my apprentices and students and if they throw their tools carelessly on the benchtop I tell them they should take more care. Students constantly tell me to lay the plane on its side and I ask them why. They tell me standing it causes damage and I tell them it doesn’t. Dead simple

  17. I was recently given 16 chisels and gouges that had last been used in about 1960. they’re by Herring Bros, Mitchell Wreaks, a Marples, an L (?) Sorby and a Ward. I’ve never experienced using tools of such quality. they take and hold an edge beautifully and just feel right. one day, I’ll pass them on to a young woodworker, so the joy can continue…

  18. Paul, I recently bought a set of 6 chisels for $9.99(US) at Harbor Freight in North Carolina (USA). They look similar to the Aldi chisels which are not currently available here. They are made in China. No surprise there. I sharpened one but have not yet put it to the test. It sharpened fairly quickly and now has a mirror finish on both sides. Of course I will not be able to test them like you do at the school. They might be good for the hobby woodworker.
    Thanks for all you do the help us all appreciate the skills that folks who master them and the things they make.

  19. I bought a few mixed batches of Sheffield chisels recently . Many had been abused with hammers and most had split or misaligned handles . Renovating began with making new handles. Then flattening the backs as most seem to have been used to scrape rust off metal plates and the rounded edges had to be ground back . On a fresh sander belt there was a stark difference between the sparks generated. Each chisel gently held on the sander for a few seconds. A one inch wide Colonel chisel produced only a few sparks. Marples and Toga far more sparks but the Sorby chisel gave a flood of sparks .The Sorby made a softer ,smoother and lower sound too . The Colonel chisel a much louder scraping sound . You can tell a lot about steel from the spark patterns . The way sparks split apart after they leave the tool tells you about the steel composition .That was an interesting comparison between different makes .

    • i don’t know the technical details, but a friend who studied metallurgy at university told me that there’s a clear difference between the crystal structure of steel made in a coke-fired furnace compared to an electro-arc fired one. i have mostly old chisels (and other edge tools) and they feel different – leathery? – when sharpening and using them – the Veritas spokeshave being an exception. (it was a gift – i can’t afford those prices!)

  20. Thank you Mr. Sellers for passing down so much information! Your videos, and blog are excellent and very entertaining (to me). Sadly I do not get much time in the workshop, but your videos inspire me. Today I noticed my chisels are a bit rusty on the blade, where I have handled them in the past. Nothing too orange, mostly darkened spots where my fingers touched the blade. Can you recommend a method to clean them up a bit (is it even necessary?) I have seen people use wire wheels on bench grinders to do this. I notice the maker’s mark printed on the blade (not stamped) and wonder if I can preserve that while removing the rust/blackness (which is over top of the mark). Thanks for any reply.

    • distilled malt vinegar (pickling vinegar, or spirit vinegar, as it’s also known) will remove the rust without damaging the steel. it would probably be enough to soak a cloth in it and wrap up the rusty parts for an hour or two (make sure you’ve got good ventilation as the smell is pretty awful), after which the rust should come off easily with a bit of Scotch rite or a similar abrasive scourer. you can also use a 50/50 mix of water and vinegar to remove rust from those tatty old tools you might find here and there, but be sure to rinse them well in clean water and then WD40 afterwards, which will drive the water out of any pores or voids in the metal

    • This type of light rust frosting often comes from the skin, usually from oils and a sweaty touch. Dip some 0000 steel wool into some furniture polish to remove it. this will give a thin coat of wax that also holds out moisture.

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