For more information on chisels, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.
Bench-tested Chisel Test
People ask me about a chisel I might like—one I consider recommendable as a chisel made to last and then with qualities developed for refined work. The question is common enough and of course I like especially to steer new woodworkers toward a chisel I’ve tested well and not just once at the workbench because that’s not really what’s considered a true bench-test. People are mostly alike in that they look for a chisel that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg yet they want steel that takes a good edge and holds up to the demands of a producing craftsman.
Ashley Iles, England’s Maker
Working with chisels all my working life to date I think I’ve used every type and make you care to name going through the alphabet of makers. Whereas I’ve recommended and still recommend the supermarket-chain Aldi chisels that have surely stood the test of time for me and the school, I think it fair to promote a maker who’s a second-generation producer of fine edge tools with a good reputation for carving tools and chisels of different types. Whereas low cost chisels are good to see of you like woodworking; as a starter set, and Aldis do take and hold their edge, I think we all want a chisel that looks good too.
I have come to know Ashley Iles chisels more functionally through use of late and I like them very much; more than any other modern maker. They’ve been making for over two-thirds of a century to date. Ashley Iles was a man I met in the early 80s and established his manufactory in Lincolnshire. The business is still run by his family as a small producer with in-house production using English steel for producing their edge tools. With the world changing so much over recent decades, and global marketing being heralded as the new world wonder, I confess on the one hand enjoying seeing some tools still being made in England and then wonder how long that can last.
Some aspects of modern makers is to add a different bolster to the chisel. This strengthens what was hitherto a weak point in chisels that inevitably bent if you didn’t know it as a weaker point. The bolster thickens the ‘neck’ and the end of the handle inside the ferrule seats squarely against the bolster, which offers support to the full circumference of the handle.
Whereas many tool makers having offices only in the UK have bought the names of original Sheffield makers like Marples, Record and many others, rarely do they continue making in the UK and mostly they do buy lesser steels manufactured outside the UK using lesser alloys and methods of production. I am glad to say that Ashley Iles chisels are still hand forged using drop hammers to develop the steel to its ultimate of peak-performing condition and then all of the work is still done individually by the hand and eye of the makers. It takes skill to do this and the end result is a chisel that takes and keeps the keen edge we rely on. I have Ashley Iles bevel-edged chisels and they are lovely to use.
When Plastic Handles Arrived
My early years brought in the plastic handled chisel versions heralded then as the new revolution years of plastics when they were ushered in as the indestructible versions of the old wooden handled chisels prior to the 1960s. My generation embraced plastic unquestioningly in the same way people embraced polyurethane finishes without realising we were losing something called care and at the same time encouraging something called carelessness. Prior to this era only a brute would ever use a steel claw hammer on a wooden handled chisel and often with that would beat on the chisel that hitherto always depended on thoughtfulness and care. Of course we don’t have to do follow suit and many of us never did, but then ask yourself why makers extol the virtues of “split-proof handles.” Even worse, why are steel caps seen as something valued to a craftsman? As a furniture maker, I still like placemats, coasters and serving boards that protect the pieces I’ve made with such carefulness. I see things differently than the generation that loved the idea of no longer protecting fine work in fine furniture pieces. So it is with chisel handles. Whereas I don’t hate all plastic-handled chisels, they still lack what their wooden versions have and that’s a certain warmth of quality.
I bought Ashly Iles chisels in 2015
The cost of Ashley Iles chisels places them in the realms of affordability. Whereas I think £50-70 a pop for each individual chisel is too much to pay for a chisel so I tested one type that seems to fit just about any work and does indeed suit the pocket when it comes to price. Whereas they are not inexpensive, when you consider they will last a lifetime if you use non-grind sharpening methods as I do, they will last most people for a lifetime of use.
Chisels that Match the Quality of Old
It was a year ago when I bought the Ashley Iles bevel edged chisels to work them as hard as I have my now very aging Marples and Ward chisels. When I say work them hard I don’t at all mean harshly or over-demandingly in a brutish way. Though I have seen that all too often, that’s never the way of the craftsman. But I was more used to chisels with wooden handles known for longevity, woods like boxwood, ash and beech—chisels with bubinga handles would be new to me. Fact is they’ve held up well, suit my hand perfectly and the shape and size makes the chisels just lovely and well balanced in the hand. I have been surprised just how long these chisels keep their keen edge. They have been just about the best I have had for that. They are indeed very nice chisels to own.
Room for Improvement
The question some might pose is whether the makers might not go the extra mile and refine the back face and bevels to provide more refined surfaces for the hands to rub up against. Well, I am not altogether sure I would worry too much about something I could refine myself if I wanted to. I think the price makes the chisels affordable and the quality within component parts makes the chisel one I am recommending. Search around the net for the right price. I need only six chisels for my work; 1/8″, 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″. I like the 1 1/4″ as an added chisel but it’s not really essential, just nice.
Worth Waiting For
As a small maker with limited staff, you may have to place your order and wait patiently. I think they’re worth the wait. They have the slender profile of the early bevel-edged chisel makers of yore and it’s this that give them the “edge” on other makers as well as the traditional drop-hammer forging of course. The set that’s best includes the 1/8″, which is always a lone chisel that costs a bit more than the others, but life without a 1/8″ chisel???