A UK Chisel I Like

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.p1560582

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.

p1560583I 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.p1560584

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.

Disingenuous Makers

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.p1560590

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.p1560596

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.p1560591

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???

34 comments on “A UK Chisel I Like

  1. uber tools: — Imagine if products were rented instead of sold outright. A lifetime product would have low rent that lasted forever. A cheap product would have high rent for 90 days. The technology exists to transfer small sums automatically at regular intervals and to pull the plug on those who fail to live up to their financial obligations. They say buying quality is cheaper in the long run. Let’s put it to the test. The wallet test.

    • That is an absolutely brilliant idea, Keith…tools that are of such high caliber they last more than one lifetime. We rent them throughout our lives and pass them on to the next generation. Something the Greens could really get behind. Well done!

  2. I bought a set in the sizes you refer to at the north of England woodworking show last year and I love them, as you said they are so well balanced and they do hold the edge very well. Overall a fantastic investment.

  3. I’m glad the subject of chisels has come up… I’ve been wondering for a while; just how important is the thickness of the side bevel in a bench chisel? I’ve noticed that it does help to have a thin side when cleaning up the inside corners of dovetails, especially half blind dovetails, but there is always the knife for that too. The AldI’s have a pretty pronounced side-bevel, Some Pfeil bench chisels I have are thin at the edge, but thick at the bolster end. The Ashley Ile’s look to be thin throughout the length. Older chisels I’ve seen also are (usually) quite thin along the length. So, how important is this criteria or is this really a non-issue? (My experience with different types is limited.)

    • Experience tells me that the sharper your chisel the less effort is needed with the chisel hammer and so the hammer has less impact because of the lesser resistance factor. This is something that’s rarely mentioned in bench tests but has a huge influence on the chisel.

      • So, the thickness of the chisel throughout its length really doesn’t matter? As L. Arthur mentioned, a thick chisel will make it difficult to clean a dovetail corner. But other than that, is it just a matter of aesthetics?

  4. If you could make a slight adjustment to the formatting of this well considered recommendation. The “Disingenuous Makers” section is close enough to the picture of the Ashley Isles chisel that I wondered for a second if that heading went with the image.

    Thanks again for all of your hard word in sharing your knowledge and experience. I can’t tell you how much joy I get from watching Paul’s videos and reading his words.

  5. I just ordered a set. I have a mixed bag of old chisels that I’ve been trying to keep going. I also bought some Narex chisels, which work ok, but I have to frequently re-hone them. Not really hard to do, but I have to do it often enough that it becomes a distraction. Can’t wait for the new ones to get here!

  6. I’ve had the Ashley Isles chisels for a couple of years and, while I’m a bit of a novice, I really like them. They’re great for finer work but I also just finished using the half inch chisel to make leg mortices a for my Paul Sellers workbench – so they can work hard too!

    The chisel backs are deliberately hollow by a couple of thou which makes initial preparation very easy too.

  7. When I embarked on this craft a year ago, the Ashley Iles bench chisel set (the “smaller” set of 6, 1/8″ – 1″) was the first “serious” hand tool purchase I made. I figured, the chisel sounds like the fundamental woodworking tool, so start with ostensible quality and go from there…

    I do not regret it. In retrospect, now knowing more about what a sharp edge should do, I realize they weren’t 100% ready to work from the factory. But they really didn’t need more than a few passes on a fine/x-fine diamond stone and then a handful of pulls on the strop.

    They are great tools. Not too heavy, not too light. The handle is sized in such a way that I think unless you have very very large hands, you will find it comfortable. They are beautiful tools — the bubinga and brass ferrules look wonderful. I’d lie if I said I put more than a couple hours of use into them per week, but the quality and durability is undeniable even at that sparing usage.

    And most importantly, as Paul mentions, my experience was that once I realized they need a quick honing — using Mr. Seller’s surprisingly easy and amazingly effective by-hand/no jig method — I’ve hardly had to look back — a few pulls on the strop here and there as you work and you won’t take these back to the stones for many many hours of paring or even lighter mortising work, of that I am confident.

    The only “complaint” I could levy is probably more a complaint of my technique. Paul chops mortises with his bevel edge chisels. I have been able to do that comfortably above the 1/4″ size, but a project I recently finished that required four 1/4″ mortises I found the chisel was just a bit too light and flexed more than I was comfortable with when levering out the waste. I purchased a single Sorby 1/4″ mortise chisel for this, and I am glad… though in retrospect I think I would’ve went with something with a bit less length and a wooden handle.

    As I’ve said, I think that “fault” is really in my technique as I learn, not in the tool. I did chop the entire first mortise with the 1/4″ bench chisel, I just found the mortise chisel allowed me to go quite a bit faster on the remaining three. It is probably entirely down to confidence in my abilities, and another year from now I wouldn’t be surprised if I find the mortise chisel is a dust collector and I sell it on.

    Lastly, a great thing about the Ashley Iles chisels for those of us in the U.S. is that they are readily available at fair prices. I have no affiliation to any site, so I won’t link… but you can look at reputable hand tool retailers The Best Things and Tools for Wood Working.

    If you compare their prices for these chisels to that of “premium” American makers of chisels, such as Blue Spruce or Lie-Nielsen, you can see that the Iles chisels are very accessible. Not a knock on makers like Blue Spruce and LN (I own a LN plane and a LN saw), but it is fair to say that some folks simply either can’t afford them, or perhaps more to the point, can’t justify the expense compared to something like these Ashley Iles chisels.

    Even the Veritas bench chisels are quite expensive, where LV/Veritas usually strike a great balance of excellent quality for the money. I love the PMV-11 blade I have, and so I have no doubts that the newer Veritas PMV-11 chisels are wonderful tools, but it would cost over $100 more to buy the same set of sizes as the Iles chisels.

  8. What do you think of the Narex chisels? I just ordered a set from Lee Valley, as I wanted something a bit more refined than my plastic handled Stanleys.

    • I have a set of Narex chisels. They work ok, but mine require frequent honing. For an inexpensive set, they are fine. If you are just starting out, I think they will do for a time, but you will grow out of them, I think. At least I did. If they were a little harder, and kept an edge better, I would really like them.

          • It’s not really an issue. As Andrew said, I have gotten pretty good at honing and sharpening. Paul mentions a few times about being in control when you are using tools. I started to notice after a couple dovetails, that the wood started to compress, instead of being neatly cut. I stopped and re-honed every time this happened. So, lemonade from lemons; I think it’s taught me a couple pretty valuable lessons. I say buy the Narex chisels and see how you like them. I plan to keep mine for a spare set, or to start my son out on when he gets older.

  9. Hi Paul,
    I see that there are two types of chisel on offer – bench and butt. Other than personal preference, what advantages / disadvantages do you see when comparing the two?
    Regards
    Keith

  10. I have a set myself. I like them a lot. However the bolster on my 1/2 in. recently came loose. Have you ever had this happen? Should I just cement it back in place or do you thing it’s something AI would want to take a look at?

    Thank you.

  11. The PDF catalogue on the Ashley Iles website has a very interesting description of their manufacturing process, for anyone who is interested. I’m going to save up for a nice 1 1/4″ chisel myself! C

  12. What do you think of the Sorby traditional bevel edge chisels (traditional used to separate them from their gilt edge series)? Are they still made in England using English steel? I see they have boxwood handles and look quite similar to your older Marples chisels.

    • My bench tests were not that good. Edge fracture or crumpling were the issues. Some say remove the first 1/8″ of steel to get to consistent steel hardness but on the sets I tested that made little if any noticeable difference. It is hard to say if they are actually UK made as the company I believe is owned by Spear & Jackson and most S&J tools are now made outside the UK.

  13. Mr Seller this post was very useful to me, Thank You sir.
    Mostly because my ‘confusion/misconceptions’ around the most used sizes and why.
    The majority of my woodworking info came from this blog and others from Anglo-saxon world, but here (in Portugal – maybe because of the market rules or several Continental European standards??) timbers measurements follow different patterns (multiples and sub-multiples of 3, 4, 5mm plus some outsiders like 70x90mm)
    So may I suggest a blog post or a Q/A on the most useful auger bit set of sizes?
    (At the moment I can only think in getting bits with the same size of my chisel set but I’m sure I’m missing something)

  14. Hi Gents,

    Just received my new set of Ashley Iles chisels. I got them from thebestthings.com. Ashley Iles has a wait list for new sets. Good luck.

  15. Hi Paul I have one or two Ashley Isles chisels and carving gouges which, like you, I certainly rate very highly. I also have a seven piece set of chisels that were bought for me for my 7th yes, 7th Birthday. That is 61 years ago. They are, as far as I can see, stamped with a ‘Palm Tree’ brand? I have used them daily since that Birthday and they are wonderful. Each chisel has a different sized handle in Boxwood to suite the respective size chisel. Do you have any knowledge as to who made them please.

  16. i recently purchased an ally isles mortise chisel. it really is different to the narex mortise chisel i own ilove it wish i had bought ashley isles chisels instead of narex .I only order one to see if i would like it.Living in western canada these chisels are not cheap but definitely worth the money. I will order more.

  17. I sent for a set of ashly isles chisels four in a cardboard. when i opened the box and removed them the brass ferrels fell off hadn’t even used them. i was very dissapointed in the the workmanship of this product they offered me a full refund but i decided to keep them just to se if they work better than they look.

    • Yup! I’m afraid there is something of a complacency where occasionally an older British company thinks that just being a British entity is what makes and keeps them good or even best when other countries and continents gradually and even quickly surpass them. Loyalty has to be earned by a current generation and should never be displaced or misplaced. In my testing of the chisels I did ultimately find inconsistencies in standards of workmanship and found the 3/8″ chisel snapped under only minor effort. That said, it could have been flawed so I bought a second to test it out but have not concluded my testing of it yet. But the ones I ordered do take and hold a good edge. That part of the test is good, excellent. I wonder that they haven’t gone a little too thin by eyeballing bevels and thicknesses in the processing, but I have just as thin old Marples and Wards of similar section that have been with me forever and they have never bent or snapped. ferrule issue might depend on where they were shipped to and how long they were in stock. The handle stock should be dried down to under 5% and kept at that level before adding the ferrule so that the wood swells into the ferrule and doesn’t shrink from it.

  18. Hi Paul,

    Do you still think the AI chisels are good chisels? I am interested in getting some of the butt chisels for dovetailing.

    • I use Aldi chisels full time now. They know no equal and I love them. One thing though, Of all the tools made today, the very worst has been the butt chisel. Just my opinion, others like them. They are like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. I love it, wouldn’t wake up to anything else. I do hate butt chisels though.

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