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American Edge Tools and their Makers


 
 

Lie-Nielsen Chisels: Better Than Vintage by Christopher Schwarz
Copyright 2006. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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Without a doubt, the out-of-production Stanley 750 chisel is one of the most well-designed cabinetmaking chisels ever made.  The tool is finely balanced and comfortable for both paring and chopping – a rare quality in a chisel of any vintage. And I’ve always had a fondness for the long-term durability of its socket chisel design.

However the quality of the steel in the 750 chisel isn’t the stuff of legends.  The two examples I’ve owned were quite soft, and the edges required honing after meager tasks.  Other owners of 750s I’ve talked to expressed the same opinion to me, though there is a cadre of woodworkers who swear their 750s are excellent users.

For woodworkers such as myself who love the feel but hate the steel of the 750, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks has produced a seductive new set of bevel-edge chisels. Like everything that emerges from the workshops in Warren, Maine, the new Lie-Nielsen chisels are based on proven historical models but are updated with better raw materials and precision manufacturing.

   

The Lie-Nielsen chisels are available as a set of five basic sizes, 1/8”, 1/4”, 3/8”, 1/2” and 3/4”. Other sizes, and mortising chisels, are on the way.

In this case, Thomas Lie-Nielsen took the balance and feel of the 750, but he made the blade using tough cryogenically treated A2 steel instead of carbon steel.  He also replaced the ugly red painted oak (I think it’s oak) handle with a finely turned and finished American hornbeam version.

Manufacturing Details

Quite simply, the chisel is a quality tool in every way.  The edges on the side of the blade are precisely ground close to the face, which allows you to pare out waste between dovetail tails without dinging your joint.

The face of the blade (it’s the unbeveled side, sometimes called the “back”) is ground and polished flat, a remarkable fact I observed on all seven Lie-Nielsen chisels I set up.  Unlike handplane irons, chisels must have a completely flat face to do good work.  If the face is convex or concave the tool will wander off course as you pare and chop.  And learning to compensate for the problem is impossible because the condition of the face varies from tool to tool.

In my job at Popular Woodworking, and after many years of working wood, I’ve set up hundreds of edge tools, both new and vintage.  And until I set up the Lie-Nielsen chisels, I could count the number of truly flat faces I’ve encountered on one hand.  I now have to use two hands.  That alone is a remarkable achievement.

Also worth noting is that these chisels are made in true imperial widths and not the metric equivalents – which are common on Japanese and European tools.  And the widths are precisely ground.  All five chisels were within .001” of their stated widths, something you rarely find among sloppily made consumer brands.

The American hornbeam handle is tougher than you might expect, too.  Though bevel-edge chisels are not generally struck, these tools can take their licks.  In one extreme example, I used the 3/8” model to chop several 1”-deep mortises, and I wailed on the handle like it was a pigsticker mortising chisel.

No matter how much force I used, I could only dimple the butt of the handle, not split it.  In fact, Lie-Nielsen says his employees tested the handles by striking them with a framing hammer and also could not split them.  Score one for American hornbeam.

Edge Durability

Whenever people go chisel shopping, they want to know about edge durability.  I would argue that handle ergonomics are actually more important, however, as long as the blade is tougher than tinfoil.

Each chisel in the test was struck with a brass mallet more than 120 times into redheart, an unforgiving exotic wood. The edges were then examined under a strong light with a 30x jewelers loupe.

 

But I wanted to see how the A2 measured up, especially because the blades aren’t forged like traditional chisels.  They’re turned down from blanks of A2 steel using an unusual process.  So I collected a wide variety of chisels – both new and vintage – that are revered by woodworkers for a comparison.

Among the new Western chisels, I included a Robert Sorby with the boxwood handle, a Marples Blue Chip, an Ashley Iles American-pattern chisel and a hand-forged socket chisel from Barr Quarton at Barr Tools. 

Among the wide variety of vintage chisels available, I settled on a classic 750, a James Swan, a Witherby, an older Buck Brothers socket chisel and a Stanley Everlasting chisel.

From across the Pacific, I picked up a Japanese blue-steel Matsumura, a Nishiki dovetail chisel and a premium Nishiki “presentation” chisel.

 The test was conducted during a series of three days with the help of another editor.  I set up all the chisels in the same manner.  The faces were flattened on a diamond stone, followed by polishing on waterstones.  I ground the primary bevels of all the tools to 30° and honed a 3° microbevel on the edges using Shapton waterstones, ending with 8,000 grit.

To stress the edges, we pounded the chisels into a piece of redheart, an exotic wood that is particularly unkind to edge tools.  We struck each tool using a brass mallet dropped from the same height.  After every 20 whacks, we examined the edges under a 30x jewelers’ loupe, pared cherry end grain with the tool and observed the finish left by the edge and the amount of effort required to make this difficult paring cut.  In all, each tool received more than 120 whacks.  We then repeated the entire test to confirm our results.

This combination of paring and chopping also pointed out the merits and defects of the handles of all the tools.


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