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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.