A Cabinetmaker's Notebook

A CabMaker's Notebook


A well known work by Krenov, this is the first in a series of four books written about the art and craft of cabinetmaking....[Read More]
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Bench Chisels

Bench Chisels

This will probably
be one of the most beneficial hours
you have spent learning woodwork. Chisels are such a fundamental...
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American Edge Tools and their Makers


The Return of the Old-school Mortiser by Christopher Schwarz Copyright 2006. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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Ray Iles revives a long-vanished,

traditional mortising chisel.

With all the fancy steels and CNC equipment available these days, it's both amusing and pathetic that some toolmakers cannot manufacture a functional hand tool. The problem, I believe, is a phenomenon called "photocopying."

Photocopying is when a toolmaker creates something that looks like a bevel-edge chisel you'd see in a catalog, but the chisel lacks critical details that make it do chisel-like things. And with each generation of tool, the photocopy degrades in quality until you finally find it in the home center's tool crib by the laser levels.

Chances are the unbeveled side of the tool will be horribly out-of-flat. The chisel's side bevels will be entirely too thick to allow the tool to cut a dovetail. The handle will have the silhouette of a wooden handle, but it will be made with a heavy plastic, making the chisel too top-heavy to control when holding the tool by the blade.

So it's no small wonder that beginners get frustrated when their home-center chisels don't work. After a failed chisel session, beginners either turn to old chisels that were made correctly, or perhaps they find one of the few modern makers that haven't forgotten how to make a chisel, or they give up on handwork.

One of the most egregiously photocopied tools has been mortising chisels.  Many of these modern tools are misnamed, missing features, poorly manufactured and difficult to use.  But now an English toolmaker with his family roots deep in Sheffield has recently started making mortising chisels that are a revelation. 

The tools plunge into hardwoods like an Olympic diver through water, and they lever out waste like an electric crowbar. 


The Ray Iles mortising chisels revive a pattern of tool that has been lost for decades. They work remarkably well, outcutting other chisels and even giving a hollow-chisel mortiser a run for its money.

They work because Ray Iles has paid attention to every single detail found on the old English mortising chisels, and he took no shortcuts.

This particular pattern of mortising chisel sometimes called pigstickers hasn't been manufactured for many years.  It looks primitive at first glance , like a cartoon thug's knife.  But on close examination, it's a tool of much subtlety.  And so I had to get re-acquainted with the mortise chisel to find out why it works so well and explore the almost-forgotten techniques for wielding them.

A Brute of Great Refinement

Unlike the sash mortising chisels and firmer chisels that are labeled mortising chisels these days, the Ray Iles tools are massive and heavy.  The six tools Iles offers are more than 12" long about half the tool is the blade; the other half is the beech handle. Both halves are equally important to the function of the whole.

The blades (offered in widths from 3/16" to 1/2") are remarkably thick at the tool's bolster (almost 3/4") and this thickness tapers as you approach the shallow 20 primary bevel.  The cutting edge of the tool is ground at a stout and appropriate 35 secondary bevel. 

One nice aspect of all this blade geometry is that you can use the 20 bevel as a depth indicator.  When all of the bevel is buried in the mortise, your mortise is a shade more than 1-1/4" deep, which is the typical depth used with 3/4"-thick stock.  As you sharpen the primary bevel back, this will change slightly, but I don't suspect you'll be sharpening these much.

As you can see from the thin line of light between the square and the chisel's flanks, the sides of the Ray Iles chisels are tapered, allowing the tool to release easily from a deep cut.


That's because Ray Iles decided to use D2 steel for the blade.  This exotic steel is tough, as durable as any I've worked with. 

There are advantages and one disadvantage to the D2.  First let's look at D2's single demerit: It's no fun to sharpen.  Setting up these tools took longer than I expected because of the D2's stout personality. 

The backs (sometimes called the "faces") of the chisels were ground at the factory quite well.  Only one of the six (the 1/4") was a bit squirrelly.  And thank goodness.  My DMT diamond stones shrank in fear of the D2 as I trued the backs.  So even though they were close to perfect from the factory, taking them that last step took a little longer.

Putting the final polish on the backs was easy for my Norton waterstones.  I also tried them out on the Shapton ceramic stones, which worked, but not as well as the Nortons.  Sharpening up the secondary bevel also took longer than usual because of the D2's pigheadedness.

Also worth noting: One of the narrow chisels (that 1/4" again) was ground initially out of square, and one of the larger tools (the 7/16") had some chips in its edge.  Both of these needed a brief trip to the grinder before honing.  Note that the top surface of these chisels is domed, and that's the surface that will contact your grinder's tool rest. The doming isn't a problem as long as you are aware of it as you begin grinding.

If you sharpen freehand, you're home free at this point.  If you use a honing guide, you might be scratching your head as you head into honing.  The tools will kinda fit in the garden-variety side-clamp honing guides with some fiddling, but they are too big for other honing guides in our shop.  The VERITAS honing guide (the old one; not the new Mk. II) holds the tools reasonably well, and that's the guide I ended up using the most.

After sharpening them up, I can report that the D2 seems worth it.  Even after a whole cabinet's worth of mortises, for example, the edge to the 1/4" chisel looked and felt like it was still freshly sharpened. My Sorby mortisers (which I have since given away) would not have survived half that much work before crumbling like tinfoil.

The final detail worth noting is that the blade is not rectangular in cross-section. The flanks are tapered (I measured the taper as varying between 1 and 2).  This taper is present on quality older tools and missing on later tools and every modern chisel I've encountered.  The taper helps the chisel release when you pull it out of a deep cut. It also makes it easier to lever the waste out in my experience.  And the taper has no disadvantages that I can discern. The chisel does not twist in the cut at all.

Woodworker's Guide to Wood Collection only $79.99 at Shop Woodworking
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Swan Chisels

L. & I. J. White

Buck Bros


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