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Thread: What determines a chisel's quality?

  1. #1
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    What determines a chisel's quality?

    I am a college student and I am trying to slowly transition out of lower quality tools to higher quality longer lasting tools. I started another post the other day asking where people buy their tools. I stated that a lot of times I use amazon or big box stores (I prefer lowes). Many of the people who responded to that post said they never buy tools from places like lowes. This got me wondering, what makes a chisel a good chisel. Most of my chisels are kobalt chisels from lowes. I like the kobalt because they are cheap and never had an issue with them. So this is making me wonder why Brands like lie nelson chisels are better than the cheaper chisels like Kobalt. What is the difference and how do I know I am buying a quality chisel. I am not against working up to buying more expensive tools if there is a functional purpose behind it. I am not one who needs something just for the brand. No reason to buy a Ferrari when my Honda fit works perfectly well.

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by Adam Herd View Post
    I am a college student and I am trying to slowly transition out of lower quality tools to higher quality longer lasting tools. I started another post the other day asking where people buy their tools. I stated that a lot of times I use amazon or big box stores (I prefer lowes). Many of the people who responded to that post said they never buy tools from places like lowes. This got me wondering, what makes a chisel a good chisel. Most of my chisels are kobalt chisels from lowes. I like the kobalt because they are cheap and never had an issue with them. So this is making me wonder why Brands like lie nelson chisels are better than the cheaper chisels like Kobalt. What is the difference and how do I know I am buying a quality chisel. I am not against working up to buying more expensive tools if there is a functional purpose behind it. I am not one who needs something just for the brand. No reason to buy a Ferrari when my Honda fit works perfectly well.
    Adam,

    What determines a chisel's quality, is simply "balance" and how it fits into your planed work. As an example many folks on this forum love their LN chisels, they don't work for me because the steel doesn't work with my sharpening system and I find socket chisels unbalanced in hand. Of course YMMV. Back to balance, the steel needs to be Goldilocks, not too hard but not too soft and it needs to sharpen quickly with your stones and then hold a sharp edge, not a kinda sharp edge, for a reasonable amount of work. The handle needs to fit your hand and the whole chisel should be neither nose heavy nor tail heavy. Some folks like "firmer" chisels others want bevel edge chisels, both work. Most do not like chisels that have other than wood handles yet the older blue handled Marples was a bestseller.

    Bottom line the only way to find out is to buy or find someone that has a chisel brand you are interested in and put metal to wood. One thing I am confident of is once you try and work with a good japanese chisel or a good turn of the last Century hand forged Western chisel you will know the difference. Now if it is worth it to you is another story.

    ken

  3. #3
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    Where Ken doesn't like socket chisels, for me they are preferred because of the ease with which a new handle can be made.

    Also the way a tool works and feels in my hand is an important factor. If a chisel handle isn't comfortable or easy to grip with my old hand injury, a new handle is made. A few years ago the local ACE Hardware had a sale on a 3 piece set of Stanley chisels for $3 or so. They are perfectly good chisels but not really my cup of tea. They stay in my beater chisel drawer for use outside the shop or as loaners.

    What it comes down to mostly is personal preference. My most often used chisels are old beat up Buck Brothers socket chisels. Almost all of mine are ground to a very shallow bevel, 15 - 20 for paring. These used to be a lot less expensive and are still more economical than many new chisels on the market.

    LN chisels are made of A2 steel which has a tendency to chip at low bevel angles. If one chops out a lot of dovetails, these might be preferred ground to a higher angle.

    Fortunately most manufacturers make a product to fit a "quality/price range" to be in competition with other makers.

    There are many decent chisels available inexpensively if one is willing to do the hunting. You may try ALDI chisels available in your area. Others have expressed good luck for an inexpensive set. It might be a seasonal thing around Father's Day, not sure. Harbor Freight also sells an inexpensive Windsor line of chisels. My impression of them was that they wouldn't be comfortable in my hands, YMMV.

    Many of my chisels came from buying group lots on ebay, hunting through Habitat for Humanity stores, antique stores, yard sales, junk stores and just about any place that could be found with old rusty stuff for sale.

    It is also a good idea to talk with the folks where ever you are hunting. They may not have what you want, but quite often being pleasantly inquisitive has earned me a good line on a better place to hunt. Especially ask at antique shops and antique malls. They may have one seller who displays a lot of tools. Many antique dealers are members of associations and know what other dealers in the area carry.

    Another thing to remember is often in antique mall type stores the individual sellers will be in once or twice a week working the counter. Often you can come in on the day someone who sells tools is in the store and maybe work deals with them outside the shop.

    Look for used tool stores. There inventory changes regularly so stop in whenever you can. Get to talking with the people there. Not only can it save time, but it can even save you money to know the name of the person at the counter when you walk in and say hello Susan (or whatever their name may be).

    Your Cobalt chisels are probably fine and serviceable tools. There are many like them in my beater drawer. For me, plastic handles do not feel right. For many blue handle Marples chisels are the cat's pajamas. To me, the comfort of the tool in my hand enhances the pleasure of using it.

    jtk
    Last edited by Jim Koepke; 04-07-2018 at 4:27 PM. Reason: spelling & Another thing to remember
    "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
    - Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Adam Herd View Post
    ... No reason to buy a Ferrari when my Honda fit works perfectly well.
    I agree on Honda as the sweet spot, but different folks weigh things differently. (Ferrari is one of many cars on my "if someone else is paying for it" list.) Also, I wouldn't want to shoot for the Honda quality and end up with a Yugo.

    Ken & Jim have summed up some of the quality & preference differences. Something else to consider is that I've never seen much variety in chisel styles in a big box store. It's hard to have success mortising with a paring chisel or paring with a mortise chisel.

    Also, re: Aldi Chisel special, it's been seasonal near Fathers Day and I'm not sure anyone would hold them up as great chisels. They are surprisingly good for the money ($8 for set of four) and usually reported to have an adequate heat treatment, but in every case I've heard the owner has spent time flattening, sharpening, even reprofiling them and usually modified or made replacements for the handles. I view them more as a curiosity or "fun" project.

  5. #5
    You really don't know what you will like in a chisel until you use them for a while, and then like most people you end up with a bunch of different chisels. Some chisels work well for some things and not for others. What makes a good dovetail chisel usually makes for a poor mortice chisel, yet many people do them both with the same set of bench chisels.

    I have two main sets of chisels I use and a few sets of beaters for when i don't want to risk my good ones. The one I tend to use the most is a set of 750 style chisels by various manufacturers. I like the size and balance, but I hate when the sockets come loose in the winter. They are vintage high carbon steel and sharpen very nicely, but have average edge retention. I also have a set of Two Cherries I accumulated when I lived near a Rockler years ago. Every time they sent me a coupon I bought another one till I had a full set. They are a steel closer to A2 and want a higher bevel angle. They don't take as keen of an edge as the carbon steel ones, but they hold their edge better. I usually use the 750 style chisels in softer woods or harder woods without a mallet. I use the Two Cherries in harder woods and where I need more leverage since they are longer.

    The truth of the matter is I could live if I only had either one. Actually I could have just kept using my old blue handled Marples and been just fine. I still do use them just not as often. I do have some other specialty chisels like long parers and mortice chisels.

    Be warned that not all areas are aflush with vintage chisels. In 30 years of casual looking in and around Mpls in garage sales, antique stores, and flea markets I have found only a handful of serviceable chisels. Plenty of planes but very few chislels, go figure. The few really good ones I found were priced like they were used by Michelangelo on David. My last look at eBay had a lot of the decent old chisels close to or exceeding the cost of new good chisels. I'm glad I got mine about 15 years ago. Not sure what I would buy if I was starting out again these days. I'd probably try one of a few different kinds and see how they did.

  6. #6
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    Aldi's sells them twice a year...and they sell out on the first day. Have two sets....they seem to fit my hands nicely enough...took about an hour, to get all four chisels ready for work. Most of my other bench chisels are by Witherby and the like. Mortise chisels are from the same era as the Witherbys....and one 12mm Japanese Mortise chisel.

    YMMV

  7. #7
    In my own testing - chisels seem to shake out into 3 categories:

    Poor.
    Adequate.
    Excellent.

    Please be aware that these are not PRICE categorizations - but rather function... There are some relatively inexpensive tools which perform well and some very expensive ones which do not...

    Once you make it up to Adequate - you can do a lot of work for a long time without pressing need to upgrade (unless you want to of course. ). There are some differences in performance on wood. But the main differences in this category often shake out with balance, feel in hand, and design for the job you are doing.

    Pushing up to excellent often involves getting many things right - not just "better" steel... So better handles/feel in hand, better balance, better steel, and the chisel itself carefully ground to require minimum prep work done by you...

    In my opinion - the first major consideration for what should you buy depends on your current sharpening.. I have come to appreciate quality low alloy high carbon steel.. They sharpen very nicely and are very easy to maintain.

    Here's a quick summary of the stuff I have tried.. Hopefully this will save you some time. Please note: I have not tried stuff that's not on this list

    A step down from what you have:
    Aldi, Harbor Freight, Current production Buck Bro's, and Woodcraft green handle.

    On par with what you have: Stanley Fat Max, Ace Premium chisels, Irwin steel shank chisels, and Dewalt chisels

    A step up: Stanley Bailey, Marples blue handle, Narex

    Two steps up: Two cherries, Ashley Iles, Stanley socket, Pfeil carpenters chisel (woodcraft). Woodcraft socket chisels.

    In my mind - the best value is Marples blue handle. I would recommend these to anybody who wants to buy a good set of chisels that they will be able to use for a long time.

    My favorite of these is the Woodcraft socket chisels.

  8. #8
    The Aldis chisels are good chisels. I modded my handles because I wanted to, but they work just fine the way they come.
    Regarding flattening and sharpening them, I had the same experience as Steven; they were relatively easy to get going. Look around the forum at the difficulties some have had flattening Narex, Two Cherries, or other brands in common use; you will see that flattening and sharpening chisels is going to be necessary no matter what you buy in a mid price range. $70 a piece and up? I have no idea, but most chisels will need flattening of the backs and sharpening before use, even good vintage ones.
    But the Aldis are definitely seasonal.
    Like Jim said, your Kobalts are probably fine. As far as the steel goes, I doubt you'd see much advantage to upgrading until you got within the range of Lie Neilson or Veritas, and that's a big jump.
    But if the Kobalts are anything like other plastic handled chisels, they are heavy and the balance is sort of "off". I think balance is as important as steel, to me. And wooden handles tend to offer lighter, better balanced chisels, generally speaking. If that matters to you, I would look into the Narex. Yes, you will have to put in the work to get the backs flat and get them sharp, but they are generally well liked and have a decent rep, and they are, last time I looked, between $15 and $20 apiece, depending on size. The side lands on their Classic Bevel Edge chisels look relatively thin, also, which will be important in dovetail work.
    I have two sets of the Aldis, and they work well for me. For finer work, I have a couple of vintage chisels I use. I also bought the Harbor Freight set, and while they work just fine, they are butt ugly and the handles are uncomfortable. IMO avoid them unless you have no choice.
    As a newbie starting out, if I could do it over again I would have bought the Narex a chisel at a time if I had to. You could get by with 1/4", 1/2" and 3/4" or 1" for a long time. 1/4, 1/2 and 1 are my most used, and I doubt that will change anytime soon.
    Last edited by Mike Baker 2; 04-07-2018 at 7:36 PM.

  9. #9
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    In terms of steel, I would say quality has to do with its ability to hold an edge at a reasonably acute angle, to where it doesn't fail by chipping or rolling, and instead gradually wears over time in a way that requires minimal effort to resharpen (which is not the case if there is chipping). For most any steel, there is some edge angle that allows the chisel to behave like this. A higher quality chisel can tolerate a lower bevel angle than a lower quality one, which makes working a little easier and gives results that are a little cleaner. So I would prefer a chisel that has a stable, durable edge at 28 degrees to one that has to be sharpened at 35 degrees to achieve the same durability.

    Of course the edge durability is heavily affected by the user's skill/experience and the type of task. So people will have wildly varying experiences. But from your own personal experience you can begin to make judgments.

    Beyond the steel quality, there is balance, ergonomics, aesthetics, and fit and finish. But these are very personal and its difficult to say much that is useful without knowing your preferences.

    The main point is that if you don't feel that your current chisels are holding you back, if they're not frustrating you in some way, then stick with them. There are plenty of other avenues to explore and other tools to spend money on.

  10. #10
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    There are many different opinions on this, I think Andrew's answer is spot on though.

    For new ones I got some of the woodcraft ones, not the socket and not the plastic handle, but whatever they call the line in between and have been happy so far. I also have one of the current irwin blue handle ones and it is ok. My least favorite is a lie nielson that I ordered to test out, A2 steel and me just dont get along. I also just got a couple Japanese but have not used them enough to say one way or another.

    If what you have is working though dont sweat it, spend your money on something else. If you want to experiment but one each of a few different makers and see what you like.

  11. #11
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    Since you are not looking for a Ferrari but a Honda, you need to decide what you need your chisel to do, and then, you can formulate your quality criteria.

    All chisels need to cut. So, a high-quality chisel will (1) Become very sharp; (2) It will stay sharp a long time; (3) It will not chip or roll or dull quickly. These three factors are decided by (1) Steel quality (chemical content and purity); and (2) Fabrication (forging) technique; and (3) design. A high-quality chisel, therefore, will have a time-tested design, be made from high-quality steel and other materials, will be properly forged with a proper combination of the right hardness and toughness, and with high-quality crystalline structure.

    All chisels need to be resharpened. So a general-purpose (versus High-speed steel chisel) high-quality chisel will be easy to sharpen. Sharpening quality is driven by hardness, but more importantly, the steel's chemical composition. Anything with tungsten is hard to sharpen.

    A sharp edge is decided by the precise intersection of two planes of a blade. On of these two faces in a chisel is the face. If this is not a flat plane, truly sharp will be very difficult to obtain quickly. Plain flat faces tend to get rounded over during use and sharpening. The Japanese chisel is hollow-ground and easier/quicker to keep in shape, and quicker to get sharp. It is the only design with this feature.

    A quality chisel must be durable and efficient. It is, after all, a working tool, not a decoration. If you strike it with a hammer, a high-quality chisel will accept the maximum possible force without the blade bending or breaking, and without the handle splitting or breaking. Look carefully at handle construction. The best chisels are either socket construction, or better yet, tang and ferrule construction with a steel hoop on the end to keep the handle from splitting. If you must baby the chisel by using a plastic, urethane, rawhide, or wooden hammer, it is not a high-quality working tool, even if it is pretty.

    The Germanic tradition places priority on ease of sharpening, so blades are soft. The Japanese tradition places priority on edge durability, so the cutting edges are harder. The current American tradition has medium-hard blades.

    The American tradition places priority on ease of manufacture, medium quality, medium to high price. The Japanese tradition is high quality, medium to high price. The Chinese tradition is low quality, low price. Most of what is sold in America nowadays is Chinese, so caveat emptor, baby.

    You can't judge a chisel's quality hanging on a store wall or on an Amazon webpage.
    Last edited by Stanley Covington; 04-07-2018 at 11:11 PM.

  12. #12
    For me, the major determinant of chisel quality is the steel it is made from. I can make new handles to fit my hand but I can't do much to change the metal, itself.

    I like the PM-V11 chisels from LV for ease of sharpening, sharpening to a fine edge, and holding a sharp edge for a long time compared to plain carbon steel chisels.

    Japanese chisels are hardened to a higher degree than most western chisels but can be expensive. Because the steel is harder, they will hold an edge longer than western carbon steel chisels. The higher degree of hardening makes them a bit slower to sharpen. I have a set of Japanese chisels but have re-handled them because I don't like the metal hoops on the end of the handle. I gave them western handles and generally treat them the same as I do western chisels.

    Mike
    Last edited by Mike Henderson; 04-07-2018 at 11:36 PM.
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by John C Cox View Post
    In my own testing - chisels seem to shake out into 3 categories:

    A step down from what you have:
    Aldi, Harbor Freight, Current production Buck Bro's, and Woodcraft green handle.

    On par with what you have: Stanley Fat Max, Ace Premium chisels, Irwin steel shank chisels, and Dewalt chisels

    A step up: Stanley Bailey, Marples blue handle, Narex

    Two steps up: Two cherries, Ashley Iles, Stanley socket, Pfeil carpenters chisel (woodcraft). Woodcraft socket chisels.

    In my mind - the best value is Marples blue handle. I would recommend these to anybody who wants to buy a good set of chisels that they will be able to use for a long time.
    * I have 1 Kobalt chisel - it's a 2" and works just fine after I set it up (flattened back, sharpened it).
    * I have a set of Aldi setup with a 20* bevel for paring. Used them all day today. They held their edge just fine. I need to shape the handles a bit for comfort though. And they took a little effort to setup.
    * I have a set of Marples blue handles (w white ring). I agree they are nice chisels and they were easy to setup.

    Adam, a good chisel is one that holds a sharp edge, feels good in hand and is "reasonably" balanced. If your Kobalts meet those goals there's no reason they have to go - you can see what Im using (above). While more expensive chisels have the advantage that they are often already flat, have well-shaped handles and good balance, I have yet to be convinced that are better-enough to warrant replacing what I have. YMMV.

    Fred
    Last edited by Frederick Skelly; 04-08-2018 at 12:17 AM.
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  14. #14
    "What determines a chisel's quality?"

    The maker.

    Buy chisels from a reputable chisel maker and/or tool supplier. Mine are ancient purchases from Japan Woodworker and Marples. Also admire the quality of recent Lee Valley mortise chisels.
    "Anything seems possible when you don't know what you're doing."

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by andy bessette View Post
    "What determines a chisel's quality?"

    The maker.

    Buy chisels from a reputable chisel maker and/or tool supplier. Mine are ancient purchases from Japan Woodworker and Marples. Also admire the quality of recent Lee Valley mortise chisels.
    Hey Andy,

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but just a famous maker doesn't mean a great chisel made (Yoda speak).
    I'm not saying that a damascus Tasai isn't nice...but I'm blown away by the stuff that Stan recommended. It's sharp! It's easy to sharpen! I didn't need to sell off a kidney to buy it!

    Of course, he's too modest and classy to toot his own horn.

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