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Thread: Really old Firmer Chisels -- What is this steel?

  1. #1
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    Really old Firmer Chisels -- What is this steel?

    I was curious, what steel was used before O1 became prevalent?

    I've got a really old firmer chisel that I love, marked Sheffield. Recently, I bought a few more on ebay.

    All of these I'm guessing were pre 1900's or very early 1900's. Granted, I'm no expert on dating tools.

    The thing that stands out to me, besides the superb balance and form factor, is the steel. This stuff is awesome.
    It takes a keener edge, and sharpens way easier than modern steels, yet the edges don't seem to degrade noticeably faster (granted, I haven't tried sharping them at really low angles for paring and comparing edge retention). The edges have never rolled in use. So I can't say they're noticeably softer. But man, even when using a diamond stone, I can flatten the backs of these things so much easier than modern steels.

    What would you guess these are made from? Just simple, high carbon steel akin to 1095 or something?

  2. #2
    Iím guessing crucible steel or cast steel ,think they are the same. Lot of those are 1830 s.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mel Fulks View Post
    I’m guessing crucible steel or cast steel ,think they are the same. Lot of those are 1830 s.

    Ah yes, some say "Cast Steel" on them.
    Is this different from modern simple carbon steels like 1095, etc.?

  4. #4
    Yeah ,different. But Iíve forgotten how. Lots of old threads here about old and new steels. One thing I like about the old ones is that slick
    waxy feel . Butcher was one of the best known brands

  5. #5
    I do remember it had to be made in small batches.

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    My kid the certified welder and certified welding inspector will be home for a few weeks starting this weekend. I will show the child some of my vintage stuff stamped "sheffield" and ask what it is. I am not enamored of edge retention of vintage steel that I own in KD hickory, but they can take a real nice edge in a big hurry.

  7. #7
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    The tool steel used in the 18th and 19th century was crucible steel, aka cast steel. It was still used in the 20th century, but by then it had become obsolete and mostly replaced by other steels.

    It appears to have been an artisanal process, as documented by this video from the 40s, nowhere near the scale of the modern industrial processes already in wide use even in that period. You'll see there why it's called cast steel. This stuff built our world though.

    https://youtu.be/q-BVuQZSm08

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    Often, due to the cost of "cast steel," it was laminated to a softer steel. This made these tools easier to sharpen since the actual working part of the edge was thin and most of what was being abraded by the stone was softer steel.

    jtk
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  9. #9
    A 100 year old chisel stamped Sheffield is very common, there were dozens upon dozens of tool makers at that time, Just like the greater New England area here in the U.S.
    Many of these tool makers bought steel from other makers, some made their own. Knowing exactly what the composition of the steel is may be lost to history, just as some of the manufacturers were.
    You could go to the extent of getting it tested but it may not help identify the maker only the steel. If you know the maker you might find out their particular process but knowing only Sheffield just gets you in the general area.
    Researching old tools can be fun and frustrating.

  10. #10
    Luke,

    Most manufacturers don't use O1 steel. Even now, many chisels use some flavor of water hardening steel.

    Anyway...

    The reason you're getting vaguish answers to your question is that the specific composition of the steel could vary somewhat unpredictably from melt to melt due to the ore supply and smelting practices. Cast Steel improved the uniformity of batches significantly over the old Blister steel, and gave them better control over carbon content, but alloying elements weren't well understood, and could vary a lot between melts.

    As such, most places making stuff out of steel had tons of people on staff testing their steel and sorting it for various uses by grain structure, carbon content, and it's behavior in test forgings. Most of the tool making shops prior to the 1930's made a tremendous variety of things as a way to use up the natural variation within the steel they bought. So for example, Butcher made everything from razors to pocket knives to pliers and other consumer products.

    They also tended to buy huge lots of steel, entire melts which could be 20-50 tons, when they received "Good stuff," as a way to reduce variation in their products. As a reference, Japanese smiths still do that, where they have multiple entire career's supply of blade steel coming from one melt, and it gets sold to another smith as part of his "retirement." There was word that Lie Nielsen found a good lot of A2, bought a gigantic stack of it, and has been making their chisels and plane irons out of that same stock for years now.

    Companies like Sorby came out of the cutlers world, and so they made various edge tools from scissors and hand shears to axes, knives, chisels, and razors. Pocket knives and shears would use up the stuff thar had lower carbon contents while chisels got better stuff, and razors generally got the highest carbon and finest grain structure steel.

    That said, the steel in high quality, old chisels generally behaves like a fine grained, high carbon (1-1.2%), low alloy, water hardening steel sort of like 1095 or W1. Cheaper "value" lines probably had poorer grain structure and lower carbon content. Some manufacturers may have "lucked out" and bought huge batches of steel that would oil harden.

  11. #11
    If you want to dig into the history of steel, a very good 2-volume set of books by K.C. Barraclough are available. The set is titled "Steelmaking Before Bessemer". Volume 1 is "Blister Steel: The Birth of an Industry, ISBN 0904357538, and volume 2 is "Crucible Steel: The Growth of Technology", ISBN 0904357643.

    I bought the set a long time ago and I think the cost of the books is fairly high today. You may be able to get them through your library.

    I have a bunch of additional books on the history of steelmaking, if anyone wants more.

    One on more modern issues in steel is "And the Wolf Finally Came, The Decline of the American Steel Industry" by John P. Hoerr, ISBN 0-8229-5398-6

    Mike
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  12. #12
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    I never knew, or bothered to try to figure out what Sheffield Steel is, but I like it. To me, it seems like it's between 01 and W1, but closer to 01.

  13. #13
    Sheffield is just a location, not a grade of steel. Sheffield was known for good steel in the early days of steel, but that's it.

    Mike
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  14. #14
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    It has to be noted that in the 19th and previous centuries there was only very limited knowledge of the actual composition of matter, they had no concept of atoms and molecules. What they had was a lot of empirical knowledge, and they kept that closely guarded.

    Sheffield was THE main source of tool steel for the USA up until the late 19th century, up until then there was no American tool steel production at an industrial level, bupkis.

    My understanding is that crucible steel was produced in Sheffield from ores imported from Sweden. Their expertise was in the production of this material, and if the fitness of the surviving tools we are so fond of is any indication, they were very good at it. The comments above indicating that they didn't have control of their production is probably incorrect. It makes no sense for these companies to be importing ore, processing it and then have a bunch of people test the steel to see what they could use it for.

    Another point, the producers of steel were not the tool makers themselves. The toolmakers purchased the tool steel raw materials and made their cutting tools out of them. The expertise of the toolmaker was in the forming and shaping of the tool and the heat treatment. Anybody can bang on a piece of steel, it's a completely different story to be able to harden and temper it consistently to produce a usable tool.

    This is an interesting book regarding the history of the steel trade between the UK and USA, preview available. Sheffield Steel and America. A Century of Commercial and Technological Interdependence 1830-1930 By Geoffrey Tweedale.

  15. #15
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    It's very simple high carbon steel, water hardening. Simple meaning not much in there besides iron and carbon. Pretty similar IMO to Hitachi White #2, though usually tempered a bit softer (Rc 60 or 61 instead of 63).

    They are about as hard as modern steels, but have no extra abrasion resistance from added elements like chromium or vanadium. That's why you can flatten the backs so easily. It's also why they will wear more quickly in use, but they usually compensate for that by being very unlikely to micro-chip as they wear- they keep a smooth edge all the way until its ready to resharpen (which is very easy to do).

    Because it must be quenched in water, it's subject to warping and cracking. So you have a fairly high reject rate from a production line, and even the ones that aren't rejects will need some extra labor to true everything up. Oil, and especially air hardening steels will move and crack much less, so you can do more of the shaping and finishing prior to heat treat.

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