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

  1. #16
    Join Date
    Mar 2016
    Tokyo, Japan
    Wow, as always, I'm impressed with the depth of knowledge here.

    I also had no idea there were books on the subject. I may check those out!

    Anyway, I have always favored simple steels, but my experience with these chisels just drives home the point even more for me.
    I'm sure that additives make a steel slightly more abrasion resistant and therefore longer lasting, and make it easier to quench without warping, etc...
    But, when the end product is concerned, you're trading just slightly more edge retention for a 3-4X easier time sharpening and grinding, and the ability to take a really screaming good edge. The slight edge retention gained at the cost of several times the ease of sharpening and touching up the tool, is a net negative by and large for many modern steels in my book, especially when it comes to chisels, which one easily take to a stone or strop without interrupting one's workflow (I appreciate edge retention somewhat more in planes, which require setting up again before returning to work).

    These things are just so easy to sharpen even in comparison to O1. I'm truly impressed.

    I'll have to try some nice Japanese white paper steel chisels too, at some point. I have the feeling I'll be quite fond of them.

  2. #17
    Join Date
    Nov 2007
    NW Indiana
    It is really a shame that we are left to guess what grade and composition of steel is used in various tools. The descriptions given above in posts and in most advertisements for current tools are pretty useless. In addition, we typically know nothing about the heat treatment.

  3. #18
    Yeah, well, specific alloy and heat treatment is generally held pretty close to the vest under "Trade secret." It wouldn't be hard to get some alloy info if somebody had an XRF or Arc Spark at work... It won't tell you carbon content or grain structure, but it's at least a start.

    My experience with the high quality chisels of yore - I'm talking about octagon bolster stuff that's over 100 years old now... I'm not sure I'm convinced that the steel itself is "Better." I do believe that the older drawing out process produces a much more favorable grain orientation versus the new hot forging process - which can extend the cutting life of the "same" alloy and hardness well over 4x.

    The main thing I came up with is that it seems easier for me to produce an edge that wears "Normally" vs rolling or chipping.

    Of course, that sounds pretty obvious when you say it out loud, that if the edge doesn't fail prematurely, it's useful cutting life is a lot longer.

    It took me some time to sort out sharpening procedure to eliminate edge damage issues causing chipping and rolling. Once past that hurdle, I found that the "First quality" modern brands held up as well as the old stuff. Modern cheap stuff not so much, but cheap is cheap... It's not made to maximize performance, but rather to minimize cost and warranty.

  4. #19
    As Rafael Herrera noted above, chemistry had not developed sufficiently until about mid to late 1800's for makers to know what was in the steel they were making. The big problem was sulfur which made steel "hot-short" meaning that it was not malleable when red-hot. The iron ore from Sweden was low in sulfur.

    When Bessemer was developing his process, he used low sulfur ore and had good results. Then, he licensed the process to others and they used higher sulfur ore and had serious problems. It took Bessemer a while to understand the problem but he eventually did and the process really took off. If chemistry had not developed to the point where it did, Bessemer may not have been successful with his process.

    There's also a problem known as "cold-short" and it's often caused by excessive phosphorus in the ore.

    In the early days of industrial production of steel, sulfur was a serious problem - not from sulfur in the ore, but from sulfur in the coal that they were using to heat the ore.

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

  5. #20
    I have gradually switched to all cast steel chisels over the last dozen years. I like English chisels made before 1850. They have three great qualities: They are long lasting, sharpen very quickly and easily, and obtain a fine edge.

  6. #21
    Join Date
    Aug 2019
    Pittsburgh, PA
    Got this in the mail today. A 1/4" beveled Ward & Payne chisel, boxwood carving pattern handle, very thin bevel lands (compare with the pencil tip). It's about 3.5" at the bolster. It was the right price. This is my first W & P chisel, it's been highly recommended by admirers of old Sheffield steel. It's not a miracle steel, but it's really well made. Looking forward to giving it a good sharpening.


  7. #22
    Yes ,early steel was hard to make. Things some kept as trade secrets eventually leaked out. Crucible steel was made in small batches.
    That is gone, but there are still many of the chisels around. Some good workmen say an expensive type of new steel is better ,I hope so
    considering the cost. It’s OK to consider cast steel “second best” but it is not helpful to dismiss it while many are buying inferior new stuff
    at high prices with little knowledge of what is available at a low prices. At yard sales I bought lots of old good quality chisels for as little as a
    50 cents. In employments anyone who borrowed a chisel from me raved about their high quality.

  8. #23
    Quote Originally Posted by Mel Fulks View Post
    Yeah ,different. But I’ve forgotten how.
    It's basically a high-carbon steel free from other alloying metals that naturally occur in the iron ore. It has the properties OP described, like good edge retention at lower angles and softer temper. It feels "sharper" than alloyed steels (esp. Cr-Va), probably has something to do with crystalline structure. But also it has downsides, like lower rust resistance (if they rust they're badly pitted, very badly pitted), lower abrasion resistance (a con and a pro at the same time) and it was expensive to manufacture.

    There used to be a member on this forum who was very knowledgeable on the subject, too bad he's not active on forums anymore.

  9. #24
    My conclusion over a lot of testing is that the old, good stuff can be excellent, but it's not guaranteed to be so. It could be a dud, or it can also be damaged/abused and rendered no better than scrap. You don't know what you get till you buy it and test. I've got a nice Marples 7/8" square neck bevel edge chisel that doesn't hold an edge right because some fool messed up the heat treatment on the last 2" of the chisel. Yay!

    That leads me to the second subject... Sharpening and prep. As an example, just this week, a brandy-new Chinese made Buck Bro's 3/4" chisel pared 16.5x more wood after a full prep including back prep vs just sharpening it out of the package in my head to head testing... And the same sharpening angle and unicorn prep was used. Wood by Wright's huge chisel testing showed differences of 10/1 in edge life on some chisels by simply changing from 20 to 30 degree bevels.

    I'm not saying go out and buy this or that magic solution. My testing has shown me that that sharpening and prep can't turn a pig into a jewel, but if the underlying steel quality is good, it can make a gigantic difference in performance. It can overwhelm advertiser's assertions about their magical materials.
    Last edited by John C Cox; 02-12-2022 at 9:56 PM.

  10. #25
    Join Date
    Apr 2015
    New England area
    The inconsistency in steel attributes across a too large collection of chisels would drive me bonkers (an admittedly short trip). Some seemingly too hard, others too soft, some "just right" whatever that means. As long as they're decent, all I want is a consistent experience at the stones and in use. My pea brain couldn't keep up with a couple dozen or more bench chisels, each different in some presumably material way or they wouldn't have been purchased in the first place. I don't see how having that kind of kit adds value to the practice of the craft.
    Last edited by Charles Guest; 02-15-2022 at 3:04 PM.

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