Woodworking Hand Tools – Chisels – Don’t Buy a Steel Banana


I use all types and many brands of chisels, in the 1980’s I was one of the first western woodworkers to advocate the use of Japanese chisels and one of the first to stop using them as the only solution. Now my tools are a mix of Western and Japanese. I am currently working with a Japanese blacksmith to develop a lighter western style chisel but with the very hard sharp edge that some Japanese chisel makers can provide. More on this later.

We are definitely still waiting for the ideal chisel set for cabinetmakers. The essential quality of a chisel is a flat back. This is the jigged surface that one uses and puts to work to gain flatness. A bent chisel is useless, no matter how sharp it is or how nice the handle is.

Sorby Bevel Edge Chisels

Until very recently I believe that Sorby has been a tool provider that has earned a lot from our clientele. Sorby Boxwood Handle Cabinet Chisels are very nice, light, well shaped blades with fairly good quality steel. The lightness and quality of the shaping of the steel, and the quality of the sharpening and shaping of the blade is of paramount importance.

steel bananas

However, the problem we have found with Sorby blades is FLATNESS or lack thereof. From what we can see, it appears that sometime towards the end of the manufacturing process heat is introduced into the sheet after it has been flattened. Because it appears to have been flat once, another process introduces heat to part of the blade and the entire blade appears to bend slightly.

What arrives in the customer’s hand is a blade that, in our experience, three times out of five curves from the tip of the blade in a convex pattern toward the tool shank, so if the blade is placed on a flat surface, touch near the heel of the handle and touch the tip of the blade with a hole in the center of the blade. This hollowing can only be half a millimeter along the entire length of the blade. But it should be completely flat.

You’ll need at least one sheet in your collection that’s completely flat and it’s a shame that really good sheets like these can’t arrive completely flat in the first place. Not giving us flat chisels is an unacceptable situation, many of my students opt for Sorby chisels because they have so many good qualities, but this now goes against our advice and some of them later regret their decision. With a certain amount of care in carving these blades after purchase, you can flatten those backs, but it’s a pain and it’s a job the manufacturer should have done for you.

Lie Neilsen Chisels

Lie Neilson makes flat chisels with beveled edges and we have grudgingly recommended them to our students for some time now. They are, however, heavier than I would like to see a bevel edge chisel, but the machining is of a superior quality. We have yet to receive a blade that has not been up to spec and would recommend these chisels in all sizes because of this.

However, the shape and design of these chisels is not the only thing I would like to see improved. These are made from A2 steel which is a very hard and strong steel that has a good edge. In my opinion, they do not have as good an edge as a chisel made from high carbon steel. I have used Marple high carbon chisels for over thirty years and Norris flat irons for just as long and I know this modern A2 steel is not that sharp. Holds an edge well but not as sharp. The other shortcoming is that this steel is sharpened in a way that does not help the beginner. Don’t worry too much, we can show you how to sharpen these things right, it’s just that high carbon steel will turn a burr and sharpen it very easily. With A2 steel, the burrs come off in small clumps and need to be watched. It is not necessary to have a complete set of these expensive chisels, but eventually you will need a complete set. Don’t buy them all at once, buy them as you need them, but over time look to get a complete set of bevel edge cabinetmaker’s chisels.

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