Tools for Working Wood

 Joel's Blog at Tools for Working Wood

English Mortise Chisels - Mid-18th Century to Now - Part 5 - How to Handle a Chisel  


Click here for the start of this series. In the nineteenth century (and less so the twentieth) you could purchase edge tools with or without a handle. Especially in the era before 1850, when ferruled tools became common, handling was a labor intensive job. In Sheffield the job of handling was and still is done by the Cutler.

The complex shape of a mortise chisel make is seem like a daunting task to re-handle but it's not.

I'm going to repeat a paragraph from the previous blog in this series because it is so important:"

"A point to understand is that the handles are held on the tang by compression. It's exactly like driving a nail into end grain, only bigger. Like a nail or a Japanese plane iron what holds the tang in the wood is pressure from the compression, and just as if not more important, the fibers of the wood getting bent back and resisting the tang being pulled out. In theory at least one might strive for a hole for the tang that is just a tad smaller than the tang is and fits it like a glove. In reality that's impossible to do and doesn't matter anyway. The compression forces are so high that as long as there is reasonable engagement we will be able to stick a tang in the handle and even before it's driven completely home - it will be impossible to remove. "

The other thing to consider is the condition of the chisel bolster where the handle has to butt up flush against. In theory the bolster should be reasonably flat but in this particular case the bolster is uneven from a crude forging process. If the handle doesn't fit flush against the bolster it won't transfer forces from the handle to the chisel evenly and will crack. I have two solutions to this. Grind the bolsters flat. On a high speed grinder this is pretty easy to do and takes minutes. If this chisel wasn't a sample from my collection that's what I would do. The other solution, which is found on so many old mortise chisels is a leather washer. The leather compresses and takes up any gaps. But because of the uneveness in the first place the leather won't compress evenly and you will have uneven handle pressure and eventually the handle will crack. This solution is better than doing nothing, and helps the forces a little, but I hate it. But since I don't want to grind this chisel, and it gives me one more operation to show off, leather washer it is. But I hate it. As it turned out at the end if it all we ground the bolster sides a little as when we flushed up the handle. You can see uneven bumps in the bolster and when the handle breaks I expect to just grind the bolster flat and do a proper job. This particular tang also had barbs on it from a past repair. The barbs screwed up the fit on the first handle I made (too loose) so I ground them off for the second one and that worked much better.

1 - Find a square scrap of wood the right size. The average mortise chisel handle is about 5 1/2" long. It should be the same proportion as your bolster on the chisel but since we want the handle to taper made it bigger. 1/8" to 1/4" seems about right. But don't taper it yet. The most important characteristic the wood must have is that it should not be brittle and it should be bone dry. Brittle wood won't compress and will split. And wood that isn't dry will shrink both inside and out and shrink away from the tang, making it loose. This handle was pretty long. We trimmed it down after we were all done.

2 - Drill the handle for the tang. On a modern tool with square, non-tapered tags one drill bit a touch bigger than the width of the tang but less than the diagonal width should work fine. For a tapered tang like I am handling in the pictures you want two bits or three. I used four because I had them handy. The big thing to check for is making sure you can get the depth you need without moving the drill press table for all the bits you are using. Starting with the largest bit, drill successively. In both tapered and non-tapered tang situations you want to drill at least 1/8" past the length of the tang. Since I am drilling into end grain I find using regular twist bits seems to track better than brad points. The reason we start with the biggest bit is to help keep the bits tracking straight.

The instructions in the Joiner & Cabinetmaker call for a single bit - which was a lot more work and hard to chisel accurately and the drill bit didn't track well.

3 - Layout and then chop a rough square taper that follows the profile of the tang using the tapered hole as a guide for the square hole. You want the chisel to seat to about 1/4-1/2" in the handle. Don't worry about engagement - the compression that holds the handle is is massively strong so if your chopping isn't perfect it will still work fine. The easiest way I know of to clear the chips from the hole is to keep a drill handy with the smallest bit you used and just redrill the hole when it's clogged and then shake it out.

4 - Chamfer out the hole at the base so the radius at the corner where the bolster meets the tang has a place to go.

5 - Do any rough shaping you need on the handle. (which I didn't do).

5A - If you are using a leather washer cut a scrap of leather oversize and cut a hole for the tang big enough so when the leather is against the bolster it lies flat.

6 - Bang the handle onto the tang. If you got the drill depths right it will compress all the wood fiber it needs to to hold on for dear life. If you got it wrong the handle either won't go on, fall off, or split the wood.
6A - If you are using a leather washer trim the excess leather away so the washer is flush with the bolster.

7 - Do a little more shaping of the handle. Rasps work great. Blend the handle into the bolster using files or a belt sander. While the wood might shrink or expand over time, having a flush fit is the way to go. The whole process took under under two hours. It would have taken less time if I didn't have to scout around for drill bits and if I didn't screw up the first handle. I doubt there is more than 1/2 hour of actual work in it. Most of the time was just fru-fooing around.

8- If you did NOT use a leather washer you might have a gap or two between handle and bolster. A small gap doesn't mean much but you really want the bolster to support the handle all way around. So what you do is take a hacksaw and saw all around the wood at the base of the handle next to the bolster. Then drive the handle a little deeper. If that doesn't fix it repeat until the gap is gone.

9 - Finish with linseed oil, or some other oil finish that doesn't make the handle slippery.

10 - Use your newly handled chisel on a project.

If you look on the Internet there are some people who suggest enlarging the hole for the tang by burning in the tang. While we see broken handles where this was done this was NEVER done professionally for three reasons: It's way to easy to set a handle without doing this. It's extra unnecessary work. Most importantly, the layer of soft charcoal in the handle will make the chisel easy to bed but also make the chisel easy to loosen and fail. The technique described here works by compression and even with a minimal interference fit the compression forces are huge. After I finished Ben and Tim played Tug-of-war with the chisel and as expected the handle was fine. It's not coming off anytime soon. The method works with all tanged tools. One advantage of using a ferrule on a tanged chisel is that the wood can take a lot more compression than an unferruled handle can, but in either case the wood compresses around the tang, and the exposed ends of grain keep the chisel from pulling out.

Occasionally you will run across old tangs with barbs cut into them. I'm guessing this is also an amateur repair, you don't need it and I ended up filing my barbs off.

I think the real message of this blog is not how easy it is to replace a chisel handle. But how little expertise and equipment is actually needed, and how fast the job goes. And the handle works. It's poplar - which is what I had lying around - and that uneven bolster might even be the reason why is was unhandled when I bought it. If my handle stock was a little thicker the final handle would have been more oval, but we were just following the bolster profile which is rectangle-ish. On another chisel I handled last week, not a mortise chisel, I had to use a hacksaw to get the handle flush (see above) that took a few minutes but again this isn't complicated and nothing to be scared of.

Note: Ray Ile's 1/4" and 5/16" Mortise chisels will be back in stock by the end of next week (April 23th or so)

This post draws to the end the series on mortise chisels. I know I left some topics out such as how to chop a mortise, why the grind angles, and other stuff. I'll cover that in the future.
I also must mention that as a professional iron monger I occasionally feel the need to mention new or interesting products that we stock in my shop. With Spring coming I feel the need to mention our Rivendell Mountain Works Back Packs before I forget and you are already set for summer. The Lupine day-pack is the best bag I have every used, and in a year's work of daily use mine shows no wear. The Mariposa Deluxe is bigger, and for actual hikes and trips it carries a lot more stuff.
Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 6

English Mortise Chisels - Mid-18th Century to Now - Part 4 - Chisel handles  


Click here for the start of this series. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century brass pipe was hard to make so ferrules, the brass ring at the base of most tools weren't used. Tool handles as a result had to be fairly thick so if you tried to lever the tool, the handle wouldn't split. Also the tool needed a wide bolster so that the force of the chisel would not drive into the handle and split it, and also keep the handle from splitting when levering. The oval handles of a mortise chisels not only give a certain direction to the user, more importantly they give a long more handle thickness and bolster thickness in the dimension where all the levering happens. A round handle of adequate size is just too big all round to be comfortable.

By the 1840's or 50's continuous brass and copper pipe became commercially available, and ferrules, really just a section of pipe added to the handle to keep it from splitting, became common. Every style of chisel, except for mortise chisels adapted to ferrules, and the handles got smaller, the bolsters got tiny, and since there was no danger of splitting a handle, fitting a handle became considerably easier. Round handles made by power lathes became the norm, and buying handled tools became common.
Except for mortise chisels. You still needed the big handle for leverage, but fitting an oval ferrule to handle is really hard. So the design remained the same. The only exception was that handle makers invented machines that could make oval handles, the problem was that they didn't always fit their bolsters.
Up until about 1880 or so, The handles on professionally fitted mortise chisels were fitted flush with the bolster, this gives you the smallest, most comfortable handle for the size of chisel. After that makers started just using stock handles that were oversize and leaving it at that. It's not as nice but a lot less expensive. Ray Iles, who has a machine set up for making oval handles, makes them oversize as was done, and then sands them to fit flush. This gives us the best possible handle but this type of sanding operation wasn't really available back in the late 19th century.
In the picture, starting from the bottom, we first have two typical early 19th century mortise chisels. The one at the bottom having a thin leather washer to take up the gap between bolster and handle, the second one being flush fit. Either handle could be original, user installed, or a replacement. I can't tell you for certain, other than the second one is flush fitted and is of Beech so it might be original. The third chisel from the bottom is the later style - with a stock, over-sized machine made handle that is too big for the bolster. This particular chisel has British Army markings so it must date from the First World War.
The final chisel at the top is current production by Ray Iles. The handle is flush fitted of beech and also have the thinnest most elegant bolster of the lot. Ray's design of course was a purposeful throwback to the best of the early 19th century so while it belongs to the same tradition it reflects a conscious effort to avoid any dumbing down of the style.

According to "The Joiner and Cabinetmakers" (pages 107 and 108) when end users would keep a stock of scraps for the fitting handles. Beech, a common secondary wood was very popular but ash is also pretty common.

Most tools before the introduction of the ferrule were sold unhandled. Once tools were typically sold handled the selection of wood became more regular. In England beech was the overwhelming favorite. It was cheap, compressed easily, and while prone to checks, once installed on a tool it didn't split. Ash was also used, but not as frequently.

In the United States hickory was the favorite, and ash a close second. In Europe hornbeam is far and away the most common choice. Hornbeam is harder than either beech or hickory and less easy to compress, but it still works excellently. In Japan, red and white oak are the most common choices.

The reason these woods were all so popular is because handles were installed by just banging them on and to have them stay on via a compression fit, you needed a wood that would compress without cracking. Beech and hickory and the other favorites do this to a tee.

For tools that were not stuck, such as paring chisels, or tools meant mostly for show, expensive decorative woods were used. Boxwood, rosewood, Ebony, and ivory were the preferred choices, although boxwood, rosewood, and occasionally ebony were actually used on tools meant to be used. In general you don't find much ebony or ivory on edge tools, except those meant for show. These materials do not compress and fitting them is a far trickier job. Ray Iles told me that in the old days when installing boxwood handles on paring chisels the cutler would keep a little ladle of molten rosin to pour in the hole for the tang. I suppose these days any modern epoxy would work fine.

According to Toshio Odate handles should be left unfinished so that they surface will absorb sweat and stain so that your hands will not transfer the discoloration to your work. Unfinished wood is also a lot more grippy than finished wood and the handles will work better. That being said I don't know of any manufacturer who doesn't finish their handles with something. Shellac and lacquer being the most popular choices. Ray Iles uses linseed oil on all his handles so that he can maintain a grippy surface. Manufactures do this because when you sell new edge tools the one thing you don't want the handles to do is absorb sweat and look dirty from casual handling in a store.

The most important thing is that the wood must be DRY. Otherwise as it dries it will shrink away from the tang and no amount of initial compression force or epoxy will keep it on the tool.

Another point to understand is that the handles are held on the tang by compression. it's exactly like driving a nail into end grain, only bigger. Like a nail or a Japanese plane iron what holds the tang in the wood is pressure from the compression, and just as, if not more important, the fibers of the wood getting bent back and resisting the tang being pulled out. In theory at least one would might strive for a hole for the tang that is just a tad smaller than the tang is and fits it like a glove. In reality that's impossible to do and doesn't matter anyway. The compression forces are so high that as long as there is reasonable engagement we will be able to stick a tang in the handle and even before it's driven completely home - it will be impossible to remove.

In Part 5 we will demonstrate how a to handle a mortise chisel or in fact any tool with a tang.

PS - if you are a member of TATHS you will have just gotten their yearly journal which has two killer articles, one on "The English Handsaw Before the Industrial Revolution" and "The Sheffield Saw Industry". If you aren't a member you can learn more and join here.
Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 3

English Mortise Chisels - Mid-18th Century to Now - Part 3 - The Body of The Tool  


Click here for the start of this series. The mortise chisel illustrated in Moxon's 1678 "Mechanicks Exercises" (c5) was in all probability made by a London smith who specialized in tools, but otherwise had a blacksmith shop pretty much the same as any other blacksmith. A waterwheel to power a trip hammer and bellows would be a wonderful thing, but at that time it wasn't obvious that he would have one. The tool would have been forged from wrought iron and a tiny piece of blister steel would have been welded onto the top for the cutting edge. At this time it would have been cost prohibitive to put a section of brass pipe around the base of the tool (continuous brass pipe wasn't available on the market yet), a ferrule as they would be called later, to keep the handle from splitting when you put a lot of lateral force on the tool. The solution to all of this for mortise chisels, and in fact all the chisels of the time as seen in the engraving, were wide, thick handles that would bear down and spread the force of the blow on a wide flange called a "bolster" that was placed below the tang.

While the engraving in Moxon isn't to scale, we can see the basic shape of a 19th century mortise chisel start to emerge and both the bolster and handle of the mortise, along with all the other chisels illustrated are faceted. Octagonal bolsters and handles were pretty common on all types early 19th century chisels but as the century wore down round or oval handles - which are easier to make, became more usual, and the bolsters on mortise chisels become oval.

Three very important events happen in the century after Moxon. An industrial revolution massively lowered the price and availability of iron and steel, and by 1800 very high quality crucible steel (invented in 1740) was inexpensive enough to use on things other than watch springs and razors. "Cast Steel" was the trade name that was stamped on tools when they were made of crucible steel or other high carbon steels that were melted to absorb carbon, not beaten like blister steel. The second thing that happened was a network of canals sprang up all over England so it was possible for a manufacturer in for example Sheffield to find a ready market for goods in London and other commercial centers. Like today, a well capitalized business, with modern machinery, a ready source of power (water then steam), and easy distribution could decimate local smaller manufacturers. The Sheffield makers did just that. The lovely set of mortise chisels (along with all the chisels) in the 1797 Seaton chest were bought from a high end London merchant but were made by Phillip Law, a large Sheffield edge tool maker.

Law's operation would have employed dozens of men, almost all on piecework, each specializing on one operation or another. Individual craftsmen would essentially rent from Law the use of a trip hammer, forge, or grinding wheel, for the purpose of manufacture. They would probably buy their materials from Law, and then sell back the finished goods, advanced to the next stage of operation.
Blacksmiths using trip hammers would first take a blank of wrought iron and draw out a tapered tang. Then the other side of the tool would be shaped, and a steel blank for the cutting edge welded in. The bolsters on Mortise chisels are too big to easily forge in and on most of the ones Ray Iles has examined the bolster is shrunk on. This is done by punching out a ring of iron, then heating it way hot. Then you pop it on the cold tang. As it cools it shrinks down and grabs the tang, never to let go. Then you can do any final forging. Finally the grinders, using big four foot wheels, clean up all the surfaces, make sure everything is tapered correctly and then you are done.

All that's needed is a handle.

The catalog illustration in the middle of this entry is from the 1845 Timmins & Sons' tools pattern book (reprinted by Phillip Walker 1994). (The curvature in the picture is because of my bad photography.) The bolster of the common mortise chisel is thin and while not octagonal is also not perfectly oval either. It's more like the rounded rectangular bolsters I have seen. The best mortise chisel has an oval bolster that is thick and chunky by comparision.

Click here for Part 1 and the introduction to this series.
Click here for Part 2 - What the Catalogs Tell Us.
In the part four we will look at handle styles and materials, and finally in part five we will handle a mortise chisel.
Tags:Historical Subjects
Comments: 1

English Mortise Chisels -Part 2 - Mid-18th Century to Now - What the Catalogs Tell Us  


Click here for Part 1 and the introduction to this series.
Mortise chisels as a special named category of chisels date from at least the mid-17th century. Moxon's "Mechanick Exercises" has both a drawing and instructions for chopping a mortise using them. However, most of the specific information that we have on mortise chisels (actually on most tools) comes from old tool catalogs. The earliest tool catalog with illustrations is "Smith's Key" from 1816. Engravings of tools at the time were very expensive and "The Key" is a generic list of illustrations that any manufacturer or distributor could pair with a price list to show the customer what they were getting. This worked because while there were differences in minor details of quality and fit and finish, by and large all the tools of a type from Sheffield were basically of the same design. For example in this photo, these two very late 18th century or early 19th mortise chisels by Joseph Mitchell and Phillip Law, both Sheffield edge tool makers, are essentially the same and in theory could even have been actually made for each company by the same actual craftsman. The modern reprint of "Smith's Key" is bound in with a rare, actually unique price list listing the tools in the key and their prices from James Cam, another Sheffield manufacturer. The best guess anyone has is that the price list dates from at least five to as much as twenty five years after the list was originally printed. This gives you a good idea of how expensive the engravings were duplicate at the time.

All the catalogs I consulted list the following options: "Mortice Chisels", "Best Joiner's Mortice Chisels","Best Cabinet Mortice Chisels", and "Socketed Mortice Chisels". By 1884 the James Howarth catalog also lists "[Solid] Cast Steel Mortice Chisels" and "Best Joiner's Chisels - Handled". Also listed in that catalog are "Sash Mortice Chisels".

"Socketed Mortise Chisels" are really heavy, have a giant socket (not like the demure sockets of the 20th century Stanley 750 derivatives), and are too rough and rare to be a viable chisel for people to used for general mortising.
"Sash Mortise Chisels" are shorter, lighter, and ground parallel. They arrive on the scene in the 1850's era, are tanged, with a ferruled handle. They are very handy for doing the shallow mortises needed in window sashes, but are downright frustrating to use on full size mortises.

It's the first three types of Mortise chisels that are of interest to us today. "Mortice Chisels", "Best Joiner's", and "Best Cabinet" all have tapered oval or (sometimes on very early samples) octagonal handles that butt up against oval, octagonal, or semi-oval bolsters (for an illustration defining these terms see part one of this series). The early versions (mid-18th century to early 19th) might have octagonal bolsters but the overwhelming survivors have oval bolsters of one quality or another. A fair number of the earlier mortise chisels I have have squarish bolsters that were rounded off without being actually oval.

Other than the illustrations I don't know of any contemporary distinction between these three types of chisels. The price between the regular mortise chisels and "Best joiner's or cabinetmakers" is nearly double. Joiner's and cabinetmaker's mortise chisels are priced the same and where shown, share an illustration. The surviving catalogs are all wholesale to the trade so it's very possible that the latter two styles are identical, but are listed separately to account for what customers were used to ordering.

In theory the bolster, the wide ring of steel at the base of the chisel where the handle butts up against and transfers the force of the mallet blow to the steel needs to be flat on the tang side so that the handle will neatly and evenly bed down into it. Some samples I own are like this, others are far rougher and flush fitting a handle without a leather washer would have been pretty hard. This could account for some of price difference.

Smith's key shows the cheaper style as having octagonal bolsters but later catalogs do not. Some of the earlier catalogs show the cheaper style with a not quite oval bolster but certainly not an octagonal one. Some catalogs show the cheaper style with a thin bolster and the "Best" with a thick one - almost double in thickness. In any case I can't see anyone paying nearly double for a cosmetic change. Thin is more elegant than thick and it's less expensive. Octagonal is harder to make than actually oval, the sort or rounded rectangles are easier still. It is far more likely that the price difference was about differences in the length of the welded on steel cutting edge, and if the edge was cast steel or less expensive blister steel. I suppose it is also possible that once you have decided to use cast steel and made a higher grade tool the fit and finish needs to be better all around. So no matter if the bolsters are thick or thin the better grade would be better ground to receive a handle. But there is no contemporary documentation that I know of that supports or refutes this.

The theory that the better chisels used cast steel is made more convincing by the 1884 James Howarth catalog. This catalog not only lists the three usual options, it also lists a version in "solid cast steel" (the price list above and the illustration below are both from Howarth) and at a much higher price, handled chisels, which were double the price of an unhandled one. You pay more for real features, not cosmetic ones.

Another point that also supports this is that bolsters of all chisels up until the mid 19th century were usually elegant octagons. Oval bolsters are easier to make because they don't need to be symmetric, but they really reflect a newer style. Considering the conservative nature of toolmakers it is very possible what we are seeing in "The Key" is a older style chisel made of blister steel by an old time maker, and a more expensive chisel made by some more modern maker using cast steel who at the same time modernized the look.

It doesn't matter. As long as the heat treat of a mortise chisel hasn't been damaged, or the chisel worn past its steel edge it will work fine.

The pricing difference between the types of chisels is typical of all the catalogs I consulted. For 1 dozen (these are all wholesale catalogs) 1/4" mortise chisels you had the following options (in shillings / pence)

Common Mortise8/3
Best Jointer's and Cabinet Mortise14/0
Best Jointer's and Cabinet Mortise - handled 23/0
Cast Steel Cabinet Mortise16/0
London Sash Mortise Chisels16/0

Sizing (and this is important):

All the catalogs list mostise chisel widths from 1/8" to 5/8" by 1/16"s and (the early catalogs especially also list 5/8" - 1" by 1/8". Sizes over 5/8" are pretty rare, and largely useless for regular cabinetmaking. Driving a chisel that wide is hard. The reason for the 1/16" gradations, at a time when bench chisels were only available in 1/8" increments, was that the usual way of making a mortise (as documented by Moxon in 1678 but almost nowhere else) was that you would gauge the lines of the mortise to whatever size you wished, or the exact size of an existing tenon, then select the next smaller size mortise chisel. With at most 1/32" waste left on the sides, you could chop a mortise very very quickly, and not too carefully. Then a wide paring chisels, would be placed on the scribe line exactly and trivially peel off the excess to a perfectly dimensioned smooth walled mortise. The 1/8" increment of sizes available for bench chisels would leave too much waste to pare away.

While I mentioned that the very late James Howarth catalog lists handled chisels, retailers certainly offered chisels with handles to their customers all through the 18th and 19th century. Christopher Gabriel, the London planemaker and ironmonger who sold the Seaton chest (one of the very few extant nearly complete late 18th century tool chests) stocked tool handles in his inventory and the mortise chisels (by Law) in the chest are so uniform and professional and little I find it hard to believe that they were not sold to Seaton with handles originally in place.

English style mortise chisels were never made in Continental Europe or in the US. In Europe they use a heavier version of a sash mortise chisel, and in the US even very early on mortising was mostly done by machine, but tool catalogs offered imported English mortise chisels. There is a version of a socketed mortise chisel that was made in the US but I have only seen them listed in catalogs - they are not common in the wild. They are simply heavier versions of regular American style socketed chisels.

Part Three, coming in a few days is about the the manufacture of these chisels, followed next week by part four on handle design and part five on how to install a handle on a mortise or any other type of tanged chisel.

Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 2

English Mortise Chisels - Mid-18th Century to Now - Introduction  


One day in the 1980's, when I studied woodworking with Maurice Fraser, I came to class for what was the first of a sequence of classes on chopping and fitting mortises and tenons. "Mortice" with a "C" being the English spelling and "mortise" with a "S" being the American spelling.
Maurice wanted us to use the correct tool for chopping a mortise. Which was an English Mortise Chisel. Not a sash mortise chisel, or a socketed mortise chisel, or millwright's chisel, or a registered chisel. An English Mortise Chisel. They were unlike any other chisels I had ever seen. The oval handles were comfortable, the chisel was built like a tank and could stand tons of abuse, the body of the chisel was trapezoidal in section so that they were easy to free in the mortise, they were available in 1/16" increments from 1/8" wide to 5/8" (actually more but the larger sizes are rare and not much used in cabinetry), and most important they were no longer made.

Like many students I assembled my set of mortise chisels (see above) over a period of several years via mail order and auction from various English tool dealers. Around 2002 or so, now involved professionally in ironmongery, Ray Iles and his brother Barry came to pay a visit. As the last generation of Sheffield apprentice trained edge tool makers they have forgotten considerably more on the subject of tools than I have ever known and I don't miss any chance to pick their brains.

"How about" I said as we were sitting in my living room thinking about dinner, "Making me some mortise chisels?". Ray looked at me with that look usually reserved for professors just before they decide to inform junior, who showed some promise earlier in the semester, that he will probably have to repeat the year.
"Seriously" I said "I can sell them, we can't get real ones over here!" After gently telling me that nobody had manufactured mortise chisels since at least the war and even before the war it might have been old stock, Ray, who loves a challenge, thought he would give it some thought.

A few discussions and about a year later a small box showed up on my doorstop with a sample. Mortise chisels aren't easy to make. It's a lot of steel and the huge bolster started out as a problem.
I asked Ray to make them out of D2 instead of regular steel because the edge would last forever and you didn't really need the sharpness of a paring chisel. This presented another set of problems which Ray had to solve, and Ray had to resurrect some of the old machinery he had to make oval handles.
When we finally released the mortise chisels into the American market it was a revelation to many of the people who used them. It fundamentally changed the market, and Ray has been struggling to keep the supply up ever since.

Aside from a D2 cutting edge the only substantial difference between Ray's Mortise chisels, and mortise chisels of the early 19th century is the under the handle Ray uses a square tang, rather than a tapered tang. The tang being a spike of metal that sticks out of the back of the chisel so that you can attach a handle(see picture).

Ray uses modern fixtures and specialized grinding machines to grind instead of doing it all by hand on a big wheel. The funny part about it, and the key that made Ray pretty sure he was going about it the right way is that he can see grinding marks on the old ones in the same places as on his.

It might be fun to take a close look at early 19th century mortise chisels and explore their engineering. Lots of this information applies to any handled edge tool not just mortise chisels, and we will end the series with instructions on how to handle a new chisel or replace the handle on any old chisel - it's a pretty simple task, and requires no special tools.

Note: At this moment we are out of some of the more popular sizes of mortise chisel. You can place an order anytime, Ray is working hard to make more for us and we should have them reasonably soon.

Note: Ray, Barry, and Tony Iles are all the sons of Ashley Iles, founder of Ashley Iles Edge Tools Ltd. the famous edge tool makers whose tools we stock. Ray left the company to start his own firm and his firm makes our mortise chisels and some other tools. Barry and Tony own and manage Ashely Iles, and they make a wide range of edge tools with a special focus on carving tools and turning tools. They are a very close family and Ray does work for Ashley Iles and vise versa. For a few short videos at their factories (along with a visit to Clico) click here.

Click here for Part 2 "What The Catalogs Tell Us". Part three "The Body of The Tool" will be available next week, and the balance of the series the week after.
Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 4

Campaign Furniture  


"Campain Furniture", the new book by Christopher Schwarz, is one of the most important books on woodworking to appear in the last generation. The reason has nothing to do with the quality of instruction (which is excellent) or anything like that.

Woodworking as a hobby is dying. For all everyone wants people to learn to work wood, and all woodworking, in any form, is a very satisfying thing to do, fewer and fewer young people are interested in it. There are many reasons, woodworking isn't taught in school as frequently as it used to, people have far less free time than they did, furniture is less of a status symbol, and furniture is less expensive than it was so there is less incentive to make it yourself to save money.

But the main reason, the overriding reason woodworking as a hobby is in decline is because of two things. The first is that most people aren't interested in filling their house with colonial style furniture and Shaker and Arts & crafts furniture has been so dumbed down at the mall that it doesn't excite the way it used to. The second reason is that people move a lot more than they did and moving furniture is a pain. Buying furniture in previous generations was about the momentous acknowledgement that you were setting up a household. These days, with a far more informal society, most furniture is just another purchase of a disposable household commodity.

The reason Chris' book is so important is that it's not just the first new style of furniture to be written about in the popular press since the Art's and Crafts craze, it's actually a style of furniture that can fit into our transient lifestyles.

I'm not going to repeat what I wrote in the product description, if you want to know more about the book click here. I do want to mention that the projects as a group seem to be at the same skill level as your average Shaker pieces, with the main difference being that the woods are fancier, and hardware is integral to the project.

Think about the whole genre this way: Your kid is finishing college and moving to a tiny apartment in a new city. Possibly with seventeen roommates. How useful would a campaign secretary desk be to them that comes apart into easily moveable sections for transport, and then reassembles into a solid desk. It might not be the baronial ship of executive state - but it's exactly the right size for someone who really wants a comfortable place to park their laptop and get stuff done.

Chris' book has a lot of interesting historical information and his designs are all reflective of the original construction methods. It wouldn't surprise me in the least, I even expect that in a year or so Chris or someone else will write another book on campaign furniture using more modern materials but keeping with the same concept of design - proper furniture for life on the go. This to me is where modern furniture needs to go and Chris gets full marks and applause on kicking off what I hope will be a revival of this genre. As I said at the start of this blog - this is one of the most important new books on woodworking in a long time.
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