Fair Woodworking

March 30, 2012

‘Adequate’ is the New ‘Premium’

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


The following is a literal Copy & Past of an old blog post by Christopher Schwarz. I have a link of it in my favorites, and find myself drawn to it more that what could be called…

Err… Normal?

Well I’d hate to lose track of the link one day, so forgive me as I stick this one on my cyber bulletin board.

‘Adequate’ is the New ‘Premium’

Sometimes I feel a tad guilty for owning tools from Veritas, Lie-Nielsen and Blue Spruce. But then I pick up my very first chisel and I get over it.

I’ve had that chisel since I graduated from college , it’s a 1/2″ chisel I bought at WalMart and it’s branded Popular Mechanics (is that an example of irony? I can’t tell. I’m American).

In any case, I think I have butter knives at home that hold a better edge and are more balanced for dovetailing than this tool. Its blade was probably 5″ long when I bought it, and now it’s been ground down to 3-3/4″. I thought about throwing it away, but I just can’t.

So I recently sharpened it up for my 8-year-old daughter and made a nice little blade cover from a business card. She was thrilled with the tool. This weekend she used it for some light chopping and paring. After about 15 minutes, the tool’s edge folded over.

If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be blogging about it. So many inexpensive modern tools that I’ve encountered don’t even deserve to be in the tool crib of the store. My first miter box saw was American-made and made badly. Same with my first combination square, block plane and even hammer.

Who can mess up a hammer?

I’m sure you’re thinking: Why didn’t this idiot Arkansan buy vintage tools? Well, I stumbled on old tools all the time at the antiques fair in a tobacco warehouse that my wife and I went to every month. But to my inexperienced eye, all I could see was rust and grime. The tools at WalMart were shiny. And there was no Internet to help guide me.

As I watched my daughter struggle with a dull chisel, I concluded that I was going to stop calling these things “tools.” Tools have to work at some baseline. Chisels have to do a certain amount of work before they crap out on you. Saws have to cut wood , crazy, I know. Combination squares should be somewhat square. Anything less is just an object decorating your garage wall.

The new tools that perform these basic functions are what we now call “premium” tools. But no more.

This morning I re-ground and honed that cursed chisel-shaped object and it’s sitting on my bench. I should bring home a good tool for Katy and throw this thing away.

Or perhaps we have some paint cans that need opening.

– Christopher Schwarz

Thank you for your guiding light Chris.

The other day I was walking through my local Home Hardware, and happened to notice the rack of Chisels while looking for a drill bit. On the top row was Stanley’s offerings of Yellow and Black handled Chisels. I’ve never used this line of chisels, so to put them down is a little unfair, and this is after all “Fair” woodworking. What I do know is that although I do love and appreciate the people who run my local Home Hardware and all the work they do for me on a daily basis, their target customer is the regular working man carpenter types, not traditional hand tool snobs like myself. Most of these chisels will no doubt roll around in the back of someones truck, or get bludgeoned to death with a framing hammer. Few will ever get any kind of treatment with a sharpening stone, and fewer still will ever have owners that would think of flattening the backs of them. No, I think most of these chisels will sell because of their “Fat Max” labeling or because the black rubber makes them look comfortable to handle.

What I’m saying is, there is no demand for quality, so why would I expect that they are of any real quality.

What did shock me was the price. Over $13.00 each. Well I guess that’s not such a bad price these days, but I started having flash backs from the Lee Valley website.

Narex Chisels are in that same price range, and have become the darling of the entry level chisel world as of late.  Nobody will ever call them “premium”, but as a first set of chisels, I have never regretted them. I have no doubt that the Narex chisel is of better quality, and it goes to show you that not all well made tools are prohibitively expensive. However, no matter how much we want to save money, with many tools the best you can hope for is that you get what you pay for.

Don’t cheat yourself out of a good tool just to save a buck.



  1. Hi Fairwoodworking… Unfortunately, I purchased a set of those Stanley ‘Fat Max’ chisels as my first ever wood working tools before I knew any better or had even lifted a mallet. I am sure they are even more expensive over here in the UK!
    I thought, it’s Stanley, that’s a good brand and my dad used Stanley tools, how can I go wrong? I even read several good ‘reviews’ on the Internet, now I realise they were probably made by ‘Carpenter – Site workers’.

    Fortunately, they are they only chisel I have ever used in my life so (and still use), I have nothing to compare against. I have lusted after a set of Lie Nielsen but cant bring myself to discard the Stanleys before I have barely even used them. I assumed the LNs would be wasted on a beginner?

    Axminster UK prices:
    Stanley Fat Max 5pc – £52.50
    Lie Nielsen 5pc – £295.00

    Are the LNs six times better than the Stanleys?
    I’d be interested in your further thoughts…

    Comment by Boo — March 31, 2012 @ 4:57 am

    • Many flaming arrows have been shot from both camps on this topic on many a woodworking forum.

      I’ve been working on a number of topics as of late that address angles of this debate, but the more I dig, the more I question if I am qualified/experienced enough to answer.

      As a beginner, I can’t say that either my Narex or LN chisels feel like an extension of my hands yet, but emotionally the LN can feel like Excalibur freshly pulled from the stone, but that is just emotional value.

      I think edge retention is one of the big issues, but that is only as tangible as our ability to sharpen them. To this point, I couldn’t honestly give a winner between the two.

      What I found really separated them, did clearly fit into the “get what you pay for” category. The LN’s are just about ready to use. The Narex (I should mention they were first generation, and I suspect they have improved some since) required a lot of metal work before they were ready to use. This is in fact why I was able to find the two that were not done. The ones I used in my back flattening test. I’d gotten tired of prepping chisels, and left those two for years. Beyond flattening the backs, the side bevels needed grinding, there were sharp edges where the chisel neck met the ferrule, and the faces of the chisels were not all parallel to the backs. With the LN chisels I paid an hourly wage for someone else to address all those issues.

      I don’t think for a second that your Fat Max chisels are garbage, so don’t lament buying them. Invest some time into them while being careful not to ruin the temper, and they may give you years of service. With experience I think we both will be better able to assess the value of each.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — March 31, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

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