Fair Woodworking

May 14, 2012

You’re once, twice, three times the chisel…

Filed under: chisel,Favorite tools,Strong opinion warning! — fairwoodworking @ 2:35 pm

“If you can’t tell the difference between skunk and mink, why buy mink?”

Israel Sack

Recently I was asked if I thought it was really worth spending 3 or more times the price of an entry level chisel to get one of the high end chisels.

This question gets thrown around a lot on the forums, and I really have to wonder what planet some people are on.

Let me back up a bit.

Last year I found myself yet again at a Rob Cosman Dovetail demonstration. I’d like to think I’ve got dovetails down for the most part, but it was something to do on a Saturday morning. I also wanted to give his often criticized/praised Dovetail Saw a try. Always the salesman, I knew he would offer it up for a test drive, and I was first in line. The saw felt heavy in my hand, but no more than some of my larger back saws. I’dunno it seemed fine enough…

What really surprised me was when I approached the bench, I found Rob’s bench is very different from mine. It’s much taller than mine, I’d guess at least 6-8 inches, even though I’m taller than Rob.(I don’t think I’ll be building a moxon vice any time soon.) He also uses a shoulder vice, that you have to reach over. His bench forced me into a standing position that I never use for sawing. As a result I was completely out of sorts in trying out the saw. The rest of the people had never really used a hand saw any, so they couldn’t understand why I was having so much trouble.

That day I learned that I really know what I like in a bench design for sawing, and I instantly knew something was not right.  As a new woodworker, you don’t get that feeling very often, because everything feels new, different, or simply not right.

So do I know what I like in a chisel? On the forums you will read about how the higher end chisels are better balanced than their cheaper counterparts.

This one makes me laugh.

Have a look at both of these pictures, and notice that with both sets of chisels, they are all about the same length. They do get a little shorter as the width of the chisel decreases, but not much. One thing for sure is, all sizes have the very same size handle. So how can a 1/8″ chisel be “balanced” and a 3/4″ chisel be equally “balanced”. It could be my lack of experience, but this balance thing sounds like arm chair woodworker speak for “them chisels sure is purdy”.

So what of the metal? Surely the LN’s are clearly superior? I’ve been using both sets a lot lately, and I’ll be darned if I can tell the edge holding difference between the two. Again, it could be that I’m just that dense, but I’m starting to think it will be years before I’ll be able to tell a difference. Anyone else that is at my experience level that can tell a difference is clearly gifted, and superior to me in every way. I really can’t tell the difference.

All that stuff is still too subtle for me to pick up on, but anyone can pick the clear winner on looks. One looks like a Ferrari and the other looks like a Datsun. I’ll admit it, the big reason I bought the LN chisels is for the looks. They really are awesome to handle, and I do believe it is what spurs the unfounded arguments above. They ooze a Mystical sense of beauty, and power over the hands that hold them. I think to some degree their beauty can make you a more confident woodworker, and that may make you a better woodworker. Who knows..?

The LN’s have very neat and clean lines. On the other hand the Narex had a hard edge where the flat of the chisel meets the round of the neck.

I found this immediately unacceptable.

With a rotary tool, I ground it flat.

Both on the front and the back. On 8 chisels that’s 16 sides that had to be addressed.

So does this justify the Narex chisels being 6 times less expensive than the LN? What is your time worth, and do you have a rotary tool?

But wait, there’s more.

I bought the original Narex chisels. They call them “beveled edge” but we all know they are not. It’s more of a raised panel top, with square edges. The LN’s display the correct bevel we have all come to admire. The new Narex version is beveled “correctly”. The bevel is critical for removing the waste out of dove tails, and it seems that over the years this concept was lost. I should mention that the proper bevel is ONLY needed for chisels that will used for paring between tails. You could use a Mortice chisel to pare between the pins.

In the old days, I’ve been told that before you used a new chisel, you would add the bevel yourself. I did it, again with my rotary tool. With the LN’s they did it for you at a price.

After a long session of chiseling waste, I noticed something between the two chisels. The “correct” bevel of the LN’s made my fingers sore. When I hold the chisel I grasp it by the edges. With the bevel on the sides it makes for a  sharp edge to hold on to.

With the modified Narex, the wide edges were much more comfortable to hold, yet the modified bevel on the end still worked fine for the task.

Hmmm….  editors note. I’ve addressed this issue in another post HERE.

As I’ve said/shown, the Narex chisels require some work to make them properly usable. Another issue I had with them was for sharpening. When I bought them, I didn’t know how to sharpen. I started off with a sharpening jig, and found that for many of them, the jig seemed to struggle getting the edge to sharpen square. This drove me nuts! What I found was that the backs of the chisels were not necessarily square to the fronts of the chisel. Since the jig mounted with the front towards it, the bevel would always be out of square.

The only solution was to try to square up the front to match the back. At this point I realized that these chisels were giving me an introduction to free hand metal work. It took some time, but just like the other modifications, I manage to get it right.

On a side note, after seeing that I was capable of fine tuning my chisels free hand, it occurred to me that free hand sharpening would be a snap in comparison. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I used my sharpening jig.

So I guess I’m saying that while the LN’s are clearly better chisels, but you could live a long and happy life with the Narex.

In closing, I’ll offer something very subjective. Chisel sizes.

To me anything larger than 3/4″ is a carpentry chisel, not a woodworking chisel.

The Narex set of 8 includes a 1″, 1-1/4″, and a 1-1/2″. The 1″ is handy for installing door hardware on unmilled door slabs. The 1-1/2″ is great as a glue line scraper. The 1-1/4″ has never been sharpened or used.

This leaves me with a set of 5 “Woodworking” chisels.  1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″, 5/8″, and 3/4″. I like narrow pins for my dovetails. In many of the wood thicknesses I use, when cleaning out between the tails, the 1/4″ is just a wee bit to wide. At $76.00 for the Narex set, the sizes are it greatest limitation.

Many woodworkers recommend newbies buy just 1 or 2 chisels to start. I’m glad I didn’t. In fact my favorite thing about my LN’s is that there are 9 of them between 1/8″ and 3/4″. I use them all, but think I use the 3/16″ the most for paring the tails, followed by the 1/4″. Occasionally I screw up a cut and find the 3/16″ is too wide. The 1/8″ is my safety net.

Editors note 04/25/16. This post is now 4 years in the past. I’m still very happy with both sets of chisels, but will /admit that I have way, way too many chisels to keep track of. Sets are pretty, and improve your chances of getting the ones you really need. (well sometimes) If you can figure out the sizes you really need, you can save some money and confusion. Oh, and on the topic of can I tell the difference between the two steels? Yes, the A2 holds its edge a little longer than the Narex, but I like the steel of the Narex better. I like O1 steel. A2 steel is stupid. I hate it. It sucks, and I wish LN would stop using it.

Anyways….

So if you are looking for some chisels, I can’t tell you what is best for you, but I hope I’ve given you another useful perspective.

Lie-Nielsen Beveled edge chisels link

Narex Bevel-Edge Chisels link  These are the ones I own. At the time of writing, these chisels are discontinued, but when I checked for availability, it shows as backordered until May 29th.  They are less expensive than the newer versions listed below, and if you like the idea of having a wider edge to hold onto, and are not afraid to modify the ends, you may like these better. Grab ’em while you can!

Narex Classic Bevel-Edge Chisel Link Same as the ones above, but with fully beveled edges, and a slightly higher price tag. Why anyone needs a 2″ chisel with a fully beveled edge is beyond me…

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