Hand Tools Archive

Solving this mystery of oval bolstered chisels..

David Weaver
It's apparent to me, though people who haven't made chisels before are suggesting that they can't see why (on the UK forum) that my IH sorby chisels are fairly old and unmodified. Two of them are. The other two have only been used enough that the primary bevel has been chased a little steeper due to sharpening laziness - something I haven't corrected yet, but the roundover retains the original mill markings, which look like a powered wheel mark (probably silica) as the remaining few marks that peek through have little tears in the soft iron.

Thinking back to having used prior versions of these chisels (I sold the others when I found a matching set) with tall cross sections and a single bevel (which I prefer on smaller mortise chisels) the friction in riding a bevel that large, especially if it wasn't hardened steel, was pretty appalling.

I think to an uninitiated user of these, one guesses that the long factory bevel on them with a roundover implies they're used back to the work rather than bevel ridden, but I think given the UK forum assessment that they weren't standard kit, but rather something used in production work on deep mortises and perhaps in timber work, the intention is to ride the small round over deep into the mortise and in my experience, the shallower primary bevel allows the chisel to get further into the mortise before the top edge unintentionally bruises ends (something that was a problem with a large single bevel), but the tall cross section still works really well to rotate and push waste away from the cut line).

It's no secret that I like the economic argument when proving something out. The sellers gimmick video with glass has a lot of people claiming that nobody knew what they were doing and these chisels are just useless and clumsy (and a marples blue chip is much better) but separation in performance occurs quickly when mortises get bigger and the mallet grows to take advantage of the chisels' design.

I didn't go back and read any of Joel's post to see exactly what he said, but I think the roundover (the one at the top of the cross section, and not the roundver of the edge) makes moving these chisels a little bit to get some relief to break chips off far easier than a sharp top. That's important when the cut is deep to allow you to raise the chisel just a little bit to rotate when it's buried deep and forgoing the relief in favor of just muscling a deep cut out will lead to broken something and dented wood (or broken out wood).

Now, the search for catalog pictures of the older chisels that seem to have been sold with the round over (ward, I&H sorby) is fruitless, though I got plenty of answers about chisels made in the 1900s (where catalogs were more common). The folks over on the UK forum who do more book reading than building suggest that catalogs from these marks in the 1800s when they were with their original owners (IH sorby was sold around 1850) are very thin on the ground. That's a bummer.

I also suspect that the early ward and IH sorby chisels were better than most of the other makers as they appear to be more crisp and refined, but I suppose at some point, sheffield makers agreed to all charge the same price (and by then, I think the IH sorby mark was decades into subsequent ownership).

There's so much supposition about this or that during that period that it's hard to get a good answer. One of the responses supposed that I probably had modern chisels because the postage stamp maker's mark was too deep to have been made by hand, and didn't have enough flair in the serifs. I don't think that would be hard to disprove, and a subsequent search of the mark showed that IH sorby never really did have bold serifs and really thin lettering. Making a deep stamp on brightly heated wrought iron isn't very difficult compared to making it on wrought that's heated only to something like mid orange.

So, other than figuring out what way the chisels like to be used the best (the least effort, which is an economic argument - something masters and workmen would've figured out unless guilds disallowed improvement on an economic basis as a threat), I'm out.

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