Menushopping cart
Tools for Working Wood
Invest in your craft. Invest in yourself.

JOEL Joel's Blog

My Bench Chisel History


My Bench Chisel History 1
I was organizing some stuff in the shop the other day and I came across one of my old sets of chisels. As a tool collector, I have lots of tools that I have never used. The the four sets of bench chisels detailed here are different. They reflect different times and my evolution as a woodworker.

The very first set of chisels I bought - back in the early 1980's - was for my first or second class at The New School (then known as The New School for Social Research, then New School University - some consultants said search engines would be more impressed by the name - and now simply The New School). This was before I met Maurice Fraser, my woodworking mentor. This chisel set very much reflected a beginner's needs. I bought the set of four Marples bench chisels at Garrett Wade, the legendary woodworking store on Spring Street in Manhattan.

I quickly got disenchanted with the Marples chisels. I am not sure why, but in retrospect I bet it's because I could not sharpen them properly. I just didn't know how; what might have seemed obvious to others was beyond my comprehension at the time.

Pretty soon after getting the Marples chisels, I went back to Garrett Wade and bought a nice set of twelve Iyori Oire-Nomi. I chose Japanese chisels because I had just read Toshio Odate's great book, "Japanese Woodworking Tools." It was pretty obvious that (in accordance with the old saying about being a poor workman) it was far easier to find fault with my tools than to actually figure out how to sharpen efficiently. The Oire-Nomi were my most expensive tool purchase up to that time. I carefully stripped the oak handles and then sanded and refinished them with Watco. I also stamped the size on each handle. Of course difference sized chisels have different width blades, but when I had stripped the handles I also removed the sticker on each chisel identifying the respective size, and I thought it was vital that I replace the sticker with another method of identification. To this day I have a memory of stamping the sizes on each chisel - and I did a pretty good job. I should probably acknowledge that I had bought a number stamp set at a local flea market and was most certainly just jonesing for something to stamp.

My Bench Chisel History 2

In the mid-1980's I started studying with Maurice Fraser. He had a set of Stanley 750's, possibly the most iconic of American style bench chisels. Naturally studying with Maurice made it clear that it was time to do some shopping. As Stanley 750's went out of production in 1962, this was a fine time to awaken my collecting gene. The assembly of my set took years, but as you can see all the chisels are in new or nearly new condition. One problem with the Japanese set I had is that the narrower chisels were almost square in section. This make cutting dovetails hard, and the 750's were a treat to use in comparison. Maurice taught me how to sharpen, which also influenced me as a woodworker and collector.

These are the chisels I used for twenty-five years. In that time I passed from an amateur woodworker/tool collector working in tech on Wall Street, to a guy who could get more tools directly from the manufacturer. When we started selling Japanese tools, I found that the chisels by Nishiki were the best I had ever used by any maker anywhere. So when for a short time we offered decorative chisels by Nishki, I decided to splurge and get myself a set of fancy dovetail chisels. These chisels have the longest edge retention of any chisel I have used, and are a joy to use. When I took a class with Toshio Odate in 2005, he made fun of the fact that the handles were made of Ebony, noting that the wood is brittle and hard on the hand. He's right. Setting the hoops was a nightmare because the Ebony would not soften. I ended up soaking the handle tops for hours and still had problems. But the Ebony transmits hammer blows very directly, a characteristic I like that very much. In retrospect, I would like to have a set of the Ashley Iles dovetail chisels. But aside from the samples in the shop -- that I use whenever I can -- I don't get much of a chance. They seem to sell out too fast for me to snag a set (customers always come first at TFWW).

My Bench Chisel History 3My Bench Chisel History 4My Bench Chisel History 5

I don't use my Marples chisels anymore but they deserve a place of pride in my tableau of chisels because they started me off.
I don't use my Marples chisels anymore but they deserve a place of pride in my tableau of chisels because they started me off.

Normally my chisels are stored in chisel rolls.
Normally my chisels are stored in chisel rolls.

Join the conversation
05/30/2018 Dave
The blog is always a fun read, Joel. I would ask if you want to sell you Marples chisels, but I purchase a set of Greenlees back in the mid seventies. I believe they were made by Marples at the time (if someone knows differently, I am always willing to learn). They have been my go to chisel since. Like you, learning to sharpen has been a long journey with many stones, sandpaper, grinding wheels, books, articles and not to mention money left in the wake. I finally reached the homeland with help from you and Richard Maguire and have a consistent and efficient system that lends itself to my work and many other sharpening chores. I do not find, however, socket chisels of much use. I live in upstate NY and my shop is in the basement. Durning the summer months the handles hold well, but in winter, even well made and fitted handles not so much. I did recently break down and buy a set of Ashley Iles dovetail chisels from you; wonderful. They match the balance I was looking for close up work.
05/30/2018 Paul Andrus
Really enjoyed your history of chisels.
I have a set of Lie Nielsen (5) plus 1 fishtail.
Can you recommend another good set of all purpose chisels ?
Thanks ...Paul
05/30/2018 Kevin Brennan
My bench chisels for many years have been a set of pre Irwin Blue Chip Marpels that have served me well. Tired of pitying looks for my plastic handles I turned a batch of new handles from my stash of Honduran Rosewood left over from spokeshave making days. The metal polished nicely with a lot of wet/dry sandpaper and elbow grease. They turned out a treat and the wood responds well to a mallet. The R. A. dovetail chisels are next on my TFWW Wish List.
05/30/2018 Daniel E Moerman
I had a set fof the blue handled marples until about 4 years ago. Then I really got lucky, and my children got together and bought me a set of the new Lee Valley chisels. They agonized about the price, but I didn't. I sold the marples for next to nothing on ebay, and I've loved the LV chisels ever since . They rarely need sharpening, and if they do, it's just a touch on a very fine stone.
05/30/2018 Eric Weissman
I hate to admit what my chisels are, so I won't. I'll only say I bought them 50 years ago. I have been eyeing a new set. Daniel, which of the three metals Lee Valley offers did you choose?
05/30/2018 Ariel Jacala
Really enjoyed your history. It parallels my own in many ways - including finally learning how to sharpen and having a system for doing so.


05/31/2018 Dan O'Sullivan
Funny how similar many of our experiences are. I found the Stanleys and Greenlees and a couple Swans back in the late 1970s. Later I bought a set of Japanese chisels made for me in Miki City Japan. I was going in and out of Yakota AFB and had the chance to see them made. I like the Japanese chisels but I still use my western chisels most of the time. Years later I had a friend who was in Korea and he bought a bunch of woodworking tools. I think they are equal to the Japanese chisels in every aspect. Good blog Joel.
06/04/2018 Arthur Linker
Joel, I love your blog. I bought the whole set of Narex chisels from your store; but no mention of them here. Will I be happy?
Yes - the reason they weren't mentioned is that I personally don't have any and I was writing about the tools I actually have.

Comments are closed.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.