The woodworking chisels illustrated in Joseph Moxon's classic Mechanick Exercises, seen above, lack what we consider a standard component: ferrules. The chisels are missing the band of metal round the front of the handle that keeps the handle from splitting. In 1678, the era of Mechanick Exercises, chisel handles didn't have ferrules. To make a ferrule you need a pipe of metal, usually brass. Before the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, ferrules would have been made by hand - a time-consuming and expensive task. You do see some very small 18th century tools with ferrules, but the standard bench chisels of the time were ferrules-less. By the 1840's, however, round pipe was easy to get and inexpensive. So with one exception - mortise chisels, which I will discuss momentarily - all tools were fitted with a ferrule.
There are three compelling reasons to have a ferrule. If you are levering something out with a chisel, you don't want the handle to split. In addition, as you mallet the chisels you don't want the tang going even deeper, eventually splitting the handle. Third (and probably a particularly important reason from a manufacturing standpoint), you don't want to split out the handle when you are first banging the handle on the tool.
Early toolmakers had two solutions to the challenge of potentially split handles. The first is longer tangs. The tang is the spike coming from the center of the tool that gets jammed into the handle. The longer it is, the better lateral (prying) forces get distributed in the handle, thereby reducing the chances of splitting a tool. But longer tangs also involve a deeper hole in the handle and additional metal and forging -- in other words, more time and cost.
The second solution is having large and wide bolsters. The bolster is the fat part of the chisel that butts up against the handle, preventing the tang from sinking further into the body of the handle. Early bolsters were nice and wide, which helped distribute lateral forces. But big wide bolsters meant more metal and some very difficult forging. In the illustration from Moxon above and the mortise chisels illustrated below, the tools have wide flat bolsters the width of the handle.
While manufactured tubing came on the market a little before the 1840's, it was in that decade that we see the transition to ferrules. Once you have a ferrule on a chisel, you can shorten up the tang, get rid of the wide and crazy bolsters, and save a lot of time and money on manufacture. The skills of the forger or the cutler (the person who handles the chisels) are not as essential to get the work done. The 1839 book the Joiner and Cabinetmaker describes installing a handle. At the time you could save money by buying tools without handles and making them yourself. By around 1900, the rise of both ferrules and pattern lathes, the cost of selling a tool with a handle came down. At this point most tools are sold with handles.
One style of chisel that never made the transition: English oval-bolstered mortise chisels. Some early 18th century English mortise chisels have octagonal handles with a nice octagonal bolster, but by the time 1800 rolled around you mostly see oval handles, with oval bolsters. Oval handles on mortise chisels are really important because they give the user feedback on the chisel orientation. The actual bolsters on a mortise chisel were welded on by hammer, but the key to fitting them was shaping the final profile of the handle after banging on the handle. A leather washer between handle and bolster makes the handle easier to fit, but you don't see that in higher quality chisels, except on replacement handles. Direct handle-to-bolster contact gives a better distribution of force. Oval handles and bolsters are much easier and less expensive to make than an octagonal handle. Making and fitting an oval ferrule to an oval handle and then getting to match the bolster would be a nightmare, so the mortise chisel never made the transition to a ferruled handle. A while ago I wrote a long series on mortise chisels, including instructions for handling them.
While I don't have any early 19th century chisels in my collection, the Mathieson paring chisel (c. 1900) in the image below shows vestiges of 18th century ferrules. The handles of these paring chisels had ferrules, but paring chisels tended to be relatively expensive and the wide (ish) octagonal bolster covers a fair amount of the bottom of the handle (and also looks quite elegant). By the post war period, these fancy bolsters had largely died out and gotten much smaller.
The bolster even on a early 19th century bench chisel needed to be wide and cover the entire base of the handle in order to distribute the bending force of working. The bolster also has to be pretty light because - unlike mortise chisels - bench chisels are used for much daintier and finessed work. This requires great forging skill and certain specialized forging tools. As soon as ferrules started being adopted, makers quickly adapted and shrunk down the size of the bolster to something manageable. Late 19th century bolsters have some of the elegance of the late 18th century models but they are far smaller and really decorative. By the mid 20th century, the bolster deteriorates into a bump on the base of the tang. Some modern makers such as Blue Spruce, makers of some very high-end tools, forgot the bolster completely and entirely rely on the ferrule to keep the handle together.
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01/29/2020 Ronald Magnuson
A very enlightening article. Thank You very much
I had assumed that name ferrule derived from the “ferrum”, the Latin word for iron and that early ferrules would have been made form iron. The term must predate their use on chisels. Time for some homework.