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English Mortise Chisels - Mid-18th Century to Now - Part 4 - Chisel handles


English Mortise Chisels -  Mid-18th Century to Now - Part 4 -  Chisel handles 4Click here for the start of this series. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century brass pipe was hard to make so ferrules, the brass ring at the base of most tools weren't used. Tool handles as a result had to be fairly thick so if you tried to lever the tool, the handle wouldn't split. Also the tool needed a wide bolster so that the force of the chisel would not drive into the handle and split it, and also keep the handle from splitting when levering. The oval handles of a mortise chisels not only give a certain direction to the user, more importantly they give a long more handle thickness and bolster thickness in the dimension where all the levering happens. A round handle of adequate size is just too big all round to be comfortable.

By the 1840's or 50's continuous brass and copper pipe became commercially available, and ferrules, really just a section of pipe added to the handle to keep it from splitting, became common. Every style of chisel, except for mortise chisels adapted to ferrules, and the handles got smaller, the bolsters got tiny, and since there was no danger of splitting a handle, fitting a handle became considerably easier. Round handles made by power lathes became the norm, and buying handled tools became common.
Except for mortise chisels. You still needed the big handle for leverage, but fitting an oval ferrule to handle is really hard. So the design remained the same. The only exception was that handle makers invented machines that could make oval handles, the problem was that they didn't always fit their bolsters.
Up until about 1880 or so, The handles on professionally fitted mortise chisels were fitted flush with the bolster, this gives you the smallest, most comfortable handle for the size of chisel. After that makers started just using stock handles that were oversize and leaving it at that. It's not as nice but a lot less expensive. Ray Iles, who has a machine set up for making oval handles, makes them oversize as was done, and then sands them to fit flush. This gives us the best possible handle but this type of sanding operation wasn't really available back in the late 19th century.
In the picture, starting from the bottom, we first have two typical early 19th century mortise chisels. The one at the bottom having a thin leather washer to take up the gap between bolster and handle, the second one being flush fit. Either handle could be original, user installed, or a replacement. I can't tell you for certain, other than the second one is flush fitted and is of Beech so it might be original. The third chisel from the bottom is the later style - with a stock, over-sized machine made handle that is too big for the bolster. This particular chisel has British Army markings so it must date from the First World War.
The final chisel at the top is current production by Ray Iles. The handle is flush fitted of beech and also have the thinnest most elegant bolster of the lot. Ray's design of course was a purposeful throwback to the best of the early 19th century so while it belongs to the same tradition it reflects a conscious effort to avoid any dumbing down of the style.

According to "The Joiner and Cabinetmakers" (pages 107 and 108) when end users would keep a stock of scraps for the fitting handles. Beech, a common secondary wood was very popular but ash is also pretty common.

Most tools before the introduction of the ferrule were sold unhandled. Once tools were typically sold handled the selection of wood became more regular. In England beech was the overwhelming favorite. It was cheap, compressed easily, and while prone to checks, once installed on a tool it didn't split. Ash was also used, but not as frequently.

In the United States hickory was the favorite, and ash a close second. In Europe hornbeam is far and away the most common choice. Hornbeam is harder than either beech or hickory and less easy to compress, but it still works excellently. In Japan, red and white oak are the most common choices.

The reason these woods were all so popular is because handles were installed by just banging them on and to have them stay on via a compression fit, you needed a wood that would compress without cracking. Beech and hickory and the other favorites do this to a tee.

For tools that were not stuck, such as paring chisels, or tools meant mostly for show, expensive decorative woods were used. Boxwood, rosewood, Ebony, and ivory were the preferred choices, although boxwood, rosewood, and occasionally ebony were actually used on tools meant to be used. In general you don't find much ebony or ivory on edge tools, except those meant for show. These materials do not compress and fitting them is a far trickier job. Ray Iles told me that in the old days when installing boxwood handles on paring chisels the cutler would keep a little ladle of molten rosin to pour in the hole for the tang. I suppose these days any modern epoxy would work fine.

According to Toshio Odate handles should be left unfinished so that they surface will absorb sweat and stain so that your hands will not transfer the discoloration to your work. Unfinished wood is also a lot more grippy than finished wood and the handles will work better. That being said I don't know of any manufacturer who doesn't finish their handles with something. Shellac and lacquer being the most popular choices. Ray Iles uses linseed oil on all his handles so that he can maintain a grippy surface. Manufactures do this because when you sell new edge tools the one thing you don't want the handles to do is absorb sweat and look dirty from casual handling in a store.

The most important thing is that the wood must be DRY. Otherwise as it dries it will shrink away from the tang and no amount of initial compression force or epoxy will keep it on the tool.

Another point to understand is that the handles are held on the tang by compression. it's exactly like driving a nail into end grain, only bigger. Like a nail or a Japanese plane iron what holds the tang in the wood is pressure from the compression, and just as, if not more important, the fibers of the wood getting bent back and resisting the tang being pulled out. In theory at least one would might strive for a hole for the tang that is just a tad smaller than the tang is and fits it like a glove. In reality that's impossible to do and doesn't matter anyway. The compression forces are so high that as long as there is reasonable engagement we will be able to stick a tang in the handle and even before it's driven completely home - it will be impossible to remove.

In Part 5 we will demonstrate how a to handle a mortise chisel or in fact any tool with a tang.

PS - if you are a member of TATHS you will have just gotten their yearly journal which has two killer articles, one on "The English Handsaw Before the Industrial Revolution" and "The Sheffield Saw Industry". If you aren't a member you can learn more and join here.
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04/16/2014 Bob Burgess
Billhook handles are also fitted with ferrules, apart from a very few, e.g. English gentlemans hooks, or French leather-cutting hooks (serpette �  cuir) that were ferruled with brass tube, the vast majority have iron (or steel) ferrules. These were made by wrapping a strip of iron around a mandrel, and forge welding the ends together.

Occasionally they were joined by brazing, and very occasionally they were not lapped, but a dovetail cut into each end and they were brazed flush. Unlike chisels, the tang was invariably carried through the full length of the handle, and either bent over or rivetted over a small washer.

Sometimes handles were fitted without ferrules, but this is not common in the UK, except on sickles. The above mentioned TATHS journal also contains an article on Sicilian vine pruning billhooks, which shows examples with and without ferrules on the handles.
04/16/2014 Bob Burgess
Long tool handles, e.g. for hoes, axes, shovels, need a staright grain, and a certain amount of shock resilience. In the UK ash was the wood of choice (it was also used for the felloes of wooden cart and waggon wheels, and also the shafts used to connect them to the horses), and in the USA hickory was used.

Handle makers did not want to waste the smaller offcuts of wood, and this may explain why these timbers became most commonly used for smaller handles, such as those on chisels and billhooks, where other woods, such as beech, sycamore or oak would do equally well.
04/16/2014 Danny
Some personal preferences/observations: I think the thicker style of bolster suits the look of these chisels, I have also found that ash/hickory seems a little more resistant to the blows of the mallet and I like the strong grain, even if beech seems to have been the wood featured in 19th century catalogues for these mortice handles - having said that the Iles chisels are very elegant and well finished.

For the heavier classes of chisel - it always puzzled me that registered chisel handles were double hooped and always ash whereas mortice unhooped (thanks for your info on this) and generally beech (if sold handled).

In one or two cases I have seen mortice handles with a "whipped" (ie bound with cord or wire) handle -- looks and works well if carefully done, especially after some use.

One reason that ash/hickory may have been used for replacement mortice chisel handles is that a broken handle from an axe, adze, slasher or large hammer gives an ideal oval shape from which to fashion your replacement - I once handled 4 mortice chisels from one snapped sledge-hammer shaft, with little shaping needed.

Thanks again for a good series of articles.

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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.
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