I was recently asked by a Hand Tool School member to provide a list of good chisel brands to aid him in buying. That's actually a pretty tough question to answer seeing as I don't have more than 5 minutes of fiddle time with more than a couple brands. So I started to think about what I like about my favorite chisels, and for that matter which one is my favorite chisel.
My favorite chisel isn't pretty, it's beat up pretty badly and has lots of patina on the socket handle and the blade. The handle has a ratty leather washer on top, and I don't think I can even free it from the socket any longer. It is a 1.5? firmer chisel and the straight walls often get in the way on inside corners. It is a Buck Bros. chisel, which isn't really known for high quality tools, and I have no idea when it was made. I think I bought it for $5 along with 6 or 7 other rusty tools in a shoebox at a yard sale.
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Here's the thing, this chisel fits my hand like a glove. The edge, while not as durable as some of the modern alchemy, can be honed razor sharp. The bevel is set at 20 degrees with a slight microbevel. It pares away even the most stubborn woods with ease, and I use it constantly to pare split tenon cheeks, chamfer edges, or refine a filister. There is a spot of heavy patina right where my thumb rests, and while I know this not to be true, this area feels softer and sculpted to my thumb. When I grasp the blade, my fingers fall into place automatically, and the chisel becomes an extension of my hand that is perfectly balanced. It responds to my thoughts instantly, and I swear it anticipates my next move. When I use it, my breathing slows and we work as one.
I don't know who owned this before me or how it was used. I relish the thought that I am extending the life of this chisel and continuing the work of craftsman before me. On paper my Lie Nielsen and Blue Spruce chisels should outperform this "reject" in every way. I can't explain it other than to say that my favorite chisel has soul. The figurative choir of angels just sings whenever I use it.
But Here is My Theory...
I know nothing about metallurgy and don't really care enough to research it. My common sense tells me that modern made chisels, especially ones made by Lie-Nielsen, Blue Spruce, Veritas, etc. have superior steel than the vintage chisels you will find in a shoebox at the garage sale. But I question whether that is even important. Don't get me wrong, my Lie Nielsen chisels are fantastic, but the hardness of the steel really isn't that big a factor when I'm doing paring work. Certainly if I pound on it to chop a mortise, a weaker steel might fold and dull quickly. But then again, that is what sharpening is for. There is something magical about the "softer" vintage steel in old chisels that makes them easy to sharpen and they work great for general use and for paring.
So which brands are the best? I can't really answer that and I don't think the type of steel really should play into that question. In my experience, its all about the feel or "spirit" of the tool. Who can tell, it is a personal choice and sometimes it might surprise you which chisel is your "best."
This "Hand Tool School" series is provided courtesy of Shannon Rogers, a/k/a The Renaissance Woodworker. Rogers is founder of The Hand Tool School, which provides members with an online apprenticeship that teaches them how to use hand tools and to build furniture with traditional methods.
Shannon Rogers started woodworking by trying to build a proton pack, and has been in love with the craft ever since. He runs The Renaissance Woodworker website which is dedicated to spreading the love about hand tool woodworking. He is also the head glue pot keeper at The Hand Tool School where teaches thousands of woodworkers on 6 continents (still trying to find somebody in Antarctica) how to cast off the power tool oppressors and build "the hard way".
By day Shannon is the Director of Marketing for J. Gibson McIlvain, a lumber company founded in 1798 that supplies high quality hardwoods from all over the world to everyone from Calvin Klein, the New York Yankees, and the US Government. He is a wood nerd through and through and often finds reasons to inject latin botanical names into everyday conversation.