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Thread: Best old chisel makers?

  1. #1
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    Best old chisel makers?

    I know this has been discussed before, but I can't find the thread. How would you rank these old makers for steel quality? Barton, Swan, Berg, Witherby (Winsted Edge Tool), Greenlee, Shapleigh, Stanley Everlast, and Stanley sockets.

    The reason I ask, is that I have several of each of those brands, a full set of Bergs, and a bunch of others that are good enough for opening a paint bucket, or loaning to my wife. I have the Bergs ground at 22.5 degrees, which works well for paring, but I'm toying with the idea of accumulating a full set of one of the other makers to grind at 30 degrees for chopping. Right now, I have several favorites in that group that I do that with. Basically, it's probably a subliminal excuse to buy more old chisels, but...

    So, what do you think is the best old chisel brand?

  2. #2
    I have a full set of Swan and a full set of Witherby (and a few of other brands). Both are good but not better than good quality modern chisels. Probably not as good as LN or Blue Spruce chisels.

    Mike
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  3. #3
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    That brings up an interesting side idea Mike. I was sharpening last night with a Tormek, and the noticed that the Bergs took an edge a heck of a lot quicker then the newer Record 73 blade that I tried. Are the older tools as good as the new stuff?

  4. #4
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    T.H.Witherby,Swan,Greenlee,and Barton are old brands I know are good. The Bergs,and Shark brands of Swedish chisels I have used have tended to be a bit soft.

    I have a lot of old carving tools,and several sets of chisels,but not the old Stanleys,so I can't comment about them. We used the Stanley Everlast in the school shop where I first taught in 1963. It's been so long I can't recall how they were.

    All the good old brands can have variations in their tempering,though. I've had to re temper several good old framing chisels that the housewrights have picked up on their own. On one,the steel bit separated from the rest of the chisel at the cutting edge,and had to be ground back some. Quality control was a bit iffy back then. It all depended upon personal skill of the men who made them,and no doubt they got tired and inattentive at times. I've seen them be too soft,so that the cutting edge rolled back like a fish hook,too hard,so the edge chipped,and seen welds separate as said. They were fine after I re hardened and tempered them,so it wasn't the basic quality of the metal.
    Last edited by george wilson; 08-22-2009 at 11:06 AM.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Rozmiarek View Post
    I know this has been discussed before, but I can't find the thread. How would you rank these old makers for steel quality? Barton, Swan, Berg, Witherby (Winsted Edge Tool), Greenlee, Shapleigh, Stanley Everlast, and Stanley sockets.

    The reason I ask, is that I have several of each of those brands, a full set of Bergs, and a bunch of others that are good enough for opening a paint bucket, or loaning to my wife. I have the Bergs ground at 22.5 degrees, which works well for paring, but I'm toying with the idea of accumulating a full set of one of the other makers to grind at 30 degrees for chopping. Right now, I have several favorites in that group that I do that with. Basically, it's probably a subliminal excuse to buy more old chisels, but...

    So, what do you think is the best old chisel brand?
    Many of the old brands are fine tools. My philosophy is to have different chisels for different needs.

    Like you, the chisels that come my way that do not suit my shop needs are set aside for "loaners" or when doing a job using scrap wood that may have hidden tool wreckers within. They can also be used to make skew chisels or other designs that are being considered to see if that special grind will actually help before putting out the big bucks. Also, they can be driven into a beam and used to hang your jacket.

    For paring and fine work, the Buck Brothers are nice because of the low profile of the beveling.

    For something that is going to be driven by a mallet, a few other thoughts come to mind. For light tapping, my choice is the Whitherby bevel edge chisel.

    For heavier hitting from the a mallet, a square sided chisel is preferred. My accumulation consists of quite a few different makers of this type chisel; Swan, Buck, Whitherby and others.

    If you are going to really get behind the mallet when hitting chisels, then you want some heavier framing chisels or even mortise chisels.

    Of course, for limited usage, one can cut a mortise with a paring chisel. Over time, it will not be good for the chisel.

    One would likely be very frustrated trying to pare dovetails with a mortise or firmer chisel, but it might be possible.

    jim
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    I have collected a bunch old W. Butcher items. Chisels, tennon saw, etc. I find them a joy to use, and they are super easy to hone. Cast steel with a "tang" configuration. Wish I knew more about the maker 'cause they have been a real plus to my neander tool box(s).
    Bill
    On the other hand, I still have five fingers.

  7. #7
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    Butcher is a common old brand to find in flea markets,at least in the East. They are good tools.

  8. #8
    Over the years I have accumulated Swan, Witherby, Buck, Stanley and D R Barton.
    There is almost nothing to separate them. I have found that the D R Bartons that I have had, take and hold a fine edge longer than the others. And in my case I did not think as highly of the Bucks.
    Now it just might have been my chisels, but I will not part with Bartons again. I made the mistake of selling one earlier on, because I had a Witherby in the same size. I have always regretted this.
    Cheers
    MC
    Last edited by Martin Cash; 08-22-2009 at 5:49 PM.

  9. #9
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    Old Chisels

    The best edge retention and the ease of sharpening I have found on old chisels was a W. Butcher. Unfortunately it was stolen. I keep my eye peeled for those.

  10. #10
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    The individual chisels by the same old makers can vary quite a bit in hardness,edge holding,etc.. I had to reharden and temper a number of them.

  11. #11
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    That's my experience too, George. I've had some chisels that were gems and a couple here or there that were softees or brittle - even from the same maker. That said, I love my Swans:


  12. #12
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    George, is it fair to say that the modern makers have a more consistant product, but that some of the old tools can be just as good?

    For the record, my favorite chisel is a Barton firmer. 1 1/2", and it gets used for most of the oddball stuff that comes up. Jim, I chose the Bergs for the exact same reason that you mentioned with the Buck Brothers being good for paring.

    Anyone got an opinion on Winsted Edge Tool Works? I know they bought Witherby, and I have one that seems really good. The other two on the other hand, just look like a pretty blah. Bad stamp, the steel looks too shiney, and they balance funny. Maybe skews would be a good idea from them.

    Harlan, I have a Butcher slick, but no chisels. Maybe I ought to sharpen it up and see if I like that steel.

    Anyone know anything about a company that might have made a mortise chisel stamped Goldenberg Acier Fondu? Seems like good steel, and a heck of a lot better balanced than a Two Cherries.

  13. #13
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    I respect that you were asking George, but for what little it may be worth:

    My expereince is that old chisels will get as sharp as new ones and can be just as nice in terms of balance etc. Where new ones tend to beat out the old ones is in edge retention. For example, the my LN's (with A2) will stay sharp much longer than my Swans.

  14. #14
    My belief is that quality was inconsistent in old tools. If you were able to go out and purchase a new set of old tools, you might have a couple that were excellent tools, a couple that were average, and a couple that were not so good.

    When buying old tools, you can get the same quality spread. If the tool was used, it's probably good. I expect many of the poor quality tools wound up getting recycled (re-melted or re-worked). If so, the best tools passed down to us which would lead us to think all old tools were excellent.

    My experience with old chisels is that they're okay but not great. That is, I'd rather use a new chisel, like an LN, Blue Spruce, or even a Japanese chisel, than the old tools. It's not that the old tools don't work, but they're not as good as those new tools. I spend more time sharpening those old tools than the new tools.

    Mike

    [If you go far enough back, say the mid-1800s, our ancestors had a very hard time controlling their iron and steel making processes. They could recognize good metal after the fact, but they had a hard time reproducing it. There's lots of reports of manufacturers complaining to their iron and steel suppliers about receiving bad batches of metal. So the tool makers had a very difficult time making consistent quality tools when their input was inconsistent. Looking at the problems they had, it's amazing they did as well as they did.]
    Last edited by Mike Henderson; 08-23-2009 at 1:06 AM.
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  15. #15
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    Guys,I didn't say that old tools couldn't be very excellent. It is,in my considerable experience,being in a museum,and looking after everyone's tools,that they can be inconsistent,that's all.

    Even in the 19th.C.,and probably into the early 20th.C.,tool steels were judged strictly upon personal skill. High carbon steels were cooked up in crucibles. Each crucible had wrought iron,and carbonaceous material put into them,and the lid was luted on. Ingredients were loaded into these crucibles by workers by hand,and largely by judgement.

    The crucibles were each going to produce somewhat different carbon contents of steel.This steel was called "cast steel",because it was poured into ingots. You often see "cast steel" stamped onto old tools.

    Samples of steel were prepared,hardened,and fractured. An old hand would examine the fractures,and classify the steel into different categories. the lowest grade was "spindle steel",used to make stuff like lathe spindles that had to be tough,but not real hard. There was "knife steel".The highest grade was "razor steel". Off hand I can't recall quite all the grades. The point is,it was all done,from selecting the contents of the crucibles,to judging the finished steel,by personal judgement.

    In England,they couldn't make the best steel,and didn't know why. It had too much sulfur in it,but they had hardly any understanding of chemistry. Bad steel went into the Titanic,most likely,causing the steel plates to fracture too badly in the collision. Yet,no expense was spared in the very elaborate interior decorations in the ship. I am sure they were not trying to get by cheaply.

    The English bought their best iron from Sweden,where it was made with charcoal,not with coal. The Swedish iron also had different grades. I believe "hoop iron" was one of the best grades.

    So,from the very beginning,all the materials were selected based upon personal judgement. The finished chisels,or whatever,were hardened and tempered by eye. The steel each chisel was made from was subject to variations in chemistry,but I am sure they were all tempered to the same color since the tempering guy knew nothing about the individual variations in the metal,of course. Steel of a somewhat lower carbon content would come out softer that a chisel of somewhat higher carbon content. They only had 3 or 4 grades of tool steel to begin with,and each grade did have variations within it. It was sorted by the sorter according to the size of grain fracture,and whatever size the grain was had to be lumped into one of those limited categories.

    The only thing that prevents us today from making the best tool steel ever made is money,and liability. It seems that manufacturers will do the darndest things to save a nickel over a range of 100 products. Now,some makers are making softer tools to keep from being sued if someone gets a steel splinter in his eye.
    Last edited by george wilson; 08-23-2009 at 10:46 AM.

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