Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chisels: Steels in the Field.

All of my chisels have wooden handles. Which is to say, none of them dress in plastic. I especially dislike plastic handles with the steel strike plate on the end. They look like Anglo-Saxon helmets. But I don’t mean to be a snob about this; the quarrel is not wood vs. plastic, but steel compared with steel. My various old, mostly American made chisels, a few Stanley’s, some Witherby’s, one Greenlee, one Swedish pattern, are sharp, hard, highly resistant to dulling, but easily chipped by the smallest staple or brad. Nails inflict grievous, biting wounds. For careful paring of 3/8th’s wide and 3/16th’s deep channels for installing knife hinges, there is no better steel. The plastic handled tools have softer steel. They take, but will not hold a sharp edge. Softer though, means more forgiving in rough use. The edges will crumple, but not chip or break, and any damage is easily ground away.

Which is the better tool? Is one better than another? I’m certainly in love with my wooden handled chisels. Several have rosewood handles. A few have old style, turned hard maple handles. A couple wear crabapple turned by my brother. Old steel turns a beautiful graphite gray. Flattening the backs before honing gives them a high sheen. The millimeter thin edge that does the cutting will pare away the most difficult end grain as if it were hard wax. They are euphoric to use. However, when the job is an assault on tough spruce flooring laid down to age in 1919, and guarded by grit, nails, and linoleum, put away your hard steel. Pick up that old 2" Fuller chisel, or Miller’s Falls, or Craftsman. These chisels are your shock troops, those little helmets the insignia of an ally. Grab a sturdy claw hammer and pound away. Slug, chop and bash your way through spruce, sub-flooring, floor joists, small nails, almost anything but rock. No better tool for the job. Choosing the right tool for the job also means choosing the right job for the tool.

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