Monday, June 1, 2009

Astounding Chisels

I have to start including prologues, I think, to let some people know when a blog post is going to be an intolerable geek-out. Apparently I'm a bit too geeky and detailed for some people, and I'll accept that. This is going to be one of those geeky posts.

Just thought some of you would want to know.


In 2005 I took a class in Maine, to learn about Japanese hand tools. I got a lot of practice sharpening, and learning the basics, and a little bit of tradition, and a lot about sharpening, and so on. I also learned a lot about hand planes, too, but that's another post for another time.

Among the tools I bought for this class were 4 chisels, from a Japanese chisel maker named Chutaro Imai. I bought the nicer ones, made from Imai-San's "sword steel." They're incredibly beautiful. And the steel is fantastic. I got them sharpened up, used them a little bit, and brought them home. At the time, I also had some chisels made by a maker named Iyoroi, under his Ice Bear/ Kumagoro brand.

This was my first summer break from North Bennet, and I did bring the Japanese chisels into school. I used some of the Ice bear chisels to cut some dovetails in white oak, and I really butchered them. I let one of them get very dull, to the point where it started to chip. After it chipped, I figured I'd give it a rest, becuase I didn't feel like going through the whole process of restoring the edge. So, I rolled them up, and the Imai chisels, and brought them home. I also acquired a set of Lie-Nielsen chisels sometime that year, and I ended up using them more than anything else. I oiled up the Imai chisels, and put them away in the basement for a while, intending to get around to using them eventually. I used the Lie-Nielsen chisels for the rest of my time at North Bennet, and up until recently.

A few months ago I was going through a sharpening binge, and I brought out the Japanese chisels to give them all a good going over, and to decide once and for all if I was going to use them or sell them. At the time I still had my Marples chisels, that I learned to cut dovetails with, my Swiss chisels (made by Pfeil, a swiss company known for their carving tools), as well as my Japanese chisels and Lie-Nielsen chisels. In short, I had way too much steel for one man with only two hands.

As I got the Japanese chisels cleaned up and tuned up, I noticed that they were really, really sharp. I've gotten tools to be really sharp before, but they seemed a little different, so I took them in to do some hand tool exercises, and see what the deal was. And I was really impressed.

There's a lot about metallurgy I don't begin to understand, but I did notice right away that the Japanese chisels took a finer edge than I'd gotten on the fancy Lie-Nielsens, even after sharpening them regularly for a year or more. And I also noticed that the steel in the Japanese chisels was hard enough that the edge didn't start breaking down right away. Many people will argue that it's not worth sharpening chisels too much, because steel is generally soft enough that the finest edge, while incredibly sharp, will start to bend, and start to break down, as soon as it's put to something tougher than paper. And generally, this is true. But the Japanese chisels defied this logic... they're really hard. And really tough, too, as it turned out. I have a brass mallet that took a pounding a few months ago, when one of my shop mates used it to beat on some steel or cast iron. Out of curiosity, I tried using one of the Iyoroi chisels to see if I could pare some of the worst of the burrs away, and sure enough, I was able to shave a little bit of brass away. Hmmm... ok.

So I put the Lie-Nielsens up for sale on eBay. I still have a few I need to relist, but basically, I've made the switch.

Since then, I decided to really test one of the Imai chisels. So I took the 3/4" out and used it to chop the dovetails on all 4 drawers for the built-in project. (Sizes are approximate... the Japanese use metric measurements, and besides that, these chisels are hand made, so they're really close to the right measurement, but probably not exact.) Typically, I do my chopping with something smaller, to get better penetration, but these chisels are pretty sharp, and I figured, why not.

I chopped all these sockets, on both ends of the drawers, and I still haven't had to sharpen the chisel. Typically, I need to at least touch up my chisels once or twice during this much work. But the chisel I used is still very sharp... so I'm very impressed.

Another thing I'm starting to appreciate about the Japanese is the range of chisels they use, and the different shapes. There are some very nicely made fishtail-shaped chisels, to chop into corners. And there are chisels that are made with sharply beveled edges, also to get into corners, from a different direction. They do take some getting used to, since the sides of the bit are also very sharp, but they're very useful. Getting the crumbs out of the corners of a dovetail joint is a hassle, and it's a lot easier to do with these chisels. The sharp, but blunter edges of the sides are also great for scraping, too.

In the long run, I think the progression through different kinds of chisels was worth it for me... I learned a LOT about how to properly sharpen things. (I'm still learning, but that's another topic) If I'd picked up these chisels without knowing enough about sharpening, the difference would have been lost on me. But knowing what I know now... I want to start doing projects that will let me use these tools a lot more. I want to see what they're really capable of doing... and what I'm capable of doing with better tools.


rick said...

I have a couple of Imai Sword Steel chisels and think they're fantastic. Now that Misugi Design is out of business, where can you buy these chisels? Any clue?


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JW said...

Great! I'm glad.

Anonymous said...

try contacting the folks at regarding imai sword steel chisels. They are the primary sellers of Imai's chisels under the Funahiro brand and I'm sure they can get the sword steel chisels for you on request.