Friday, January 23, 2015

Joshua Klein's post on chisel handles

Joshua was nice enough to link to my post on 18th c. style chisel handles. He then improved it by adding details that I neglected, such as how to drive on the chisel handle and the suggested clearance of the tang holes. He then shows a finished handle with staining and patination that makes them truly look 200 years old.

I can't recommend this post highly enough if you are interested in making this style of handle.

Thanks Joshua!


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

18th Century Chisel Handles

I prefer proper tanged firmer chisels for my work. These are traditional cabinetmakers chisels, not the much-vaunted bevel edge socket chisels which are so prevalent today. To substantiate this claim, one only need look at the Seaton Chest or the Plumley inventory, both of which show large numbers of firmer chisels in common sizes needed by this type of craftsman. Heavier, stronger socket chisels are there too, but in sizes larger than commonly needed by cabinetmakers or joiners. And contrary to popular belief, you can cut fine dovetails with firmer chisels...

My goal here is to document how I make handles for tanged chisels. This came up on my Facebook page and I was asked to document my process, which you will find below.

The wood for this set of Butcher firmers is hard maple. Traditionally, this probably would have been beech, but the only beech I have on hand is some primo 12/4 for plane making and I didn't want to cut any up for this small job.

The block in this case is 4 1/2" long and is just over 1" square. For my chisels, I like to make a handle that is twice as big at the top as the diameter of the bolster. When combined with a 4 1/2" length, this gives a pleasing and consistent taper across the entire set.

I drill the hole in the block in the exact center. I typically do this using a small hand-held gimlet, as this enables me to ensure the hole is straight down the length of the block. How you may ask? I simply start the gimlet, then I spin the gimlet while holding the gimlet's shaft. By carefully watching the rotation of the block, I can see if the hole is veering to one side or the other and can make course corrections. If this isn't clear, I can get more pics of this.

I then simply use that smaller hole as a pilot hole for successively larger brace-mounted gimlets and shell bits, although in this case my small gimlet was approximately the right size for the last 3/8" of the tang.

The orientation of the bolster is the key to this method. I want the square sides of the bolster to align with the flats of the handle blank because the chisel itself should align with the bolster, as you can see in the above photo (the perspective makes it look a little funny, but it is straight). Sometimes the chisel wants to twist as you drive it on, so stop often and check your progress.

With the handle driven all the way on, it is time to taper the blank. Because I want the end of the handle that is closest to the blade to be the same size as the bolster, I simply carry up the bolster size with a pencil.

 After that, I connect the pencil lines with the butt end of the handle blank. This is the line that I will cut to by chopping close to the line with a chisel, then planing to the line (in this case with my highly anachronistic Wood River #3 and LN small block... they were handy and sharp and my normally used wooden strike block plane was not courtesy of a hidden nail...).

 One side done. I typically leave the side that aligns with the broad face of the chisel just a smidge wider than the other side, as this makes chisel orientation easy to determine without even looking.

 Remember that the chisel tapers on all four sides, meaning that you will have to lay out and cut tapers on the adjacent sides as well. Basically, do these operations once, rotate the chisel 90 degrees, then do them again.

This will leave you with a square handle that tapers on all four sides. Now, the bevels must be cut. I simply take a pencil, lock it against my pointer finger at a pleasing distance, then run the finger like a fence along the tapered faces. You will make eight lines this way. What I do is make four lines with the chisel edge facing me, then flip the chisel so the chisel edge faces away without putting down the pencil or changing the "setting". This enables you to make all the lines easily.

After you have the lines, it is a simple matter to either pare them down with a chisel, cut them with a plane, or perhaps even rasp them down. I typically prefer to pare them with a chisel then finish with a small plane.

This will leave you with an octagonal shape at the striking end. On virtually every period example I have seen, this end is beveled and then rounded off. This is probably done to prevent the handle from splitting. Using the same "finger gauge" yet again, I draw on a line about 3/8" or 1/2" from the end, using the end itself as the reference for the finger. It is then a simple matter of beveling this off with the rasp, as you can see in the picture below.

 Once the bevels are done, I typically round them over a bit with the rasp to make the finished product look a little less square. At this point, I will also address any wonkiness with the bevels, tear out, splinters, etc. with the rasp. I leave the rasp marks on the chisel, which is 100% consistent with period examples, where looks took a back seat to comfort, functionality and expediency. Even Ben Seaton's chisels show rasp and file marks on the handles, and we all know how carefully he built his tool chest. It simply doesn't matter in most cases.

In the above picture, the woodwork is finished. All that is left is some shellac, some wax, and this chisel will join the roll of Butchers that I use on a daily basis.