July 19, 2008
Having used a set of Lie-Nielsen bench chisels for the past four years or so, here’s my take, as honestly as I can put it, on how I like them and whether I think they are worth the money. They’re not exactly cheap and they were a purchase that quite frankly made me grit my teeth a little bit. A chisel is a pretty simple thing, after all. No moving parts. It’s just a hunk of steel and a handle. Can it be worth $50? In a nutshell, I’m of a mixed opinion about these tools (yes, they’re very good, but I expected quite a lot). But let’s start at the beginning.
I can testify that my L-N chisels arrived nearly ready to use. It’s important, in order to get a sharp chisel, to have the back of the chisel dead flat. The L-Ns came out of the box flat, really flat. It took 10 minutes on a waterstone to polish up the back and hone the bevel and it was ready to go. Having spent a lot longer than that tuning up my previous set of chisels (Marples Blue Chips), I can say the time savings is worth something. Is it worth $50 per chisel for the L-Ns compared to $10 or so for the Marples? That depends on who you are, I guess.
I also have a number of vintage chisels (by makers such as James Swan, C.E. Jennings, Ohio Tool, Whitherby, and Stanley). These can be great once restored but often require enormous amounts of time to tune up. So I can say it is really nice to pull a tool out of the box and have it nearly ready to use.
But the L-N chisels have other fine qualities, of course. In my subjective opinion — I have done no controlled experiments and don’t really care to — I can say they hold an edge extremely well. It is my impression that a super sharp edge on an L-N goes away rather quickly. But that’s true of most chisels. But then you get to a place where it’s definitely useable — what I might call “not too dull yet.” The L-N seems to stay in this place for a very long time before it gets “too dull” for my taste.
They hold up great in chopping. I use my narrower L-N chisels often for chopping dovetails, and I love them for this. I used those Marples Blue Chips for a long time before I got these L-N chisels. The Marples are certainly an exceptional value. But their edges didn’t hold up like these do in chopping. No way. I don’t think any vintage chisels I have used hold up quite as well during chopping either.
But it is also my subjective opinion that I can’t get a quite as super-sharp an edge on my L-N chisels as I can on some plain old carbon steel chisels — if I want to pare end grain or something. In that case I often reach for a vintage James Swan chisel that I have fixed up. L-N of course says it uses cryogenically treated A2 steel for its chisels – as opposed to regular old 01 carbon steel probably in those vintage chisels. I don’t know a lot about the science behind these types of steel, but I have read that regular carbon steel can take a finer edge than A2.
So perhaps L-N has sacrificed a touch of hardness and the ability to get a super razor edge for toughness and an edge that will hold up under chopping. That’s what it seems like to me. I don’t claim to know the metallurgy; I’m just giving my impressions through many hours of use.
Another benefit of the L-Ns is that they are dead-on the size they are supposed to be, unlike a lot of vintage chisels. My L-N 1/2-inch chisel is truly half an inch, not 33/64ths. Does that matter? Well, if you use a chisel to square up a mortise you cut with a 1/2-inch router bit, it is nice to have the chisel that exactly corresponds to the slot the router bit cut. To be my own devil’s advocate, inexpensive modern chisels, say those Marples Blue Chips, are probably dead on too. It is the “vintage” chisels that are more variable.
Another thing I like is that the bevels on the side edges extend almost all the way down to the back, unlike some (especially older) bevel-edge chisels I’ve seen. That’s really nice for getting in tight spots and chopping small dovetails. It is easy to keep the joints very crisp.
L-N also makes some odd sizes, which is beneficial. I own the 3/16 chisel, and I use it all the time. It is a truly handy size for the work I do, and I think that size would be harder to find elsewhere.
So back to the original question: Are L-N chisels worth the money? I’d say it’s probably overkill for a beginning woodworker to go spend $300 or so on a set of chisels. It may be overkill for a lot of people who have been woodworking for a long time. It depends on what you want and what kind of work you are doing. I bought my L-N chisels before I really started exploring old, vintage tools, which I have done a little more of since. And it is hard to say, really, if I would buy them now or try to put together a vintage set of say Stanley 750s, which Lie-Nielsen says it used as the pattern for its bench chisels.
But my experience has been that it is not necessarily inexpensive or easy to put together a set of old chisels. Collectors and old tool lovers have driven up the prices for many of these old chisels, and it’s hard to get them cheap. Maybe you find a good deal here or there for one, but if you are trying to put together a set … not easy. Even if you are not concerned about the brand of an old chisel, it’s hard to think I could cheaply, easily put together a set that would work as well as these do for what I do. I like chisels that are on the shorter side, relatively lightweight, fairly slender and beveled to a fairly sharp arris on the side edges. Where I live, anyway, such things in vintage examples are not exactly growing on trees. Moreover, you have to consider the time you are going to spend flattening backs and cleaning off rust and making replacement handles.
I’ve already talked about how the L-Ns compare to the cheaper modern chisels I’ve used — especially the Marples (now owned by Irwin, I believe). But I also once owned a couple of handmade Japanese chisels I bought from Hida Tool in Berkeley, Calif. They were very nice, took a super sharp edge, held it well. But they were even more expensive than the L-Ns. They were things of beauty, but I wasn’t sure they were worth the price. The deciding factor was that they were metric, which just caused too many inconveniences for me. So I sold them.
I will add this about the L-Ns: I truly don’t understand the idea of charging more for the cocobolo handles, which L-N advises be used only for paring, not for chopping. I think that’s a little silly. I don’t see the point. To me the real strength of L-N chisels is not paring — it is durability in chopping. I would say stick with the hornbeam handles that you can beat on, and, for a paring chisel find an old reputable vintage chisel (and a scrap of cocobolo, if you want to make your own handle for it) to sharpen up into a paring chisel. I’d also add that I do beat on the handles of my L-N chisels regularly, usually with a metal hammer, when I’m chopping. I’ve had no problems with the handles. They have held up great. That hornbeam appears to be pretty tough stuff.
Speaking of handles, I’d make another suggestion to L-N. The 1/8, 3/16, and even 1/4 chisels tend to roll around — and sometimes off — the bench top pretty easily since the blade isn’t wide enough to prevent that. With these narrower chisels, the most-used ones in my shop by far, an octagonal handle would be much superior. In fact, I decided to try making one, starting with my 1/8-inch chisel. Here’s a photo of my prototype.
It’s made of madrone — I’d have used hornbeam like Lie-Nielsen uses, but we don’t have much of that out here in the Northwest. But the octagonal shape works great, and my chisel no longer rolls. Surely it’s more time-consuming to make this kind of handle than to turn round ones, but maybe it’s an option L-N could offer.
Finally, I should say, I haven’t used the L-N skew or mortise chisels. I would guess the mortise chisels are good, since you, of course, chop with them. As for the skew chisels, which are used mostly for cleaning out sockets of half-lap dovetails, a kind of paring operation, I’m not sure I think the socket design here is the best option. Again, I haven’t used these, but skew chisels are for paring. You don’t strike them. Striking is what keeps the handle tight in a socket chisel, so it seems to me a tang style handle might be a better design for a skew chisel. I wonder if people who have these have the handles pop out now and then.
Anyway, there is indeed a cost-benefit decision involved in buying any of these L-N chisels. But it’s my opinion, certainly, that L-N chisels are not frivolous boutique items — cocobolo handles aside. And overall, I appreciate what L-N is doing. They are making tools of extraordinarily quality, and I’m also confident that with any product of theirs that I might buy, they will stand behind it and make good if I have some problem.
UPDATE (10/16/09): I understand Lie-Neilson will begin selling a version of it’s chisels using O1 carbon steel rather than A2. This offers a great choice (see my discussion above about my impressions of trying to get a superfine edge with A2). I heard the news at Woodworking Magazine’s blog.
(My disclaimer: I’m just a woodworker. Other than having purchased — at retail price — a few of Lie-Nielsen’s tools, I have no affiliation whatsoever with this company.)