Full Chisel Blog

February 4, 2013

Charcoal Iron & Steel

charcoal pile

Just read an interesting section in Material Culture of the Wooden Age, [1981] edited by Brooke Hindle, the article is entitled ‘Charcoal Iron: The Coal Mines of the Forest’ by Richard H. Schallenberg.  The article talks about many things including the process of bloomery and blast furnace iron powered by charcoal, comparing the differences between coal/coke iron and charcoal iron, the former containing sulphur and phosphorus introduced by the coke, these contaminants, together with more absorbed carbon contributing to a more brittle iron.

England and Europe with the exception of Sweden had converted to coal/coke iron processing in about 1815 due to the lack of wood to make charcoal while in America charcoal iron was produced until about 1945, due to the great abundance of wood for making charcoal.

‘Blast furnace iron was better than bloomery iron in all these respects.  It did have two serious drawbacks, however-the pig iron which poured from the blast furnace was hotter than bloomery iron and therefore contained more dissolved carbon, and the pig iron solidifies from a fully liquid state and therefore had a more crystalline structure than the bloomery metal.  Both these conditions made furnace pig harder and less malleable than bloomery bar, and thus it was a less useful iron in the manufacturing process of the day, which almost always were some form of forging.  Therefore, most charcoal furnace pig was ‘refined’ before being sent to market.’

‘Moreover, the hotter the iron, the more the dissolved carbon tends to form the chemical compound cementite [Fe3C], which is glass-hard and brittle.  Finally, the grain structure of coke and coal irons is coarser than charcoal irons, caused by the higher concentration of silicon in these metals.  Larger grain size makes the iron weaker, and also makes it more difficult to heat treat.’

‘To correct at least some of these problems, rather drastic refining techniques are needed for fossil-fuel-smelted irons.  The pig is melted, boiled, and the impurities burned out or chemically reacted with additives or refractory linings.  In the Bessemer and open-hearth processes, it is also alloyed to counter some of the bad properties.  Charcoal pig, however, lacked most of these drawbacks. And therefore did not need such extensive refining.  The charcoal pig was heated until it became soft and then was beaten under a trip hammer.  A certain amount of carbon was burned out in this way, as it was in puddling, but the main function of the continual hot working of the iron was to make it less hard and more ductile-the properties needed for forging.  That is, the heating of the pig iron ingot elevated the metal above what metallurgists call the recrystallization temperature.  If iron is mechanically worked above this temperature, the grain size is reduced, graphite particles are more uniformly distributed, and dislocations in the crystal structure do not produce hardening, as they would with working cold, rather relieve stresses and make the metal easier to work-i.e., make it more ductile.  Therefore, in the charcoal refining process the metal was not heated primarily to burn out the carbon, sulfur, and phosphorus, as was the case in puddling and Bessemer processing, but was heated so its internal structure could be rearranged above the crystallization temperature.’

‘Moreover, the repeated working of the refinery forge served also to spread thin filaments of slag throughout the mass of iron, giving the metal the fibrous, tough, shock-resistant and readily weldable properties characteristic of all true wrought irons.’

Better iron, better steel.  This method was used to make the Viking ‘Ulfberht’ swords.  I wonder how the Japanese made their iron and steel?



January 11, 2013

Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker – First Review


This is the first book review of my first book that was originally published in hardbound in 1981.  This review appeared in Smithsonian Magazine April 1982.





I found this while doing research at the University of Nevada, Reno at their excellent library.

Now I need to find the reviews in Workbench Magazine, Soldier of Fortune Magazine and Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly.

Available at Tools for Working Wood

and The Full Chisel Store or from Amazon.  Amazon also has original hardbound editions for sale.


July 16, 2012

Iron & Steel Prices, Boston March 6, 1856

IRON, per ton,

Russia, Old Sable, P.S.I –@–

Do. N. Sable   –@–

Swedes, common assorted 95 00 @100 00

Do, square and extra sizes 105 00@ 118 00

Glendon bar   –@–

English, flat, round & square  –@–

Do, do, refined  65 00@ 75 00

Do, Foundry   –@–

A Forge   –@–

Pig, American, Anthracite –@–

Do, Charcoal   –@–

Do, do Foundry  –@–

Do, Scotch, 1st quality  34 50@ 35 00

Do, do, other qualities  –@–

Sheet, English, per pound -13 ½ @-4 ½

Do. Russia   -15 ½ @-16

Boiler, Penn, 1st quality –@–

Do, do 2nd do   –@–

Do, Brandywine best  -6@ -6 ½

STEEL per pound

German, cast steel  -18@ -19

Do, Halbach   -12 ½ @-13

English, best   – 13@ -17

Do, common   -6 ½ @-7

American   – 5@ -7

Check out the difference in prices between iron and steel.  Interesting.




May 9, 2012

Barry & Way – New York 1847-1849 ,1″ Skew Rabbit Plane

I picked this up  recently at a local antique stores, it stood out from a few other later nineteenth century planes, first its low price $16.00 and second it just had a look, the chamfers are a little bolder.  An American plane from this time period is a good find.

It has a W. Butcher laid steel blade and it has been used.  The edge has been sharpened and the tail end appears to be broken off.  The wedge is also damaged.

It is a nice plane, too nice for me so it is for sale, I have another bit newer skew rabbit that I use now.

A previous owner J.KRITTER.

I am not sure what it is worth but I will take offers.


January 1, 2012

Carving Chisels and Gouges


Carving chisels and gouges differ from cabinet chisels and other gouges in that they are usually somewhat thinner and are sharpened with a finer angle on the cutting edge.  Some are intended for handwork only while others can be struck with a mallet and of course are never struck a metal hammer.  They have thinner blades and handles that are easy to control, are comfortable and don’t tend to roll on the bench.  I have replaced every round handle on my carving tools with a tapered octagon handle.  This eliminates any rolling of the tool, when I place it down on the bench it stays there.  If I am using a series of chisels and gouges for a particular job I have a mat, a piece of carpet that I use to lay the tools down on to protect their cutting edges.  I also point the sharp ends away from me on the mat to protect me from the very sharp cutting edges.  Most carving jobs are done with two or three tools; sometimes a couple of more but each carving job can require different tools to accomplish the task at hand.  Therefore if you intend to do a lot of carving you will want to equip yourself with the necessary tools.  While both chisels and gouges come in different sizes and with gouges different sweeps you can invest a substantial amount of money to have all of the various sizes of chisels and different sizes and sweeps of gouges.  There also Palm Chisels and Gouges that are smaller versions usually with mushroom or knob type handles for ‘better’ control of these tools.  I have several of these small ‘palm’ tools but like my other chisels I have replaced all of their handles with long tapered octagon wooden handles, I just find them easier to use and they all match.   Large heavy duty carving tools can have socket handles but the most common have tangs to secure them to the handles.

Back Bent Chisel is a regular flat chisel with the blade bent backwards to a curved chisel.  The advantage of this tool is that it brings the cutting angle down very low to produce a finer cut.  The bevel is ground just the opposite a regular chisel with the bevel on top.  Useful for rounding over and shaping convex and protruding detail work.

Curved Chisel is a flat chisel with a blade curved opposite the bevel and is used to get down into areas that need to be flattened.  The curve of the blade will allow for the cutting angle to engage the wood fibers at a low angle.

Double Bevel Chisel is a special carving tool that has a bevel ground on both sides of the blade.  This tool, usually with a straight blade is used for cleanup work; the double bevel is not good for layout work as the blade pushes in both directions when it is plunged into the cut.  Single bevel tools are used for striking the work into the groundwork.  This tool is also available is a skew, which is handy because you can easily reverse it to get into tight areas.

Fishtail Chisel is like a regular chisel but of lighter weight and the blade tapers from wide at the cutting edge to narrower at the tang.  One great advantage to this tool is that it can get into tighter areas; the angle of the taper allows the cutting edge to work up against a shoulder or other interior detail.  These chisels are usually more flexible than regular chisels.

Flat Chisel is very similar to a bench chisel in that it has a flat blade and the cutting edge is at 90º to the blade.  The blades are usually manufactured with a tang and are thinner than a cabinet chisel and may or may not have bevels up the sides of the blade.  Because of the thin nature they are more commonly like a firmer with no side bevels.  One of the more useful carving tools a surprising amount of work can be done with a flat carving chisel.  Most are ground at a fine 15º angle on one side of the chisel.  Some are ground with a double bevel. The single bevel is used to layout and strike work into the groundwork.  Also called a firmer or carving chisel.

Skew Chisel is like the flat chisel but the cutting edge is ground at an angle to the blade.  The skew angle can be either left or right and ground on one or both sides.  When ground on both sides the skew is reversible, if it is ground on one side then a pair may be required.  These chisels cut smooth because of the skew angle and can get into tight corners for easy clean up.

V-Chisel is also called a veiner and is used to add V-shaped details in wood.  This tool and the U-Chisel are used only for shallow work; if deeper V-cuts are needed straight chisels are used to cut down both sides of the v-groove.  Like the U-chisel curved cuts can present grain direction problems.  I make my first v-cut shallow on the side of the curve that is with the direction of the grain.  I then reverse and make my second v-cut to final depth with the grain of the wood.  Tipping the tool up when engaging the wood will start the cut on the top edge of the wood first preventing chipping out.  Some of these chisels are sharpened with the outside edges projecting further than the center part of the V.  This allows the tool to score or cut the wood ahead of the V to prevent tear out.  This tool can also have a bent blade such as a long bend or short or spoon bend to just the end, allowing v-cut detail work in deep excavations.

Dog Leg Chisels are also used for carving work and are referred to as entering or cornering chisels.  These tools are particularly handy, the offset or dogleg is usually in the shank just at where the blade starts to widen out.  This offset allows the back of the blade to be flat keeping the cutting angle low for a smoother and easier cut.  In a set of three there is a straight blade, left skew and right skew to handle any application.

A gouge is any chisel with a curved cutting edge; this includes even very low sweeps or curves.  If it is curved it is a gouge.  Some heavy-duty carving gouges are quite similar to a bench gouge, but most are smaller, thinner walls and lighter duty and they are sharpened to a finer edge.

Back Bent Gouge is a handy tool for finishing off curved convex surfaces.  The bevel is on the top and this tool can perform functions that no other single tool can accomplish.  While you can do the same with a flat chisel, the back bent gouge can do the same job in one or two strokes.  The back bend can be on full-length gouges as well as the spoon gouge shape.

Curved Gouge is a gouge with a curve to the shaft allowing the tool to work on deep inside curves.  The curve along the length of the shaft gives a lower angle of attack to the cutting edge.

Fishtail Gouge is a lightweight gouge that has a wider cutting edge and the shaft tapers back to the tang.  The fishtail gouge like the fishtail chisel in that it is flexible and the taper allows the sides to be moved up next to a corner or edge without the shaft interfering with the cutting action.  The fishtail also makes the gouge lighter weight, as there is less metal in the blade.

Flat Gouge is the standard classic carving gouge.  With thinner walls and lighter construction than a Cabinet gouge, this tool comes in many sizes and sweeps to the curve.  The shaft is straight and attaches to the handle usually with a tang in some rare instances a socket.  The bevel is ground on the outside or convex side of the gouge.  When used for laying out and working the background this chisel is used to follow the sweeps of the curves in the carvings.  The appropriate sweep is chosen to match the pattern for the carving.  You can see why you might need several sizes and sweeps of this tool to match all curves that might be encountered.  A special grinding (on the inside) to this tool produces an ‘in cannel’ gouge and the outside of the tool can be used to do the lay out and initial chopping.

Fluting Gouge is similar to the flat gouge but usually have a greater sweep with high thin walls.  More of a U-shape these tools are great for deep flutes and other deep detail.  When using a gouge it is important that sometimes when you are cutting you are cutting with the direction of the grain on one side and against the grain on the other side.  Always be aware of the direction of the grain and cut first on one side and finish up the other direction on the other side of the flute.

Spoon Gouge has a shaft that becomes a spoon shape near the cutting edge.  With more curve along the length of the shaft than a curved gouge these tools are ideal to get down in the bottom of bowls, spoons and other steeply sided excavations in the wood.  The curved shape to the spoon also gives added leverage to the cutting process.

U-Chisel should actually be classified as a gouge as it has a curved cutting edge.  This very fine U-shaped edge is used for adding details and fine u-shaped cuts into the wood.  When using this tool always keep in mind that on curves one side is with the grain and the other side is against the grain.  I do the initial cut a little shallower in the correct direction for that cut.  I then I do the second cut in the other direction to keep me working with the grain of the wood.  This tool can also have a bent blade such as a long bend or short or spoon bend to just the end, allowing detail work in deep excavations.

Individual wood carvers have their own preferences for how the tools are sharpened.  Most agree on a fine angle of 15º for the bevel on the cutting edge.  Many sharpen a secondary bevel on the cutting edge, but I prefer a single 15º bevel that is flat and not hollow ground.  The problem with hollow grinding is that it is impossible to polish the entire bevel, which I believe makes for a smoother and easier cut.

As for storage of carving tools, the tool roll of canvas or leather is popular as is hanging the tools up on the wall to both display and keep the cutting edges from getting dull by banging into each other.  This can happen if they are kept in a drawer.  A drawer will work if it has dividers that separate each tool.  I have used tool rolls and they are handy if you have to take them out of the shop but for storage and accessibility I prefer to hang them up and show them off.  After I use my carving tools, I always wipe the blade down with turpentine to remove any pitch or sap that might be on the blade.  I also keep my entire tool bright and free from rust.  A tool that has a bright finish will not tend to rust as one with just a ground surface.  I also check the sharpness and touch up the blades if necessary so they are always sharp and ready to go.



October 15, 2010

Nevada Woodchucks

I was a member of this club when I lived in Reno in 2002.  If there was a woodworking club like this one in Salt Lake, I would join, they have a great clubhouse [albeit on a flood plain] and are a great group of people.  I have done several workshops for the Nevada Woodchucks and they have invited me back to teach a class on Painting and Graining.  As usual they schedule the workshop the second weekend of the month and I do a presentation to the entire club during their monthly meeting on the second Thursday of the month, which was last night.

I answered some questions about hide glue and talked at length about paint and painted finishes that were popular during the early nineteenth century.  And because of the arid conditions and abundance of softwoods all of the furniture made out here during the pioneer period [ending in 1869 with the coming of the railroad] was of pine, fir, cedar or spruce and painted and grained to imitate the fancy woods unavailable out here.

I also brought my new laminated steel plane blade made by Mark Schramm and showed it off, there was some interest as I explained why I thought they were superior to modern all steel blades.

The workshop starts this evening when we will paint up the samples that we will grain in tomorrows day long workshop.  As a bonus I am going to teach them to French Polish and the workshop should also help them in doing touch up work and matching colors.

We stopped by Woody’s Bar and Grill [how appropriate] for dinner before the meeting, 7 or 8 folks showed up and a few of us stopped by after the meeting for some adult beverages.


October 8, 2010

Why I think Laminated Steel Tools are better, now.

At the risk of repeating my self, or stating again what I have already stated, or mentioning again what I have alluded to in the past, i will again reiterate why I think laminated or laid steel tools are better.

For one reason I have a brand new, state of the art technology [from the nineteenth century], tapered laminated plane blade made by Mark Schramm, the master blacksmith at This is the Place Heritage Park here in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Not many of these around, oh wait, it is the only one of these around.  Until now. 

Have a look, drool cups at hand and start saving your money because these blades are available.

And yes they are tapered.

I just got the blade today and forgot to move my grinding wheel over to my new shop, but when I get it I will put an edge on this extremely hard [not tempered] blade.  I am giddy.

Here is another reason I like laminated steel tools.

My 1850’s Birmingham Double Barrel 12 gauge shotgun, nice wire inlay on the rib.


September 3, 2010

Why I think laminated [laid] steel tools are better, restated.

I apparently didn’t make one thing perfectly clear when I posted this before, and before, etc.  At the onset, I do not want to say, nor do I say, nor do I imply, nor even hint at that the steel in the nineteenth century is better than we have today, I just don’t know, but that is not the point.  Now what is the point by my bold heading, the key work here is laminated or restated laid steel tools are better, not the steel but the configuration of soft wrought iron and hard steel.

Now in order to prove this theory, I had a blacksmith friend make a laminated [laid] steel tool and when finished and ground to rough sharp, the blade will be properly heated and quenched in brine.  There will be no tempering process.  And yes you may say ‘the steel will be brittle’ and that is true, but it will also be very hard, so it will hold an edge better, but again you will say ‘the steel will be too brittle’ and because it is supported with the matrix of soft wrought iron [which can not be hardened], so brittle is not a problem.  The very hard steel is more difficult to sharpen, but it is thin, so most of the sharpening is softer material, again not a problem.

The photograph above is the billet of wrought iron [from an old wagon wheel] with a piece of steel forge welded on the working end.  The blade on the right is the original blade [early nineteenth century] that I lent the blacksmith to copy.  Mark Schramm, the blacksmith at This is the Place Heritage Park made this for me.  I had him bring it in before grinding so I could shoot these photographs, as I have never seen this part of the process before and wanted to document this historic event.

A side view of the blade clearly shows the thin piece of steel laminated [laid] onto the iron.  Mark did an excellent job and when asked about the economy of doing this instead of solid steel, the answer was that this took much longer.  So if it wasn’t to save money it had other purposes, those I have alluded to.

I and others feel that these blades have less chatter than solid steel tools because of the unique construction techniques of the softer wrought iron dampening any vibrations that may cause chatter.  The blade also has a lower center of gravity putting more mass closer to the thicker working end of the tapered blade.

This is completely subjective, so you can’t disagree with me [but some will].  The real subjective part; these tools just fell better when you use them.  There is something about them that makes them feel different.  I don’t know that I can describe the difference but when I plane a board, the sound is not as intense with a laid steel tool verses a solid steel tool.  The tool seems to work easier, I have two chisels that are about the same size and weight, but the laid steel tool feels better in my hand [identical handles] and seems to cut better as well as definitely hold a sharp edge longer.

I didn’t really want to get Zen with this, but I have used a variety of tools over the last nearly 40 years, and these old tools are better for reasons beyond the materials involved.  There was a reason our ancestors went to the trouble to make laminated steel tools or they would not have continued to do so.   They were not knuckle dragging hay seeds that just fell off the cabbage wagon.

When it is completed I hope to make a worthy wooden plane body to properly show off its unusual properties.  Will this prove my theory?  Well I am already convinced and so are others, but at least I will have one fine unique tool.


August 16, 2010

Why laminated [laid] blades are better.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, I am not commenting on the quality of the steel used then and now. I am not saying that the old steel was better than the new steel, I have no idea and for this discussion, I really don’t care. That is not the point. For the quality of steel is only one small, I repeat small portion of the overall equation.

By laminated blades, be it chisels or plane irons; I mean tools made largely of wrought iron with a thin veneer of steel forge welded to the cutting edge. Now I would like to take to task those who say that this was done because of economy; steel is more expensive than wrought iron. In the nineteenth century steel costs 5 times that of iron and the steel on these old tools is usually less than 10% of the blade. Then there is the two or three heats it takes to forge weld the steel to the wrought iron. There is no economy, it would have been cheaper to make them of solid steel, but they didn’t and here is why.

First steel will hold an edge longer than the softer wrought iron and the iron could not be hardened like steel. The steel had to be reduced by forging to the thin veneer before it is forge welded to the wrought iron. This forging, both in making the thin slips of steel but the forge welding to the iron as well, compacts the grain of the steel. It even happens today following the same process, and the tight grain in the steel produces a higher quality steel.

However the most important result of this process is that the completed forge welded laminated [laid] steel blade can be hardened by quenching in brine, producing a very hard and brittle steel. If it were made of solid steel then it would need to be tempered in order to remove some of the hardness or the tool would break as the solid steel with be too brittle. Made largely of wrought iron, which can’t be hardened, the steel can be hardened much harder than a solid tool. And because it is supported and protected by the soft iron, the steel can be left very hard from the brine quench.

Some say the older tools have better steel, I am not sure the steel was any better but the process did leave the thin veneer of steel very hard, holding an edge longer. And when grinding and sharpening only a small amount of the hard steel is ground/sharpened while the bulk of the tool made of wrought iron is easy to remove.

So let me say it once again, it is the combination of iron and steel that makes for a better blade, probably reduces chatter [as opposed to a solid steel blade], puts the center of gravity toward the cutting edge of tapered plane irons and can be made much harder because of its unique structure.


June 13, 2010

Recreating the Past


Or what it is like to ‘get into the moment’.  Over the course of my interest in history I have had moments [some lasting a while] that have left me with the feeling that I have had an historic experience.   I could not tell in which century I was actually in at the time.  While not an out of the body experience, it is both mental and physical and can be a rush.

Some of these moments came during reenactments, in 1975 on Henry’s Fork of the Green River near Burnt Fork Wyoming, the American Mountain Men annual rendezvous was held on the original site on the 150th anniversary of the first western fur trade rendezvous.  During the week long gathering I had several experiences when the line between now and then was gone.  The sights, smell and sounds recreated an environment where all around were opportunities to step back into the past and have an unequalled historic experience.  Many people had their own moments.

On a more practical note, I have also had moments while using old tools or trying to figure out how to use old tools.  In 1978 at Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement in Noblesville Indiana, an 1836 living history museum [where first person interpretation got its start], I had the opportunity to use a twibil.  Now for those who do not know what a twibil is, it is called a twibil because it has twin bills or blades, one a chisel shape and the other an ax shape so the blades are perpendicular to each other and opposite one another with a long metal eye for the short wooden handle.  I had read in other books how these were used and tried pounding with a mallet on the eye as was suggested but that didn’t get me anywhere.  So I sat down and held the twibil in my hands and contemplated how it might really be used.

I had to mortise sixteen 2 inch square through some green 5 inch square white oak and two through mortises 2 inch by six inch for a large pug mill for the Pottery.  My horse was used to power the completed large pug mill that could mix 600 pounds of clay at a time.  I wanted to use the twibil, with a wrought iron body and laid steel on the cutting edges and had sharpened both ends but from the descriptions, it wasn’t working.  Then looking at the inch and a half holes I had bored through the wood and looked at the tool itself, I had a moment.

I realized that the tool was not struck with a mallet or maul to drive it into the wood but was used to loosen the twibil if it became stuck in the wood.  I figured out that the tool was swung like an ax rather than beaten with a mallet.  The chisel side was used for the cross grain and the ax side was used for the inside cheeks of the mortise, with the grain.  Only having to change orientation for the opposite cross grain part, I was swinging and chips were flying.  It was truly an amazing experience and after several hours I had chopped through all 18 mortises and had several moments along the way.  Experimental archeology at its best.  The complete description of the process is in Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker published in 1981 and reprinted in 2004.

And this brings us to yesterday morning.  As part of a trek program for Mormon youth groups, they are dressed up in ‘period clothing’ and end up pulling hand carts several miles up the canyon on Park property returning in the afternoon.  The groups start out by camping overnight then early in the morning gather for a dramatic presentation by two actors playing Joseph and Hyrum Smith.  [Joseph Smith started the Latter Day Saints faith and was assassinated in June of 1844; he was at the time a presidential candidate].  A mob then rushes in, guns blazing, wrestles them to the ground, rough them up and haul them off in handcuffs and ropes to what will be their doom.  Needless to say many of the youth are in tears as the brothers are lead away, guns blazing, cursing, and a real looking mob scene.

The mob arrived before dawn to prepare, but on this day were distracted by the fact that the barn at the livery stable had burned killing the baby animals housed in side.  The mood of the mob as we prepared was somber unlike the many we had done before where all of the mob members had a good time.  On cue we fired our guns and burst into the school house and at about that time I had my moment.  I was not placing ropes on an actor’s hands, I had securing the hands of Hyrum Smith, I was angry and cursing the damn Mormons [part of the scripted presentation] and had an adrenalin rush that left me short of breath, sweating and slightly nauseated.  I was half way up the street before the moment went away.

Sometimes recreating the past isn’t pretty.


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