Full Chisel Blog

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.


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