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.

Stephen

16 Comments »

  1. Is this a tapered iron? If not of course historically it would not be correct. However to get a valid comparison have your blacksmith make an identical tapered iron to match that is just all steel. Then you can compare forging times and performance.

    Comment by joel — September 3, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

  2. Interesting thoughts. I’ve never used a laminated plane blade, but have with chisels and probably echo your experiences.

    Would there ever have been a time when the cost difference between steel and iron would have been greater than the time cost to make the laminated blade?

    Comment by DJM — September 4, 2010 @ 2:29 am

  3. Stephen,
    I seem to remember the first time you wrote about laid irons, that you mentioned someone who was again producing these, possibly even for modern planes. Is my memory correct, and could you identify this person?

    Thanks, Dale

    Comment by Dale Warder — September 4, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

  4. Yesterday, I watched a documentary about the early steel industry in Sheffield, England. The iron ore available locally had a very high level of phosphorous which, at that time, made it unsuitable – rather too difficult with the available technology – to convert into steel; as a result, iron ore was imported from Sweden and used to make steel. Given this, it is possible to see that economics played some part – the iron would be made from cheaper local ores and the steel from more expensive imported ones – possibly lending some credence to the contention that laid steel tools were cheaper to produce. After all, at that time, labour was very, very cheap indeed.

    Comment by AA — September 5, 2010 @ 2:08 am

  5. Stephen, is this the same process used in Japanese plane irons and chisels?
    Is it possible to get laminated steel plane irons now a day, for western type plane?
    This blog of your is facinating!
    Cheers

    Comment by David Gendron — September 6, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

  6. You state that you can’t harden wrought iron — that’s not true. You can go through a process called ‘case hardening’ which simply layers on more carbon atoms. You can read more about this in “The Complete Modern Blacksmith” by Alexander Weygers.

    Also, I think you mean to say later in the post, “This is completely subjective, so you can’t disagree with me…” I think you meant to say, “This is completely subjective, so you might have different view on the matter…”. If something is subjective, then it’s definitely an arguable point. 🙂

    Comment by Michael D — September 7, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

  7. Michael – if you case harden a piece of wrought iron, you’ve changed that portion of it into steel – an alloy of iron and carbon, which can now be hardened. Wrought iron which contains very low levels of carbon cannot be hardened by quenching. Blister steel was made commercially by case hardening wrought iron bars. If you want a definitve review of 17th through 19th century steel making with an emphasis on English steel making, look for Steel Making before Bessemer, volumes 1 and 2 by K. C. Barraclough. You’ll probably need to either purchase it used, or ILL it as the 2 volumes are now out of print.

    Comment by Kevin Haffey — September 8, 2010 @ 10:41 am

  8. I wonder to what extent the use of iron planes makes a difference in the laid steel v solid steel debate? I’ve always felt that the laid blade dampens vibrations more effectively than the solid blade. Add to that a wooden body and you have a very comfortable tool to use.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — September 8, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  9. Any chance he can taper the iron and offer them for sale?

    I’d love to bed one in some of my Clark & Williams bench planes.

    Comment by Chuck Nickerson — September 8, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  10. Two things I’ve wondered, and they haven’t been hashed through in the comments here yet.

    1) Is there an argument for laminating western irons when steel is no longer expensive? I don’t know. I haven’t ever seen anywhere that stated the reason for the irons being laminated was a function of anything other than cost of importing steel being greater than the cost of a smith’s time.

    2) Is there really an argument that the stability and damping effect of the wrought iron is a material contributor to the function of a plane when compared to whether or not the plane is properly made with the iron properly bedded and wedge properly fit. I don’t know. I would subjectively think that it’s more the plane than the irons as long as the irons aren’t some wonky shape that can’t be properly fitted to the planes.

    The preference I come to with older irons is the fact that they’re cast steel, but I don’t prefer the laminated edge of them over any other cast steel (like in chisels that aren’t laminated). The cast steel fails in a predictable way, no surprising large nicks in a smoother, just uniform wear.

    The other issue I have with older irons is that a lot of them are too soft. I’d assume this is a function of ability to sharpen the irons with oilstones. I have left O1 untempered and not had too much issue with brittleness in joinery planes and in a pair of newly made hollows and rounds – planes that will not see knots, or likely very hard or abrasive wood, so the brittleness isn’t an issue. I like the way it holds an edge, and I’m not going to temper them unless I have to. I have not tried to sharpen them on oilstones, maybe I wouldn’t be so high on them if I did.

    Anyway, in the modern era with power grinding and aggressive abrasives, I don’t know if there is really a benefit to having laminated irons – aside from japanese planes where the steel is extremely hard and does not tolerate much in terms of temperatures.

    Comment by David Weaver — September 9, 2010 @ 7:36 am

  11. FYI – “Cast Steel” and/or “Crucible Steel” was originally used as an indication of superior quality vs. “Blister Steel”, “Shear Steel”, and “Double Shear Steel” shear and double shear were terms applied to blister steel in Great Britain that indicated the amount of additional processing blister steel had undergone to get better uniformity in the final product. Cast steel and Crucible steel originally indicated that the material had been remelted in a crucible before being finished into bar, plate, etc. The feedstock originally used by Huntsman in his Crucible steel process was blister steel. The ingots produced were by today’s standard miniscule – around 70 pounds. Today, a mid-sized ingot might weigh around 10,000 pounds or 5 tons. And yes, in the United States, there was a steel company named Crucible Steel, however, you shouldn’t consider all tools stamped with that identity to have been made with product from that company, though they did produce tool steels.

    Comment by Kevin Haffey — September 9, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  12. Joel,

    The blade is tapered, and he will make a solid steel blade of the same configuration.

    DJM,

    The plane blades are great. Steel costs 5 times that of wrought iron in the nineteenth century and more earlier.

    Dale,

    Chris over at Galoot Tools imports laid steel replacement blades, they are thick and not tapered, but nice blades.

    AA,

    Many English makers imported and used Swedish steel as well, in the 19th century the costs were 5:1

    David,

    The Japanese tools are laminated in a similar manner, I converted a chisel over to Western. Galoot Tools sells laid blades for new planes.

    Michael,

    You are correct about being able to case harden wrought iron and mild steel, but it is a different process of encasing the piece with highly carbon materials and forcing them through reduction heat into the softer material.

    Sorry if my subjective comment sounded bad, you are right and I apologize.

    Gary,

    I agree.

    Chuck,

    I am working on that one, I have made the suggestion to the blacksmith.

    David,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 9, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

  13. Stephen,
    I’d be curious of the labor differnce in forging iron vs steel blade. In every document and film I know of (there is a video of a japanese smith making a plane iron on the web somewhere, the amount of time spent welding the steel blade on is a fraction of the total time forging the taper iron. In the case of forging solid steel verse forging iron with steel laminated onto it. the solid steel will take longer.
    I assume your blacksmith has power hammers – which were of course what was used.
    There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the 19th century preference for laminated irons was based on anything except cost, and when paralleled irons became popular (and steel cheaper) solid cast steel irons became the norm.

    Comment by joel — September 10, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

  14. First off, the vast majority of the old planes and irons we see today were used in carpentry rather than cabinetry. Meaning they were used on stuff like oak, pine (and other firs), poplar, elm, maple, etc. Sometimes green and sometimes air dried. We’re not talking exotic rockhard hardwoods here. Plus there weren’t any scanning electron microscopes to check on just how sharp an edge was. The worker knew what worked for the purpose given the wood in question and the intent of the work.

    This was all prior to IKEA, so no sheet goods measured to nth thickness.

    In my book, you have to consider the tool in the context of the period and not in relation to today.

    Gary

    Comment by Gary Roberts — September 12, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  15. Another issue to consider, when we look at surviving old tools, which tools are we looking at? The poorly made one, the average one, or the superior one. Tools had to meet the needs of teir users, and then as now, the users had various budgets for the purchase of tools, as well as various needs for those tools. I’d argue that surving tools tend to be the superior ones, so that when we compare a surving old tool to a run of the mill toll today such as a Stanley, we’re comparing apples and oranges.

    Comment by Kevin Haffey — September 13, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  16. Kevin

    Surviving tools (books, furniture, etc) may be the better products, or the ones no one used because they were the pits, peculiar or too expensive to use too much. It can be said that the really good stuff was used up early on and what survives is what was used less often. It’s tough to find 18th c bench planes, much less 17th c. I have one 18th C birch smooth plane and that’s really the only one I’ve found (in my bottom feeder ways) in many years. It’s quite heavily worn and lucky to still be ‘alive’. There’s also a Chapin jointer in near perfect condition. I can only assume that someone bought it, found that it is heavy as sin and used a fore plane or jack instead.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — September 13, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

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