Full Chisel Blog

October 2, 2008

“Making” a Laid Steel Chisel

Filed under: Historical Material,Laid Steel Tools,Of Interest,Proper Tools,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 5:10 am

Now that is an overstatement.  But here is what I did and here is why I did what I did.  To the bewilderment of many I took a rather inexpensive ‘tourist’ grade chisel and altered it into a ‘Western’ style chisel, well sort of.

Japanese Chisel

As a friend pointed out, what I did was take a $30.00 chisel, spend $300.00 in time and end up with a $25.00 chisel.  Well I don’t think it is that bad, but he did have a point.  He also pointed out that I couldn’t possibly need more chisels than I already had.

'Flat' side

Here is what I did, I bought an inexpensive 9mm Japanese Chisel with a laminated steel bit, just like (well almost like) traditional English, European and American chisels of the nineteenth century.

I then carefully removed the handle after asking on other forums how to do this process.  I followed the directions and when the ferrule/socket ‘broke’ off, I thought my whole idea was preposterous.  Then I was informed that is how they were constructed and that was to be expected.


Actually not having the socket made fitting up the handle easy as it was just a square tang.

I then ground off some of the hollow ground part on the flat of the blade, a typical Oriental method of surface preparation, for ease of sharpening, etc.  That unfortunately is on the hard (steel) side of the chisel blade, so It will be a while before I get it flat.

New Handle

I did grind the soft top and removed the Japanese lettering.  While it doesn’t look like a tanged Western chisel of the period, the bolster is way too big, it is none-the-less a laid steel chisel that kind of looks like an old chisel.

Western Chisel

I do apologize to users of Japanese tools for this sacrifice of a perfectly good tool, but I want to assure you that it was done with a good heart.  These chisels are wonderful, you are very fortunate to have heirloom tools that reflect the heritage of the traditional craftsmen of the nineteenth century.  Here in the West, sadly we have no such personal connection.  Therefore I had to get the tool that most closely approximated a Western tool and ‘alter’ it to look somewhat like what my ancestors may have used.

 Is it a nineteenth century Western Chisel, no, but it is a laid steel chisel and I like that.  It is not quite right, but it is closer than any modern all steel chisel, which is just not the same thing.  I am making furniture from the early nineteenth century (and sometimes earlier), so I want to use the right tools, and this bastard tool is more right than anything else on the market today.

Would I pay good money for a proper laid steel Western chisel, Yes.  Even a rough blank.  If I can’t get what I want from Occidental sources then I must look elsewhere.  Would I recommend that people give this a try, absolutely.  I will never again buy a modern all steel tool and I will replace all the ones I currently have.  I want the real thing, I want laminated blades.

Am I being unreasonable?  Me?  I think I am being very reasonable.  I want the same tools.  I can tell the difference when using hand planes with laid steel blades, I can also tell when sharpening them.  I am sure I can tell a difference in my hand between laid steel and solid steel blades when working wood.  There is a different feel, the mass is different, it seems to engage the wood better when starting a cut, especially paring.  The laid steel tools require less sharpening than the solid steel and the old tools have a feel to them.  I am sure this may all be in my head.

If I can’t find old Western laid steel tools, I think that taking something close and making some alterations can at least give us something more closely approximating what was used in the past.  I like old tools, but they aren’t making them anymore.  I need a reasonable modern equivalent and for now this is the solution.



  1. Enjoy reading your blog entries. I always learn something when I read your blog. Keep up the great work.

    Comment by Harley130 — October 2, 2008 @ 5:45 am

  2. Interesting idea. I wonder if there is some source of laminated steel sheet or blanks in Japan.

    I also like the handle you put on. Presuming you made them, what is the process for making them?


    Comment by Praki Prakash — October 2, 2008 @ 8:24 am

  3. As always, an interesting article.

    You alluded to the fact that “your” version isn’t exactly the same as a traditional western chisel. Is the laid steel itself somehow different, is it mostly just the tang and shape?

    This discussion interest me since I have been looking around to see what is available as far as plane irons, and while there are some decent options for the more standard sizes, there aren’t many, and blades for the more unique planes are another thing altogether.

    I really like the idea of making some wood planes, but I don’t relish the thought of becoming a blacksmith right now. Not that I would mind learning the trade, but that is a whole other line of equipment and know-how. I might end up going as far as buying some 0-1 and shaping it and then tempering it though.

    Comment by Luke Townsley — October 2, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  4. Harley,

    Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoy the blog. It is my intention to keep writing.


    I am going to start to look for blanks that have not been ground. One Japanese company does sell a Western style chisel, I have only seen a picture and no price. This seems to work fine, I am going to buy a wider chisel and do the same, this time I might buy a used one.

    As for the handles, I do rough them out with a drawknife and spokeshave, and they are very rough because of the curly grain. I then use a side rest (bench hook) to hold the pieces while I plane them with a smoothing plane to the taper. I finish the tops of with a sharp chisel. I do lightly sand the edges to remove the sharpness but try not to sand the plane smoothed flats. And always use sandpaper only after you have done all work with edge tools. The grit in the grain can dull tools.


    Chris Sholz at Galoot-Tools sells laid steel plane irons and they are great. Other sizes and molding plane blades are not currently being made by anyone I know of. Somebody should make them, I can get laid steel scissors, made in China that are wonderful.

    The difference is how the steel is laid. Western chisels have a flat piece of steel forge welded to the softer iron. Japanese chisels have a U shaped ‘channel’ of steel forge welded to the softer backing materials. The tang is not quite right, the bolster is alright and I don’t think I will fuss with it, I could have put the ferrule/socket back on and it would look more like a socket chisel, but I didn’t. I think with the socket it might have a better overall look.

    I am happy with the looks, not quite right but it is a laid steel blade and that is what I am after.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 3, 2008 @ 6:17 am

  5. Do you have a real 19th century chisel that you could post a picture of so that this might make sense to people like myself? Maybe if I can see what those chisels look like, it would help me understand why you performed this exercise to begin with.

    I have several Japanese chisels, and like them the way they are, but I know that everyone doesn’t like the handles. For me that it one of the selling points, they feel good to me. The Japanese make good chisels, the laminated blades are patterned from their swords which have an deeper history. It looks like you ground down the recess on the harder steel on the back. This is a feature I like, as it shortens the sharpening time.

    Since you like this style of chisel, you might think about contacting a Japanese blacksmith/maker, and order chisels without handles on them, it could save you some time. I bet they would also be receptive to making chisels with a flat back, if that is what you prefer. FWIW, the Japanese chisels do date back to the 19th century, the Japanese were using them long before that time. I guess one could say you modernized it by taking it to the 19th century…:-)

    My In-Laws own a home in Kagoshima that was built in the 19th century. The bathroom is like an indoor outhouse, and the bath tub (ofuro) is a steel tub with a wooden board across the top. You heat the tub with wood, that you fire from the outside of the house. The entire home is made in the Japanese style with tatami mats and sliding doors that open up on all sides of the home with a porch around the house to view the gardens. There is little if any metal in the joinery of the home. The Japanese culture is fascinating, as are the tools they use.

    Comment by Alan — October 5, 2008 @ 1:14 am

  6. Alan,

    I couldn’t find a decent picture in my files, will have to shoot some next week, in the interim here is a drawing of an English bolstered mortise chisel with a laid steel blade. The length and thickness of the laid steel vary but this is typical.

    LaId Steel Chisel

    There were also socket chisels with laid steel blades.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 5, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

  7. Stephen,

    Ah, so this is a pig-sticker, dare I call it that…I didn’t know they laminated the old English mortise chisels (there, JoelM would be proud of me:-).

    That’s fascinating in itself, as it wasn’t until the 1700s that carbon steel was commonly used, as I recall. Much of the blister steel that was produced was very inconsistent. Now the Japanese chisels makes sense in that regard, since the older laminated chisels from the 1800s could be less consistent in that regard also. So this could truly produce a better chisel similar in design to the old ones. Of course more recent chisels from the late 1800s would most likely be entirely made out of high carbon steel, so the laminate wouldn’t be needed. The modern Japanese chisels are laminated with very high RC values on the edge portion.

    Another interesting but not as well known fact about Japanese swords is how they rate them on the amount of bodies they can slice through, not exactly sure how they measure that…but I’ve been told that a 5 body sword is an excellent one…:-/ The Japanese would laminate and temper with clay to produce a more durable sword, and the uneven-ness of the clay would add to the durability. Through use when the clay was not uneven, there was a big problem with the swords cracking in battle. At least as described by my blacksmith instructor when I was studying.

    My wife watches a lot of traditional soap operas on Japanese TV, and it’s fascinating to understand how the families fought against each other, how they looked at honor, and how the women treated the Samurai, as well as the Samurai treated the women. The Samurai swords were a weapon of honor as well. As most cultures, I suspect the Japanese had ways of producing their own high carbon steel prior to the 1700s, as the Chinese also did. And much of the culture comes from China, through Korea in the process to get to Japan, so I suspect you could draw their forging abilities back to the Chinese, but don’t know that for fact.

    As I said though, and as you most likely know first hand, the modern Japanese tools are much more consistent than any other steel from the 1700s or most of the 1800s. After Sir Henry B’s process, things changed very much so in that regard, which was mid to later part of the 1800s. And it was high carbon Wootz ingots that Damascus steel was created wtih, in the day. Another way of producing high carbon steel in itself. The Japanese forge welded steel is more like pattern welded steel, but Damascus is used for it on common use, the similarities being the forge welded patterns. AFAIK, Damascus steel always used Wootz as the high carbon steel. Metallurgy is fascinating, much of it is taken for granted these days.

    Comment by Alan — October 6, 2008 @ 12:28 am

  8. Hi, this is a very interesting blog. I am also interested in achieving fine edges on tools. I have studied the Addis chisels and had a chisel tang analysed in a stereoscan electron microscope by a Dr Mark Jackson at the Cavendish laboratory Cambridge. The steel that wasused to make these chisels is different in its composition to contemporary steel used to manufacture chisels and plane irons. On the matter of the availability of Japanese steel, it is available in knife making strips from Dick tools a german tool supplier on the web.


    The description of “laid steel” tools was new to me as I had always assumed that the sharpness and edge holding abilty of antique British tools was due to the fine grain structure and hardness which is a characteristic of “crucible cast steel” which it seems no one makes any more. I would be interested to know if anybody knows of anyone who still makes or supplies this material

    Comment by vincent — April 11, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  9. The edge holding properties of crucible cast steel are similar to a material known as “Tungsten Punch and Chisel Steel” which has a Rockwell hardness of 55 which will bend prior to breaking. It si an oil hardening steel which is best temperd in a cyanide salts bath

    Comment by vincent — April 11, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  10. Vincent,

    Thank you for your comments and welcome. You said you had the ‘tang’ of the blade analyzed, did you have the cutting edge examined as well. They would yield two different results, the tang being wrought iron.

    As far as crucible cast steel, I don’t know of anyone currently making this material. What made old chisels and other laid or laminated tools so good was the use of both materials and that allows the steel to be hardened harder because it is such a small amount of the entire tool. And wrought iron can not be hardened.

    I just use old tools made from cast steel such as old bent or broken saw blades to make into various tools. I am also happy with the Japanese chisels, so I probably won’t have to get a forge set up to do my own. I have had experience at the anvil and can forge weld but don’t have a set up right now.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 11, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  11. Becareful talking about sword lore as fact. There is a lot of Legend and Culture and Mystery surounding sword Lore that makes us engineers cringe. In Both Western and Japeneses culture I hear more miss information about steel and blacksmithing than any other engineering related topic. Over all the info here seems reasonable enough just a general caution there is a health amount of snake oil floating around.

    I think it is great you took a tool you were not interested in and made one you are interested in that is the beauty of steel, mostly reversable processes. If I were going to do it I might sugest a peice of precision ground O1 or W1 that is already the size of the blade you want. then you can heat it up and upset it and work it into the bolter you want and forge a tang. Heat treating can probably done on a normal gas kitchen stove I know that will take some more equiptment but will some effort I am sure you can make a good tool. If you are happy with the one you made all the better tools should be well tools they just have to work well the tradition and fit and finish is just the icing on the cake.

    Thanks for the cool blog

    Comment by anthony — April 28, 2009 @ 12:11 am

  12. Anthony,

    Thank you for your comments. And I couldn’t agree with you more, there is a lot of bad information out there.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 28, 2009 @ 6:59 am

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