Ray Iles revives a long-vanished,
traditional mortising chisel.
all the fancy steels and CNC equipment available these days,
it's both amusing and pathetic that some toolmakers cannot
manufacture a functional hand tool. The problem, I believe, is a
phenomenon called "photocopying."
Photocopying is when a toolmaker
creates something that looks like a bevel-edge chisel you'd see
in a catalog, but the chisel lacks critical details that make it
do chisel-like things. And with each generation of tool, the
photocopy degrades in quality until you finally find it in the
home center's tool crib by the laser levels.
Chances are the unbeveled side of
the tool will be horribly out-of-flat. The chisel's side bevels
will be entirely too thick to allow the tool to cut a dovetail.
The handle will have the silhouette of a wooden handle, but it
will be made with a heavy plastic, making the chisel too
top-heavy to control when holding the tool by the blade.
So it's no small wonder that
beginners get frustrated when their home-center chisels don't
work. After a failed chisel session, beginners either turn to
old chisels that were made correctly, or perhaps they find one
of the few modern makers that haven't forgotten how to make a
chisel, or they give up on handwork.
One of the most
egregiously photocopied tools has been mortising
chisels. Many of these modern tools are
misnamed, missing features, poorly manufactured and
difficult to use. But now an English toolmaker
with his family roots deep in Sheffield has recently
started making mortising chisels that are a
The tools plunge into
hardwoods like an Olympic diver through water, and
they lever out waste like an electric crowbar.
They work because Ray Iles has paid attention to
every single detail found on the old English
mortising chisels, and he took no shortcuts.
Ray Iles mortising chisels revive a pattern of tool
that has been lost for decades. They work remarkably
well, outcutting other chisels and even giving a
hollow-chisel mortiser a run for its money.
This particular pattern of
mortising chisel – sometimes called pigstickers – hasn't been
manufactured for many years. It looks primitive at first
glance , like a cartoon thug's knife. But on close
examination, it's a tool of much subtlety. And so I had to
get re-acquainted with the mortise chisel to find out why it
works so well and explore the almost-forgotten techniques for
A Brute of Great Refinement
Unlike the sash mortising chisels
and firmer chisels that are labeled mortising chisels these
days, the Ray Iles tools are massive and heavy. The six
tools Iles offers are more than 12" long – about half the tool
is the blade; the other half is the beech handle. Both halves
are equally important to the function of the whole.
The blades (offered in widths from
3/16" to 1/2") are remarkably thick at the tool's bolster
(almost 3/4") and this thickness tapers as you approach the
shallow 20° primary bevel. The cutting edge of the tool is
ground at a stout and appropriate 35° secondary bevel. One
nice aspect of all this blade geometry is that you can use the
20° bevel as a depth indicator. When all of the bevel is
buried in the mortise, your mortise is a shade more than 1-1/4"
deep, which is the typical depth used with 3/4"-thick stock.
As you sharpen the primary bevel back, this will change
slightly, but I don't suspect you'll be sharpening these much.
you can see from the thin line of light between the
square and the chisel's flanks, the sides of the Ray
Iles chisels are tapered, allowing the tool to
release easily from a deep cut.
That's because Ray Iles
decided to use D2 steel for the blade. This
exotic steel is tough, as durable as any I've worked
There are advantages and one
disadvantage to the D2. First let's look at
D2's single demerit: It's no fun to sharpen.
Setting up these tools took longer than I expected
because of the D2's stout personality.
backs (sometimes called the "faces") of the chisels
were ground at the factory quite well. Only
one of the six (the 1/4") was a bit squirrelly.
And thank goodness. My DMT diamond stones
shrank in fear of the D2 as I trued the backs.
So even though they were close to perfect from the
factory, taking them that last step took a little
Putting the final
polish on the backs was easy for my Norton
waterstones. I also tried them out on the
Shapton ceramic stones, which worked, but not as
well as the Nortons. Sharpening up the
secondary bevel also took longer than usual because
of the D2's pigheadedness.
Also worth noting: One of the
narrow chisels (that 1/4" again) was ground initially out of
square, and one of the larger tools (the 7/16") had some chips
in its edge. Both of these needed a brief trip to the grinder
before honing. Note that the top surface of these chisels is
domed, and that's the surface that will contact your grinder's
tool rest. The doming isn't a problem as long as you are aware
of it as you begin grinding.
If you sharpen freehand, you're
home free at this point. If you use a honing guide, you might be
scratching your head as you head into honing. The tools will kinda fit in the garden-variety side-clamp honing guides with
some fiddling, but they are too big for other honing guides in
our shop. The VERITAS honing guide (the old one; not the new Mk.
II) holds the tools reasonably well, and that's the guide I
ended up using the most.
After sharpening them
up, I can report that the D2 seems worth it. Even
after a whole cabinet's worth of mortises, for
example, the edge to the 1/4" chisel looked and felt
like it was still freshly sharpened. My Sorby
mortisers (which I have since given away) would not
have survived half that much work before crumbling
The final detail worth
noting is that the blade is not rectangular in
cross-section. The flanks are tapered (I measured
the taper as varying between 1° and 2°). This taper
is present on quality older tools and missing on
later tools and every modern chisel I've
encountered. The taper helps the chisel
release when you pull it out of a deep cut. It also
makes it easier to lever the waste out in my
experience. And the taper has no disadvantages that
I can discern. The chisel does not twist in the cut