Endurance Test: Ray Iles Mortising Chisels

I purchased one of the first sets of Ray Iles mortising chisels that were available in this country in 2005 and they have been in my tool rack since that day, to the exclusion of all other mortising chisels.

How have they held up? First the bad news: I finally had to resharpen a couple of them last weekend. Now the good news: The reason I had to resharpen the tools is I dropped two of them on our concrete driveway. These are tough chisels.

The steel used in these chisels is D2, a tough alloy to be sure. The downside to the D2 is that it’s more difficult to sharpen than any other steel I’ve tried (it’s even more difficult than some exotic steel I tried from planemaker Karl Holtey a few years ago). Some sharpening systems don’t seem to really be able to sharpen it much, even with a lot of rubbing. Other systems work (such as diamonds and Norton waterstones), but it takes far longer to polish the bevel to an acceptable level.

And when I say acceptable, I’m not looking for a mirror polish that I can use to shave in (not that I know much about shaving these days). I’m talking about just getting a good edge that will make the tool root through the wood like a French pig after truffles.

Once the Ray Iles chisels are sharpened, you’re good to go for a long, long time , as long as you keep them off the driveway. So, on balance, I think the D2 is worth the extra effort. I’ve beaten these chisels into all manner of tough woods, from ash to oak to maple with excellent results (no exotics , that’s not my bag). The beech handles have held up almost as well as the steel. The butt of each handle has been dented by my mallets, but I haven’t found a single split in any of the handles.

Aside from the hardy steel and the handles, I think it’s also important to note that these tools grow on you as you become more familiar with them. They worked great out of the bag, but as I have become more tuned into their subtleties, I’ve found that I am becoming faster and faster with them. This is probably true of all tools to some degree, but the Ray Iles really are tools that get easier to use the more you beat them. They sure look like simple brutes, but there’s actually a lot more there than meets the eye, like a linebacker who can quote Alfred Tennyson. I’ve written about a lot of these details already; if you’d like to learn more, check out this article I wrote for The Fine Tool Journal that is now posted at WKFineTools.com.

And if you’ve never cut mortises by hand, I’ve posted a story I wrote for our sister publication (Woodworking Magazine) that you can download by following the link below.

The Ray Iles chisels are sold by Tools for Working Wood and cost $58 to $98 each. I don’t think you need a whole set of the tools (try the 1/4″ or 5/16″ to start), but you probably will end up opening your wallet and getting the whole set in the end (like I did).

MORTISE_BY_HAND.pdf (2.53 MB)

– Christopher Schwarz