Chris Schwarz's Blog

Veritas’s New PM-V11 Steel Coming Soon

Unlike many hand-tool woodworkers (and turners), I’m not much of a steel nerd. I’m not on a quest for the steel that promises the ultimate in edge life.

The reason I’ve not experimented with lots of exotic steels is that every time I used CMP-10V, CMP-3V, D2 or whatever I found that these steels achieved their hard-wearing properties at the expense of two other important characteristics of tool steel: how easy it is to sharpen on traditional equipment, and how keen the edge could get.

In other words, I don’t want to have to invest in a diamond-based sharpening system to do one plane blade. Or I don’t want to have to polish the edge on my waterstones for 30 minutes. And I want my edges to be as keen as the edge I get with old-fashioned high-carbon steel.

In fact, I have always found A2 a little annoying because it takes a long time to sharpen it on oilstones, which is the sharpening medium I used for many years before A2 became common in woodworking tools. So about a decade ago I switched to waterstones, which sharpen A2 quickly. Waterstones are messy and wear quickly, but I found the mess to be worth it for the extra edge life I get with A2.

Soon, however, my oilstones might be seeing some more use.

Unlike me, Veritas of Canada has been searching hard for a tool steel that is durable, takes a keen edge and is easy to sharpen. And according to company officials, Veritas has found it.

It’s a proprietary powdered metal the company is calling PM-V11, and after years of testing it and investing $250,000 in the process, Veritas will soon be offering the steel in its planes, chisels and even aftermarket blades.

Since March 2012 I’ve been testing a plane blade made from PM-V11 in my shop in side-by-side tests with A2 and O1. I’m writing a short article on my results for a fall issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, so I’m not going to spill the beans on its plusses and minuses here in the blog. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.

But I did get a chance to interview Robin Lee, president of Veritas and Lee Valley Tools, about the steel, and I got a peek at the web site (pm-v11.com) that the company will be launching soon that explains the story behind the steel and contains some of the company’s testing data.

The story of PM-V11 begins with A2 steel. Veritas was an early adopter of A2 for its line of bench and block planes, but Lee says he was always sensitive to the trade-offs for the user.

“A2 is problematic for oilstone users because it’s a little more difficult to sharpen,” he says. “I think people give up too quickly when they sharpen A2 and don’t get as good an edge as they could.”

When Veritas set out to launch its line of chisels (the O1 versions have been released already), the company decided to take a long look at steel technology to see if it could find one or two different steels to use for these long-awaited tools.

The company winnowed down a long list of potential tool steels to 21 kinds (some of the steels were identical but heat-treated differently). Then the steels were coded and evaluated using a blind test so the researchers did not know which steels they were using.

The blades were all sharpened to the same point and then submitted to a series of tests.

Impact: Veritas engineers built a jig that simulated the chopping action of a woodworker hitting a chisel into a piece of oak. After a number of strikes, each edge was photographed under high magnification to find edge failure (the company took more than 6,000 photos, Lee says). The test was repeated using four different micro-bevel angles. For impact-resistance, the PM-V11 outperformed all the other steels in the test, including M4, A2 and O1.

Wear-resistance: Again, the Veritas engineers built a jig that simulated planing or paring a piece of MDF, which is a mash-up of wood-like particles and glue. Nasty stuff. After planing 100’ of MDF, the blades were photographed. This test was done using three bevel angles for each steel. The PM-V11 outperformed all the other steels in the test except one (which was undisclosed), including M4, A2 and O1.

Sharpenability: This test was a little more complex than the other two. To measure sharpenability, the engineers created a procedure where the blades were sharpened in a honing guide that was held down with a 4.1 lb. brass weight. The blades were sharpened on several media. After a set number of strokes, the edge was examined with a profilometer, which measures surface roughness. When the surface stopped improving on that grit, it was moved to the next finer grit. So the engineers were measuring how quickly you could move up in the grits when sharpening. In this test, PM-V11 outperformed all the other steels except O1.

For those of you who are data-diggers, Lee says the company will be releasing some, but not all, of its test data.

So why is the PM-V11 steel so superior? Part of the equation is its manufacturing process. It’s one of the “powdered metals,” which have become an important part of industry during the last 40 years.

Traditional steels are mixed with their alloys and poured into moulds to create ingots. When the steel hardens, the alloys and iron form a matrix and tiny carbides (very hard particles) are produced. Getting a good distribution of the alloying materials and carbides is the challenge to getting a good steel.

With powdered metals, the process is more complex. The liquid metal is turned into powder by pouring it through pressurized gas. The resulting fine powder is sifted and then perfectly blended to ensure even distribution of all the ingredients, put into a mould and then heated under pressure, creating a solid billet of steel.

“It’s like a perfect pancake mix,” Lee says. “You get a very consistent formation of carbides.”

In addition to being easy to sharpen, long-wearing and resistant to impact, Lee says the PM-V11 also has other good qualities. For one, it can be sharpened at low bevel angles (as low as 15°) and work very well. One of the downsides to A2 is that it tends to chip at bevel angles lower than 30°. The PM-V11 is also more corrosion-resistant, Lee says.

But what about the cost? PM-V11 should cost about 30 percent more on average, depending on the tool. If the cutter has to be reduced in thickness during manufacturing, the price could be even more because the powdered metal has to be machined at half-speed.

The other challenge, Lee says, is maintaining the company’s stock of the steel. There is a six- to 12-month lead time when ordering the steel from the maker. So Veritas has to watch its stock and plan carefully. But even with all those challenges, Lee says he and the company are excited about the steel.

“We tried to find the sweet spot for woodworkers,” Lee says. “Using your same equipment, we wanted you to get performance without the extra maintenance.”

Soon we will all find out. Veritas is releasing PM-V11 plane blades shortly. Then the chisels. And after that, PM-V11 mortise chisels.

— Christopher Schwarz

20 thoughts on “Veritas’s New PM-V11 Steel Coming Soon

  1. MCARUFE

    After using PM V11 for the last couple of months in small BU smoother and the larger LV Jack, I can say that it is a fantastic steel. I was not disappointed with any of the claims made by Lee Valley.

    Sharpening is more difficult than A2, but at the same time not as gummy on waterstones. The edge in terms of sharpness potential is ne plus ultra. Arm hair melts in front of the edge. For me it is the perfection of carbon steel. Hard to believe in essence that is all it is, but the grain structure is probably about as good as it gets.

    In performance on curly maple, the PM V11 stays sharp longer and gets dull more gracefully. I was able to use very low bevel angles on PM V11 that are not possible in a practicle way with A 2.
    My suggestion for people already having A2 blades is to keep using them for larger bevel angles and at least get a PM V11 blade for low bevel angles for end grain.
    For people tooling up, LV offers the PM V11 for a modest premium that in my opinion, it would be foolish to not go with it.
    Mike Carufe
    Violin Maker and tool nut

  2. Big Mike

    I’ve been a woodworker and carpenter for the last thirty five years in Northern California. I’ve been playing with different hand tools since the mid 80’s. I’ve had two Hock high carbon plane blades, an assortment of Japanese chisels and planes, Chinese “tool” steel planes, as well as a Lie Nielson low angle block plane with an A2 blade. On a recent exotic job in San Francisco I had to fit some lucite lenses to a metal frame set in a floor. I tried all my different planes as well as scrapers to trim the edges of the lenses. Now I know shaving lucite is a tough test for any blades but the ones that held up best were the Chinese and Japanese planes followed closely by the Hock and then the LN A2. The edge on the A2 broke down quickly and was totally unacceptable. My partner on that job was Chinese Master from Hong Kong and his LN gave the same results. We were both disappointed since we had such high hopes for the finely made LN block plane. We had the same results doing end grain on some black walnut. When I called LN just to pass on this report they suggested that I sharpen the blades at a steeper angle. I sharpen all my plane blades at 28 deg with a couple more deg added in the honing.

    Just saying here….I’m not a big fan of LN A2 steel or A2 in general. I’m hoping this new PM V11 steel from Veritas will up the game some. As it stands now my favorite plane blades are the HOCK high carbon blades. Easy to sharpen and will take a nice edge. Their durability is good but not great. The Japanese blades and chisels are the true class of them all but are much harder to sharpen and are real expensive. I was lucky to have bought mine in the mid 80’s when prices were reasonable. Now if I ding one of those dear blades I almost cry. They are, however, like all thoroughbreds, beautiful beasts. A2….Nope. Don’t like it.

  3. MCARUFE

    Hi Chris,

    I use mostly LA planes with A2 steel and really have no complaints with it especially when jointing and working curly maple for making fiddles. Keep it sharp and microbevels work great on LA planes and is quick and rewarding sharpening work for me.

    I could definitely see a couple of PM V11 blades dedicated for low bevel angles for my LA Jack and the newer Small BU Smoother. When will they be here, I just orderd some stuff from LV and did not see them listed? Do you have any new info on pricing for LA BU LV planes yet?
    Mike

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick

      Mike, all we know on the PM-V11 is what’s on the LV site, which indicates they’ll be available soon, and will cost approximately 20 percent more than the 01.

      1. MCARUFE

        Thanks Megan, I was always amazed how well LV BU family planes worked with A2 sharpened on synthetics like Shapton and Nortons. Edge life has never been an issue making microbevels with jig and a tool I made to give me quick angles. Actualy, compared to honing carving tools, plane blades honing is quite relaxing, quick and easy.

        For someone like me who does not dread sharpening, I never even gave a thought to look for something new or better. But as mentioned to have a blade handy to handle bevel angles around 20-25 degrees would definitely expand the utility of the most versitile, easy to set up and well made planes in my shop. The lowest angle on any of my blades has been 30 degrees for end grain and the results have been great, but i can’t wait to try an even lower angle on some end grain!

  4. Bill Rittner

    The CNC shop I work part time for just tried a powdered metal boring bar on a job that has been giving us trouble for several years. The new bar cured all the problems with the bore. Now the Veritas A2 iron is a winner with me and it is cheaper than it’s competitors offerings. The new material sounds expensive so for me at least it had better be far ahead of the A2 to get me to part with more dollars. But I will keep an open mind.

  5. Milford

    Chris,
    I understand you’re not much of a “steel nerd,” but you should know that “alloy” is not a single added ingredient, but the whole mix – i.e. not the baking powder or the buttermilk, but the entire pancake batter. It can also be used as a verb (to form a mixture) or possibly an adjective (alloying elements), but not by itself to designate a component of an alloy such as steel, of which the basic element is iron. There are also alloys in which the major element is aluminum, and in fact, in the bicycle trade, the word “alloy” alone is used as an adjective to refer to parts made of aluminum alloys (e.g. alloy chainwheel). It is not generally used for mixtures containing mercury (amalgams) or copper (brass or bronze).

        1. Steve_OH

          I think that whatever you save in material cost by using less of the powdered metal would be offset by the added cost of additional fabrication steps.

          -Steve

  6. Erik Wiklund

    @pvanderlugt: I’ll put my money on your O1 steel chisels taking a finer edge with less effort than a high-chromium or high vanadium steel, powdered or otherwise. If Ashley Iles has its O-1 doing well at a Rockwell hardness of 61, then you’ll be doing great in the wear department too. No one tool steel is better in all departments than all the other steels, and it’s important to recognize, too, that there are pros and cons at the manufacturing end, in material costs and in waste, for example, that play into what’s made available to the user. I’m happy to see Lee Valley going to these lengths to choose a replacement for A2, which I’ve always found to be a poor steel for my general woodworking uses — to small an advantage, if any, in wear-resistance, for sacrifices in sharpenability and toughness. Lee Valley has designed many fine tools, and I’ll buy them if the company offers them with O1 blades, but not if they come with A2 only. I look forward to trying some of their new blades, starting with one in my Veritas block plane, an excellent all around test device.

  7. John Verreault

    With the virtual self-demise of General, it is great to see a Canadian toolmaker doing well and innovating rather than caving into the “Walmart-syndrome” like a lot of other manufactures have done. Good on you Mr. Lee and thank you!
    Thanks to you too Chris (non-metal nerd that you claim to be) for giving it your attention …

    Cheers,
    John
    (on an island just off the west coast of Canada)

  8. pvanderlugt

    Great!!!! I just today received an order, from another dealer for a set of Ashley Illes mortise Chisels and butt chisels. It was a pretty large investment.

    I tried to order the best I could find on the market.

    Wouldn’t you know it, the same day LV introduces a better chisel. I’m a LV customer, I would have gladly spent the money at his business if I had only known.

    Usually I’m a day late and a dollar short. This time I guess I jumped the gun.

  9. KenvJuneau

    Woodturners have been using a powdered metal (PM) steel labled V-11 for some years. A couple of premium lathe tool ventors used a steel with that designation —

    It is an outstanding steel for taking an edge and has great wearability — but will be a chore for soft abrasives.

    I hope the designation from Veritas with similarity to similar designation for lathe tooling will either be the same steel, or might be done in a manner to avoid the confusion.

    Cubic Boron Nitride wheels and slips work well on the lathe tools as an alterantive to diamond.

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