In Chisels, Chris Schwarz Blog

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Sometimes I feel a tad guilty for owning tools from Veritas, Lie-Nielsen and Blue Spruce. But then I pick up my very first chisel and I get over it.

I’ve had that chisel since I graduated from college , it’s a 1/2″ chisel I bought at WalMart and it’s branded Popular Mechanics (is that an example of irony? I can’t tell. I’m American).

In any case, I think I have butter knives at home that hold a better edge and are more balanced for dovetailing than this tool. Its blade was probably 5″ long when I bought it, and now it’s been ground down to 3-3/4″. I thought about throwing it away, but I just can’t.

So I recently sharpened it up for my 8-year-old daughter and made a nice little blade cover from a business card. She was thrilled with the tool. This weekend she used it for some light chopping and paring. After about 15 minutes, the tool’s edge folded over.

If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be blogging about it. So many inexpensive modern tools that I’ve encountered don’t even deserve to be in the tool crib of the store. My first miter box saw was American-made and made badly. Same with my first combination square, block plane and even hammer.

Who can mess up a hammer?

I’m sure you’re thinking: Why didn’t this idiot Arkansan buy vintage tools? Well, I stumbled on old tools all the time at the antiques fair in a tobacco warehouse that my wife and I went to every month. But to my inexperienced eye, all I could see was rust and grime. The tools at WalMart were shiny. And there was no Internet to help guide me.

As I watched my daughter struggle with a dull chisel, I concluded that I was going to stop calling these things “tools.” Tools have to work at some baseline. Chisels have to do a certain amount of work before they crap out on you. Saws have to cut wood , crazy, I know. Combination squares should be somewhat square. Anything less is just an object decorating your garage wall.

The new tools that perform these basic functions are what we now call “premium” tools. But no more.

This morning I re-ground and honed that cursed chisel-shaped object and it’s sitting on my bench. I should bring home a good tool for Katy and throw this thing away.

Or perhaps we have some paint cans that need opening.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 21 comments
  • Dan S.


    Get her a set of Narex chisels, $30 for a set of 4. She will need to flatten & polish the backs, as well as hone a good edge. They are great entry level chisels (my first and current set), They are made from a quality steel that takes & holds a good edge.

  • Rick Simpson

    Chris’ last line gives the reason for having such "tools". I have a couple of cheap Sears chisels that I acquired in much the same way as he got his WalMart chisel, back before I knew anything about tools. I keep them around for prying nails, opening paint cans, and the other jobs that you shouldn’t use a real tool for.

    I like the suggestion of setting them out as decoys, though.

  • David A. P.

    The first set of "carving tools" I bought was the infamous $10 pack-o’-ten wood handles attached to allegedly metallic "blades." Thank heaven for the internet, and its veritable plethora of helpful information. I now own *real* carving tools, and keep the old ones around to scrape at the odd bit of gunk I find on the floor….

  • Tim

    I like to keep a few tool-shaped objects laying around my workshop so that when somebody goes exploring in the workshop for a paint can opener they find something suitable for use.

    My first ah-ha experience with great tools was a Swan chisel. I sharpened that tool and it sliced through wood like butter. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a different kind of steel than I’ve ever seen before.’ Now I have several Swans hidden away and several tool-shaped objects are used as decoys.

    Every quality of tool has it’s job…either slicing through wood, or protecting the great tools.

  • Jonas Jensen

    I can go for the construction use chisels.
    It doesn’t hurt that much to hit a nail with an inexpensive chisel compared to the emotional pain when messing up the edge of an E.A. Berg chisel.

    But actually our children deserve some good tools, so we don’t scare them away from woodworking.

  • Gye Greene

    I think it may have been someone on the OldTools list that coined the term ”tool-shaped object”… 😉


  • Marcus Ward

    You know you can retemper that thing with a blow torch in just a few minutes. I’ve done it with a ton of cheap chisels. A 7$ set of chinese junk from harbor freight I retempered is now my go-to chisel set. Yeah, you shouldn’t have to do that with new tools, but if you just can’t keep from throwing it away, retemper it. Or send it to me and I’ll do it.

  • James Watriss

    All of a sudden, Tage Frid’s belt grinder and bufing wheel sharpening job makes a lot more sense.

    I will say that I actually sold a lot of Irwin chisels specifically on their softness… new woodworkers need practice sharpening.

  • John Cashman

    Throw it away? You can’t take the chisel away from her now — imagine if someone had taken your first "real" tool away from you, when you were a child? You’d probably be panhandling on a dark street-corner somewhere, and your only tools today would be a spray bottle and a squeegee. At best, it may be time for your daughter to learn the fundamentals of hardening and tempering.

  • Jeremy Kriewaldt

    PS Drew Langsner shows how to make a forge from two bricks and a MAPP torch:

  • Jeremy Kriewaldt

    And as you know, cr@p tools were something that Thomas had to be wary of (even when they were high priced).

    I wonder whether your WalMart chisel just needs to be hardened. Time to get the MAPP torch out and see if you can make the thing harder. If that works you can then try to temper it. The worst that can happen is you make it too brittle – but then it can be used as a burnisher!

  • Blaine

    I’ve got an newer Stanley yellow handled 3/4" chisel that I keep in the top drawer of my bench. It’s my go-to chisel for a lot of the mundane tasks that chisels are used for that could damage the edge of a good, sharp edge such as removing glue from a glue line. I’ve sharpened this chisel like I do my premium ones and it takes a good edge. It also keeps it. What I like is that I can use it for dirty work and not feel guilty if the edge gets damaged, which has happened only once.

    Not all Borg chisels are crap. I love my premium chisels and I guess I got a bit lucky with this beater chisel.

  • Megan

    I keep the crap tools around…for when my neighbor needs to borrow them.

  • mdhills

    Re: garden department
    You do realize that Lee-Valley has a gardening section, don’t you?
    (the borg specials on mini-bark nuggets can be pretty good, though)

  • mdhills

    Wouldn’t she find a Czeck Edge dovetail chisel irresistable?
    I don’t mind those dept store chisels: scraping glue, and construction work (95% chance of hitting a nail)

  • Tom,

    Yeah, I’ve trained most of them to switch to Woodcraft and Rockler gift cards, but I still get Borg. But don’t despair, there’s always the garden department!

  • Tom Iovino

    Oh, man, Been there, done that. My in-laws continue to buy me gift certificates to the ‘big box’ home improvement places so I can get some ‘nice tools’.

    I have got to work on my wife to re-train them to get me some LV gift cards!

  • Kris

    Your main page, on this site appears to have been hacked by the turkish hacker. I’m not sure if you’re aware of that or not.

  • Hank Knight

    Think of how many potentially fine woodworkers are discouraged to the point of quitting because of the performance, or lack thereof, of shiny new "tools" they buy in today’s market. One of the recurring themes on Internet Woodworking Forums is the amazement and delight people experience when they use a high quality tool for the first time, whether it’s an old classic or one of the new "premium" tools. I fear that many never have the opportunity to experience that epiphany. No wonder fine craftsmanship is hard to come by these days.

  • Adam King

    This is a great example of just how much the early woodworker "settles" without even being aware of it. Because of the terrible quality of entry level tools (I mean price entry level), woodworkers get conditioned to think that high quality tools are reserved for the so called pros who clearly deserve to spend so much on tools that will function at the highest level.

    Truth is, if you desire to do great work with your woodworking, you need your tools to function at the highest level possible, which means you must procure the highest quality tools you can.

    You’re a woodworker, so you deserve the best you can get.

  • Michael

    I have a Stanley #92 iron that is just as good as that chisel. Thankfully I had purchased a spare iron on a whim a while back. The ‘spare’ performs as it should. After some discussion online I have come to the conclusion that the original was not heat treated. So even some of the ‘good’ tools aren’t always good.


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