Friday, November 25, 2011

A Chisel By Any Name revisited

If the reader would cast their mind back a little to here, you'll recall I asked for thoughts on what those particular narrow trapezoid-shaped chisels one sees about the place were specifically sold as. I meant to follow this up much sooner, but Life and all that jazz intervenes, as it is wont to do.

Anyway, here are a couple of other 1/8" chisels we have sculling about the w'shop, which seem to me to narrow down the options. At the bottom we have our trapezoid by James Howarth; above that my old man's Wm. Marples bevel-edged firmer, which is actually a hair under 1/8"; finally a OVB mortise by Isaac Greaves. The latter some of you might fancy to call a guinea-pig sticker, I suppose. If you were that way inclined. I'll forbear from comment if you do...

So our un-named chisel style could, I suppose, be a straight-sided firmer. It's not impossible they'd be made so noticeably different from the bevel-edged, just for the sake of strength. But personally I did immediately warm to Joel's thought that they were used in caning chairs; it rings true. Of course you might argue we see them so regularly, this seems unlikely - but then cane seats were a lot more prevalent in days of yore (Almost as bad a phrase as "Yesteryear" - my apologies). However, the clinching argument for their widespread appearance is probably best summed up by many of the comments you all left as in any other way.

Viz: Every woodworker can think of a task where a handy narrow chisel like that would have/will come in handy ;)


  1. One thing certain about the "narrow trapezoid-shaped chisels" is that they aren't for mortices. Just too slender and bendy about the neck. You'd use a mortice chisel instead, not unlike the top one.This'd be brilliant for slots (nobody does 1/8" M&Ts). Who wants slots? Instrument makers perhaps? Wood/metal instruments were common, clocks, cameras, musical (organs) etc.
    Leaves the one in the middle for DTs.

  2. I have a Sorby Punch 1/8" of that trapezoid design - bought from ebay along with two Sorby firmers with matching (I assume original) boxwood handles.

    Absolutely no idea what the intended use or name is, but the fact the three came together from the same seller might imply they were originally bought as a set.

    Anyway, it has come in dead handy for paring the bottom of 1/8" spline sockets on picture frames, where the high sides kept it nice and level.


  3. I have some thoughts. Let me first undermine them by stating that I don't have any old tool catalogues or fancy books, and I don't live in Britain. Two years ago I didn't even own any proper woodworking tools (although strangely that made it a lot easier to get actual woodworking done).

    But now that we've established that I haven't a clue what I'm talking about, I'll take the position along with some of your other readers that trapezoids are really the narrow firmers. Older narrow standard firmer type chisels such as your middle one seem to be exceedingly rare. Old trapezoids seem more common. Like Jim, I've seen a number of matching firmer sets where the smallest chisel is trapezoidal. I have a nice pair of early Moulson Brothers chisels with original matching long octagonal handles - the larger is a firmer, 3/16" full, and the smaller a trapezoid, 1/8" bare.

    On the other hand, maybe skinny firmers aren't common because they're easy to use up, or are liable to snap when a wife or husband discovers the perfect utensil for puncturing tins of pineapple juice. But delicate old 1/8" carving tools seem to have lasted ok.

    Your old man's chisel is more recent so probably doesn't mean much. Marples were pioneers in the use of a Babbage difference engine to generate a table of all possible permutations of known and unknown tools, regardless of whether they had an actual purpose. We're just lucky they overlooked the potential of lasers. I have a modern A2 bevelled 1/8" chisel and it's way bendy. An old firmer surely wouldn't be much different. Could be for dovetails or skinny pairing I guess.

    Anyway I agree with Jacob that these things are most useful for slots. I have a bunch of little rare earth magnets which get used for all sorts of things, about 20mm long by 3mm square. They like to be glued into little slots, easily made with a small knife and a trapezoid.

    And cane chairs? I wouldn't know. Joel surely knows more than me about most things. It'd be interesting to find out whether this is just obvious to a man of his wisdom, or if he read it in a cane furniture construction manual.

  4. PS: Now that we're all well versed in calling these blades trapezoids it's time we sheepishly admit they're not trapezoids at all and we've just been saying that 'cause is sounds good. It's like calling a house cat a llama on the basis of it being a cooler word, having more 'L's in it and all. But it ain't gonna cut it with people who know what real llamas look like. Nothing wrong with flashy words, but at the end of the day us woodworkers are sticklers for pedantry, and I reckon a fair compromise between catchiness and accuracy is 'extruded, obliquely truncated deltoid' (which has the same initials as 'end of the day).' Can we agree to this?


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