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Firmer chisels

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neilyweely

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I have over a hundred assorted old chisels, all good steel, and a fair few more modern ones that are 'users'. This is not a gloat as we all know you can get these for 10 a penny from any boot fair, although some of them are quite 'special' anyway.

There are pigstickers, dovetail, paring, slicks, skew, cranked, bevelled, sash mortice and other sorts. And firmer chisels.
Now I have a lot of these; they are predominantly old and good quality steel. I am firmly in the camp that believes older steel=better quality steel, at least most of the time. Certainly most of mine seem to hold and take a better edge than the more modern examples (even the unbreakable marples jelly handles that are in the tool bag for daily use and are, I know, popular and well thought of as a site tool.).
However I do not seem to be able to get a definitiv answer as to what is a firmer chisel. Most will say it is sdquare sided rather than bevelled, some will say parallel, like a mortice but consistent rather than tapering out so much. The murricans all seem to think that they are heavy duty bevel edge chisels. I always thought they were just a heavy duty square sided general purpose chisel.
Wisegeek state it has a bevel edge, Technology student state it is rectangular in cross section, eHow think it is all about the length of the blade. And that is just the first three answers google gives from the question 'What is a firmer chisel'?

OK; I would like a definitive answer. I guess I may not get one, but I respect the opinions and knowledge of most folk here so would be happy to get your thoughts.

Thanks in advance.

Neil (typed from my old PC with three kids climbing all over me, taking about an hour to complete.)
 

James C

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I have always been under the impression that firmer chisels bridge the gap between bevel edged chisels and mortise chisels.

Firmer chisels I have owned, used and seen all seem to be rectangular in cross section, never with a beveled edge and sometime with a sight taper towards the handle but rarely.

Chisels that have a rectangular cross section i.e. sides that are perpendicular to the face are called "registered" firmer chisels.


I think I do remember that some people think that bevel edged chisels used to be known as bevel edged firmers but I couldn't confirm that.
 

AndyT

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I agree with your thoughts on chisels, but I'm afraid you're chasing rainbows as regards definitive answers about what any of them are called - that's not how language works.

There are many sorts of chisels and an assortment of names to call them. You could look at what they were called in catalogues, or in woodwork textbooks, but it would not really help. Appealing to possible origins of the word won't get you much further.

Personally, I use "firmer" like you do, to mean a general purpose bench chisel of ordinary size with un-bevelled edges - but only because that's what I was taught at school, so it seems right!
 

neilyweely

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Weird, isn't it? Most things like this can have a root found somewhere. I mean there is no doubt over what is a bevel edge, a mortice and sash mortice, a paring, a butt and all the others. But a firmer? Can you honestly think of any other tool which is so vaguely titled?
Thanks for your opinion; it is valued. And I agree; I use a lot of firmers. I also have some that are almost a hybrid of a bevel edge and a firmer in that they are bevelled, but not all the way to the bottom of the edge. And socketed. Nice chisels.

Neil
 

neilyweely

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Andy, rather than start a new thread I will take this opportunity to ask you (and anyone else) what you think of this;

I have a few duplicate 'Aristocrat' chisels. (Described by some as 'firmer!') They are very high quality socket chisels, made by W&P, but although they are beautiful to look at steel wise, and they are certainly top drawer quality wise, the handles leave a little to be desired aesthetically. They are black plastic. Problem is that they are not just normal socket chisels. They have some sort of threaded bar through the handle connecting the blade to the strike plate on top of the handle. I think you can find details online if you have time or inclination. They are quite interestingly made. Won some pointless awards.
You will have guessed I would like to replace the handles, but am unsure as to whether it is viable in as much as, well, is it a good idea? They are lovely to use, so I would be happy to sacrifice one of the duplicates to alteration.
 

jimi43

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I agree with all the definitions above...



Firmer left...bevel right.

That's the way I see the meaning anyway.

Good luck with the restoration...post some pictures if you can.

Jim
 

Cheshirechappie

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I'd always understood that a 'firmer' chisel was one of rectangular cross-section, without bevelled edges. Just to check, I've looked up Salaman's Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, and his definition broadly supports the opinions above. He says that it's a general term for an ordinary chisel of fairly sturdy build, from 1/16" to 3" wide, used for the general run of carpentry and joiner's work, and strong enough to be driven by a mallet. However - he then goes on to say that these chisels are also made with bevel edges for better clearance when working in corners, and for the same reason are occasionally made with a rounded back to form two thin edges along the sides. (So that muddies the waters nicely - or maybe he's just covering his options!) Finally, he states that Moxon (London, 1677), uses the term 'skew former' for a firmer chisel with the blade ground on the skew, and used by woodcarvers and cabinetmakers to clean out corners of angular mortices, etc.

Other theories I've seen suggest that it's 'firmer' than a paring or carving chisel, and that it derives from French. (It does sound a bit like that, as does 'mallet', and the Hugenots escaping social upheaval in France brought all sorts of skills with them. I wonder if it superceded the old word 'beetle' or 'bittle' still used in greenwood circles for a wooden hammer?)

I think that a joiner or carpenter would use firmers a lot, since they don't meet dovetails very often, and generally need a fairly robust chisel. Cabinetmakers preferred bevel-edged because they used dovetails more, and a B/E chisel will still do general chopping work.

I think in the 18th century, all chisels were rectangular section, but many were thinner than today's (see the Seaton Chest for examples). Thicker chisels were used for morticing. In about the mid 19th century, bevel-edged chisels started to become commercially available, and the split between B/E and registered firmers developed, possibly helped by the rise in such 'heavy' trades as railway wagon building, millwrighting and the like. The joiners stuck with firmers because they covered almost all their needs, and the cabinetmakers and patternmakers tended to prefer B/E. It's not really clear when firmers stopped being available, but I have a set of Marples firmers I bought in B&Q when I first started woodworking in about 1985, and all my father's DIY chisels (probably late 1950s or very early 1960s) were firmers. They seem rare now - all the new 'general' chisels I've seen of late have been B/E, or at least firmers with the top corners chamfered off. I suspect the manufacturers think that covers both options, and saves them having to produce several different patterns. Thank God for Ashley Isles, Lie-Nielsen and the secondhand market!
 

Paul Chapman

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AndyT":1njkf9ra said:
Personally, I use "firmer" like you do, to mean a general purpose bench chisel of ordinary size with un-bevelled edges - but only because that's what I was taught at school, so it seems right!
We were taught the same in my school back in the 1950s, so it must be right :)

Cheers :wink:

Paul
 

AndyT

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In response to neilyweely:

"Aristocrat" chisels have been discussed on here before, but I've never seen one. This advert dates to 1959:



and was discussed in this thread.

Looking at the complexity of the construction, and the fact that it was these chisels' USP, I'd keep them as they are - but I also keep my old blue handled Marples and Stanley chisels as they are. In my book, making a new handle is something to do only if the current handle is broken; but others disagree!

If you really want to make some new handles, I know that some other people on here will have beat-up old chisels that they would gladly swap for an undamaged Aristocrat!

(Or you could spend the next few years scouring bootfairs for the beech handled variant mentioned in the ad...)
 

Jacob

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Cheshirechappie":jnzmjo03 said:
.....Thank God for Ashley Isles, Lie-Nielsen and the secondhand market!
Iles and LN don't make "firmers" do they?
They've probably simply gone out of fashion. They were a cheaper option and todays market is up market. They are also available secondhand by the ton.

making a new handle is something to do only if the current handle is broken; but others disagree!
I agree! If you don't like the handles why not just buy a chisel with handles you like?
I guess the "Aristocrat" chisel is pointlessly over engineered and was too expensive. I wonder if heavy use would wreck them anyway - what with the thin threaded bar holding them together.
 

bugbear

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Jacob":1cbley7d said:
I wonder if heavy use would wreck them anyway - what with the thin threaded bar holding them together.
What forces do you think heavy use would place on the threaded bar?

When I'm buying things second hand and cheap, I rather like things things that are well (or even too well) made, whose only fault was their original cost. :D

BugBear
 

Jacob

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bugbear":3o0vmp2x said:
Jacob":3o0vmp2x said:
I wonder if heavy use would wreck them anyway - what with the thin threaded bar holding them together.
What forces do you think heavy use would place on the threaded bar?....
If you hit the cap then the bar would take the force and could bend or strip or seize the threads. Better without the bar - like most chisels.
 

bugbear

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Jacob":1reb4pi7 said:
bugbear":1reb4pi7 said:
Jacob":1reb4pi7 said:
I wonder if heavy use would wreck them anyway - what with the thin threaded bar holding them together.
What forces do you think heavy use would place on the threaded bar?....
If you hit the cap then the bar would take the force and could bend or strip or seize the threads. Better without the bar - like most chisels.
The bar is under tension, not compression, and cap sits on the end of the wooden handle.

BugBear
 

Cheshirechappie

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Jacob":2tlda30o said:
Cheshirechappie":2tlda30o said:
.....Thank God for Ashley Isles, Lie-Nielsen and the secondhand market!
Iles and LN don't make "firmers" do they?
They've probably simply gone out of fashion. They were a cheaper option and todays market is up market. They are also available secondhand by the ton.

Just to clarify, I wasn't suggesting that LN made firmers - they specifically state that their chisels are aimed at cabinetmakers - but was suggesting that AI, LN etc make higher quality chisels. There are also some decent new B/E paring chisels around - Robert Sorby make good ones.

As it happens, AI make bevel-edged, round-back dovetailing chisels and registered firmers (the double-hooped handle sort) as well as probably the most comprehensive range of carving chisels available in the world. Matthew at Workshop Heaven offers the first three types, and possibly the carving chisels as well.

I don't know anybody offering new 'general' firmers, but as Jacob says, the secondhand market is knee deep in them.
 

bugbear

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Jacob":r916k22q said:
bugbear":r916k22q said:
....
The bar is under tension......,
.....until you hit the cap...
Have you analysed the relative stiffness of the bar and handle, or are you just making more facts-that-would-support-your-argument-if-true again?

Your prejudice against a tool you've never handled or used is ... dispiriting, if predictable.

BugBear
 

bugbear

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Jacob":178ia6pj said:
You do seem bored by arguments where you don't have a leg to stand on.

You're normally quite the fan of first hand knowledge trumping second hand.

And I actually own, have looked at, have used, have taken apart this chisel.

You've ... not. Stick to what you know.

BugBear
 
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