Which maker was more highly regarded in 1840?


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24 Aug 2015
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I have two never-used oval bolstered mortise chisels. In a discussion on the american side, someone who uses hand tools a lot is insistent that somehow, the chisels were never used, but that rounded grind on the backs of the chisels was added by a later user who never otherwise honed the chisels or used them at all.

I'm speculating that these (I&H sorby) were (before the original IH sorby mark was sold around 1850) were probably more expensive and closer to Ward than Marples at the time.

Is there any information regarding price around that time to suggest that? am i correct in my assumption from use and looking at the tools that IH sorby are generally "better" than marples, just as ward is regarded as better than marples?

The assertion from this person is basically that oval bolstered chisels in the early to mid 1800s weren't offered with a long primary and a roundover at the transition from the bevel to the top of the chisel cross section.
That sounds like an under-informed discussion.
Look at old catalogues and you will see how long that style of chisel was available - well into the twentieth century. So my first question is how anyone has put a date to them. Ownership of trademarks changed as companies were taken over, but many stayed in use for very long periods.

In the 20th century, when Marples owned the I Sorby brand, there was no difference in price. I own a full 1938 Marples catalogue. I have seen pictures of a 1938 Sorby catalogue. It's almost identical. Same pages, same prices, just the different mark. (The exception was the omission of a very few exclusive Marples ranges such as some spirit levels.)

This thread gives a bit more detail, but there's more in recent books such as Geoff Tweedale's.


That's more an answer for 1940 than 1840 - catalogues from back then are a bit thin on the ground.

But don't forget that Sheffield makers operated on a standard price list agreed by the Cutlers' Company for a very long time - I think until the end of Retail Price Maintenance in the late 20th century.
I'd be very wary of guessing the date of a tool like a mortice chisel by its appearance, or assuming that evidence of hand work implies an early date.

Broadly speaking, twentieth century edge tool making stood still for a long time. (With the exception of those areas such as drilling, milling and sawing, where new high speed steels were readily adopted. ) That's how it got through WW1, the depression, WW2. It didn't get capital investment and machine methods until the 50s and 60s which was too little, too late. I've shown this Stanley rotary grinding machine before, in a thread you joined in on, which included discussion of grinding techniques:


You can see how it suited the 5001s and similar, but I don't believe for one moment that they would have spent that sort of cash on machinery to make very old fashioned hand mortising chisels when the world had moved on to the power driven mortising machine. It's far more likely that when the last mortice chisel was made in Sheffield it would have been made the same way as had been used for donkey's years and ground by hand on a big wheel by a skilled grinder. That other thread includes links to videos of the Ashley Iles factory. Read Ashley's book 'Memories of a Sheffield Toolmaker' and you will see how he got started by buying up old fashioned kit in the 1950s - the company has retained the Sheffield combination of small batch production by skilled workers that enables them to offer a huge range of designs to order.

Some Sheffield firms carried on making traditional woodworking tools into the 70s without significant mechanisation, as if waiting for Ken Hawley to come and take their kit away. I can remember driving round Sheffield at night in the 70s and glimpsing red fires through open doors in old brick workshops.

Turning to the question of how long oval bolstered 'pigstickers' remained available - they are in the 1959 Marples catalogue; and the Buck and Hickman catalogues through to 1971 (though in a reduced range of sizes). That's about as modern as my library goes.
That looks suspiciously clean for an 1840s unused chisel. I'd say if it was genuinely unused, it's more likely to be 20th century, or more likely, someone has done a nice cleaning up job on it.

Out of interest, does the chisel side show the lamination jointline, or is it made from one piece of tool steel?
I meant to include a note on the ownership of the I & H Sorby mark, as recorded by Tweedale. This is my attempt to summarise a long, tangled history of several interrelated companies over a long period. If you want the full story, you'll need to buy the book!

The original partnership of John and Henry Sorby was from 1827 to 1844 and they first used the mark. From 1844 to 1932 the mark was owned by Lockwood's. Turner, Naylor and Company (who already owned the I Sorby brand) owned it next and traded as a subsidiary of Marples until dissolution in 1963.

So it must have been a valuable bit of intellectual property, widely known in export markets round the world, worth keeping going long after the original brothers had forged their last chisels.
As to which maker was more highly regarded, the answer is pretty well all Sheffield makers were regarded more or less equally. Bear in mind that Sheffield was a tangled web of large firms with some in-house capacity and some making sub-contracted, smaller companies ditto, and 'Little Mesters', some of whom worked exclusively for one firm, and some of whom worked for whoever was buying that week.

Bear in mind also that most tools passed through several stages - forging, grinding, hardening, finish grinding, handling - any of which might be done in-house or by out-workers, and the picture becomes even more tangled.

Pinning down who actually made any given tool with a Sheffield mark is probably impossible.
Good replies from Andy and Cheshire - totally agree. Long history of similar manufacture, much factoring, outwork etc, and for a long time the Sheffield price lists ruled so same list price from different firms.
To add to this: there were often multiple variants (at different list price) of even something as apparently similar as an oval handled mortice chisel - depth, weight, details of bolster, leather washer, beech or ash handle.
One final factor is that sometime in the last century makers moved from laminated 'steeled' blades to solid 'cast steel' (at first the solid was probably more expensive, but later the skill needed for the steeling made that rarer). Iles is solid carbon steel.
You probably know, but, unlike most other chisel designs, the bolster is not upset forged, but welded on. I think the fairly similar French bedane has an upset forged bolster.
Cheshirechappie":2uzarlta said:
That looks suspiciously clean for an 1840s unused chisel. I'd say if it was genuinely unused, it's more likely to be 20th century, or more likely, someone has done a nice cleaning up job on it.

Out of interest, does the chisel side show the lamination jointline, or is it made from one piece of tool steel?

It's been cleaned but shows no evidence of having been honed
I think the cleaning is limited to chemical types of cleaning given the gray color and lack of any Mark's

It's laminated. I have a set of four of these.

I'd be surprised if that style of mark appeared on a 1900s tool that's laminated but precisely made.

I do have about 200 plane irons and probably 100 Sheffield chisels. The later tools are not made to this standard. They're obviously ground on a fast cutting carborundum wheel. This chisels is finely finished.

My later Sheffield plane irons also appear hand ground, but the solid steel types are oil hardening steel and off a little in hardness.

The laminated later irons are a bit crude and plain, still seem like water hardened, but are also often soft.
Can't find the reference, now, but some time ago we had a discussion about Sheffield maker's marks. One snippet I recall is that the earlier ones tend to have letters with distinct serifs, but the serifs tended to disappear in the early 20th century.

Looking at the photo of the mark above, there don't seem to be any distinct serifs, and the mark is quite evenly impressed, suggesting it was done under a press and not by a hand stamp and smith's striker. I'd veer towards early 20th century if I was forced to narrow the dating.
I don't see any old ih sorby marks that are thinner with big serifs.

That mark would probably have been hammered by hand in orange (heated) iron, not pressed. You dont need the postage stamp border with a press. It's intended to help hammer more than once if needed. The stamp seats identically easier on the second strike with that border than it does with a plain border.

Once iron or steel is below bright orange, then the forging and stamping is much harder.
Not trying to find excuses as to why this couldn't be a newer chisel by the way, just recalling that the first time I saw bright heat forged vs. a lower heat, I was shocked about how easy it can be moved around. It forms so easily and a master holding the stamp on bright iron with an apprentice taking one whack with a sledge would make a mark very deep. Since it's iron, there's no real penalty in heating it really hot. I have a feeling that was done either with the forging heat or before it as some of the marks look like they're partially milled off.

First mark I ever made out of brass to use on the front of planes, I made without a filed stamp border edge. I thought it would make a defined line and line up easily for a second strike but it was the drizzling poos at trying to get a clear strike. George Wilson told me at that point why the postage stamp border was on older stamps that were hand struck.

The fact that there's no evidence of any modern abrasive and the finish level is done by hand but to such an exacting standard makes me think it came before the later cost cuts and modern wheels. Our tools were done the same here - by early 1900s when silicon carbide became standard, getting a uniform fine scratch pattern (and skipping the subsequent polish) became very easy. I doubt the silica wheels could make such a uniform pattern.

Yes to the person above who says these are welded. Mine all look like they're forge welded. On some chisels (some of the wards) the weld area is ground back pretty hard - not sure if that's an effort to hide the weld. The IH sorby chisel isn't done like that and little artifacts of the weld are still there. Not sloppy, just still there.
This thread would make a lot more sense with pictures of the chisel in question, showing these grinding marks etc. And if you could embed the images rather than posting links, so much the better. On a mobile, Imgur hides half the picture behind an advert.
I have to significantly resize images for them to reside here. It's kind of a pain.
Notice how the soft iron has what looks like tearing in it. The whole finish is like this, but looks like it was followed up. Since this is much closer than the naked eye look, the scratches are more apparent in the picture than they would be looking at it.

The light angle makes seeing the scratches on the bevel difficult, but the same pattern is on the bevel (as in, it doesn't look like it was ever honed with a stone, just ground like that).

The grind on the little secondary angle is a bit sloppy, but I'm guessing they'd figure someone else would clean that up on their own.

The two chisels in this group of four that were used had that more neatly completed and some part of the back honed, but the grinding marks like those on the bevel are all over those chisels, but don't cover the whole bevel. They were only used enough to refresh part of the bevel and not the whole thing.


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D_W":klvpjksv said:
I have to significantly resize images for them to reside here. It's kind of a pain.

You can directly link to an externally hosted image of any size. Several frequent posters use Imgur that way. But thanks for making it easier.
I can take a picture of an all steel chisel finished with a silicone carbide or aluminum oxide abrasive if it thrills anyone.
I came across this I&H Sorby paring chisel for sale on one of the dealers' websites. There's a good picture of the stamp, which has serifed letters and the hanging sheep mark. The shape of the chisel overall, and particularly it's shoulders, suggest a mid to late 19th century date.

https://www.tooltique.co.uk/shop/vintag ... ned-honed/

That suggests to me that a mark with serifs and the hanging sheep is earlier than the one on the mortice chisel.

Edit to add - some more I&H Sorby stamps here;

https://www.mot.be/resource/Smith/sorby ... %20Marples.
I'm not following why you believe the all steel mark is earlier than the postage stamp border mark. I gather what you're saying about thin early letters in stamps with bold serifs but I don't see any in sorby marks with them.

Generally, postage stamp borders were on stamps to allow alignment with a hammer for multiple strikes without leaving evidence. I believe the stamps of my stylesheets hand hammered and then the chisel was finished on a wheel. Why? Because some of the stamps are deep on one side and partially ground off on the other side.
I've just posted several examples of I&H Sorby marks with serifed letters, so they are about. Rummaging about the web (search for "I&H Sorby" and click on "Images", or click on the links to their history) and there are many.

The paring chisel shape dates it to later half of the nineteenth century, so gives some indication of the letter style used in stamps at that time. From earlier discussions on this forum, twentieth century stam letters tended to be without serifs, so that suggests (doesn't prove, just suggests) that your mortice chisel is more likely to be 20th than 19th century.

Bear in mind that the act of whacking it into hot metal frequently meant that stamps didn't have a long life. They were replaced frequently, so are a good reflection of fashion, and thus can be helpful in dating.