Introduction: Vintage Chisel Restoration - Making a Timber Slick
Like many hand tool woodworkers, I've got a mild obsession with vintage woodworking tools. They're incredibly important in our craft and frankly, they're just as good if not better than a lot of modern day tools. Fun fact: most antique or vintage chisels, and vintage tools in general, are made with harder, better quality steel than what's available at the big box store today. Because of that, tool restoration is more important now than ever in my opinion. Socket chisels like this one are actually designed so that the handle can be easily removed and customized, but at the same time, using the chisel actually sets the handle more securely into the socket and ensures a quality fit with more use.
I'm getting into some timber framing and Japanese joinery these days, so I wanted to take this ugly short handled 2" chisel, and transform it into a beautiful long handled timber framing slick, which utilizes a longer handle for more on site work on larger beams that will likely be below standard workbench height.
As a further challenge, I wanted to do this without the aid of a lathe, which certainly made this project go a bit longer, but adds a bit of flair.
Find vintage tools from Ryan Goetzmann: http://www.skanwoods.com
Contact Mike Griffin for stitching ponies: https://www.instagram.com/wingandwavedesigns/
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Step 1: Prepping the Steel and Honing the Primary Bevel
I got this old 2” chisel from my buddy Ryan, Skanwoods on Instagram. It’s a flea market find and I have his site with vintage tools linked in the tool list in the intro step.
There’s a lot of options to get rid of rust. There's the stock rust removers from the big box store: soaking stuff, topical stuff, etc. However, I like to use a bath of powdered citric acid and water for a couple hours to penetrate the steel and get all the crud and schmutz off.
The only caution I have is to watch out for nickel plating with citric acid, since the acid will strip the nickel plating off with over exposure. A couple years ago I threw my new(ish) Stanley Sweethearts in the drink for about 24 hours and they are permanently tarnished a gunmetal gray... which I guess is cool if you're into that sort of thing.
After it’s out the soup, I scrub it down with some steel wool to remove all the rust and then dry off with a rag. Over on the bench, I’ll use this sanding drill attachment with some high grit sandpaper, starting around 320 and working my way to 1000 grit to smooth and polish everything out. I get a lot of use out of this particular sanding kit on small items, especially metal.
To work on the back and bevel, I’ve got a wet grinder, specifically a Tormek. The Tormek is great, and other wet grinding systems out there are also comparable. However, the downside is that it takes absolutely forever since it turns at such a slow speed. This could be more efficiently done with an eight inch bench grinder. Unfortunately, I only own a six inch bench grinder which wouldn’t give me the hollow grind I need. Also, with the bench grinders you need to be more cautious of overheating and bluing your steel which will make your edge extremely brittle and mess with your temper. CBN wheels are a great alternative to a wet grinder if you've got the coin for it.
I probably worked this blade for about two hours off and on and got about 95% of the primary bevel dialed, aside from a little bit in the top corner, and that’ll just come out with time when I inevitably will have to regrind the primary.
Step 2: Honing the Secondary Bevel
After the Tormek I like to polish the back and hone the secondary bevel on a 3000 and 8000 grit water stone. I use these Shapton glass backs which are widely available and don’t require full soaking to become effective. I just keep a squirt bottle handy and if I feel too much resistance, I’ll re-lubricate the stone with more water. I also start by flattening the backs but you can start with the bevel first and do the back second. There’s folks that do them either way and they’re both plenty effective.
On the Tormek I honed a primary bevel of 25 degrees, which means my secondary will be 30 degrees. I typically keep these bevels consistent between my chisels and planes, aside from a couple high angle irons that I use primarily for exotics. I won't go too in depth in sharpening here, but the primary focus of your effort should be on the back and secondary bevel for a few reasons. 1) The quality of the back in the first couple inches to the end directly effects the quality of your edge. Pits or waves will be reflected in the secondary bevel and therefore provide an inconsistent edge. 2) The secondary bevel is what actually makes contact and cuts your wood. 3) The primary bevel could be sanded with a cinder block so long as your secondary is nice because the primary makes little to no contact with the wood.
It’s probably worth noting here that when I switch from one stone to the next I wipe my chisel and honing guide wheel to prevent contaminating my high grit stone with lower grit slurry. A lot of folks go past 8000. I believe Rob Cosman is an avid believer in the 16000 grit stone. I’ll be honest, if I had the extra coin I’d probably pick one up as well. But the 8000 grit polish is still quite nice and does give a bit of a mirror finish.
After the stones, I strop with leather and micro abrasive green compound. I don’t typically add more green compound every time but figured I’d show it on video and frankly a little extra doesn’t hurt. Stropping is definitely a bit of a feel game. The only suggestion I can offer is when working the bevel to not go too high and roll your edge over. You’re just polishing and refining at this point and overdoing it can certainly ruin a perfectly good sharpening.
After all that I’ll hit the steel with some tung butter, equal parts tung oil and beeswax, to prevent further oxidation. I use this as a second stage in my Maloof finish and it goes great on tools as well, especially in humid climates.
Step 3: Shaping the Handle
For the handle, I’m going with some scrap ash. As I said in the intro, I’ve been getting into some Japanese style timber framing and joinery lately, so I want this large chisel to operate more as a proper timber slick. Therefore, I’m going with a long handle for working on larger beams and on work surfaces that are lower than bench height.
Since I’m doing this handle without a lathe, I’ll mark center on both ends and roughly mark out the butt end. Then after getting the measurement for the entry of the chisel socket, I’ll scribe that out on the opposite end. This inevitably creates a taper, and therefore I’ll use my taper jig to rough shape the handle.
Since this is thicker than my maximum clamping capacity, I’ll use some double stick tape to hold everything in place. My first pass on the first side went fine. After that, I rotated it 90 degrees to the adjacent face and halfway through had to clench the cheeks because the tape released.
As you can see, the jig kept moving but the workpiece stopped. This could have created all sorts of calamaties, kickback, concussion, asteroid collision, etc., so I shut the saw off and then re-tooled my situation. I imagine that there was probably too much dust on my work surfaces which created a bonding problem for the double sided tape, so I went with blue tape and CA glue on my second attempt, and used my push stick to keep the workpiece down onto the jig.
That worked like a charm. So moral of the story is: make sure your surfaces are dust free before applying adhesive tapes for work holding.
Back on the bench, I secured the handle between my plane stop and a doe’s foot and started working the corners with my jack plane to create a tapered octagon profile. This was nice and therapeutic at first, but it took a fair number of passes, even using thicker passes than I typically would.
The simple idea here is to just work that corner closest to me on the bench, and once down to size, rotate the piece towards me a quarter turn until the octagon is completed. This is all freehand so it’s all about eyeball and feel.
Step 4: Fitting the Tenon in the Socket
Using the marking gauge, I measured the depth of the socket, and then transferred that to the handle.
Then using outside and inside calipers, I got the measurement for the base of the handle’s tenon before sawing at my marking line just a hair all the way around to create a ledge at the base of the tenon.
Then I work everything down towards the base with a chisel until I get to the measurement from the calipers. At the end of the tenon, I’ll whittle that away with a sloyd knife to help start the taper that will match the inside of the socket. After that, it’s a lot of work with rasps to get everything to ultimately fit. This is definitely one of those projects where sneaking up on the fit is recommended to ensure the chisel doesn’t come off the handle until I want it to.
I’ll hit everything with the low angle block to finish and then sand the butt end round to create a surface that won’t split when hammered with a heavy joiner’s or carver’s mallet. Instead of sanding narrow parts like this and risking rolling over my edges too much, I’ll hit everything with a card scraper for a finish ready surface. Then a test fit to make sure everything is kosher.
Step 5: Applying Finish
If making a large semi-cylindrical chisel handle, it's okay to get a little weird with it.
I’m using my often used Maloof finish, equal parts pure tung oil from Real Milk Paint Company, wipe on poly, and boiled linseed oil with a splash of mineral spirits. I’ll apply about five or six generous coats over a few days, wiping off the excess. The final coat will be a bit thicker to create some build up, but not too thick to have runs and sags.
After that’s cured, I’ll hit the handle with some tung butter as well. Be sure to not get the tenon with this stuff because it could provide a bit of lubrication and affect the fit inside the chisel socket. Once again, this is a wipe on and wipe off application and I just do one generous coat. Then everything gets re-assembled.
Step 6: Making a Chisel Cover
Since this is going to be used on and off my bench, I wanted a leather chisel cover to protect it and enlisted my friend Mike Griffin from wing and wave designs to do so. The collar of the chisel cover has some sewn in magnets to keep it from sliding off and we’re going with some nice horween, aka horse butt.
I don’t know much about leather working but from watching Mike, who is also a woodworker, do his work, I can see how the barrier to entry on this is quite low and the process can be addicting. It’s primarily a lot of folding, gluing, cutting, and stitching. Mike prefers to use water based leather adhesive as opposed to contact cement.
Honestly, some of these micro processes with leather working are super satisfying to watch. In my opinion, if you’re a hand tool woodworker, you’ll love leather working as well.
Speaking of stitching, Mike’s created this amazing stitching pony that he sells. This stitching pony has a monster clamping capacity to be able to fit on most benches, and a number of different table surfaces, making it super versatile. It’s sturdy, has a spring loaded clamping mechanism, and the jaw design allows for secure work holding while leaving room to work and you guessed it, stitch.
I don’t have the slightest idea what this stitching technique is called, but Mike’s only been leather working for a few months now and he’s honestly quite masterful with this stuff already and that also goes to show that the learning curve on beginning leather working is not steep at all.
We used my branding iron in an arbor press to punch my logo in there. Mike also stuck his on the back and the fit is absolutely money. Then a bit of paste wax to finish adds character and protection.
Step 7: You're Finished! Mazeltov!
If there's any time to pour a drink, break out the beer funnel, shotgun a can... this would be it. You're finished. Rejoice.
To be honest, I’ll probably be doing most of my future tool handles on the lathe. But there was something about the idea of doing this without one that intrigued me and I am extremely pleased with the result and glad that I did so. Tool restoration helps preserve our history and our craft, and the character of these old pieces of steel shines through in the work that we do and in the stories that we tell.
This isn’t something that just looks nice on a tool wall, it’s highly sharp and functional (it absolutely eats end grain). In the work that’s done with it, I’ll be able to point to a storied tool that made it. In my humble opinion, that’s one of the most beautiful aspects of this journey in woodworking.
Save a tool. Make something beautiful. Tell a story.
Thanks for sticking around! Be sure to check out the video and let me know if you have any questions in the comments.
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