There are few blessings without a curse hidden inside, nor curses without a whiff of blessing. Like most things, it’s a matter of how you look at it.Joe Abercrombie, Isern, “A Little Hatred”
In this article your humble servant will attempt to shed more light on the ancient “Mystery of Steel.”
This story does not begin on a dark Scottish moor, nor on a foggy London night in a drawing room with the door inexplicably locked from the inside concealing bloody mayhem splattered across intricately carved linenfold oak paneling; Rather, it begins in an ordinary woodworking shop. And it goes something like this.
The Brittle Edge
The curtain rises on a humble detached workshop where, unbeknownst to our victim, an erstwhile woodworker we shall call “Woody,” dastardly events are about to unfold (cue the deep, ominous music). It’s really just an old dilapidated garage, but it’s Woody’s kingdom and he is master here, or so his bench cat allows him to imagine. He’s expecting us, so we’ll just go on in.
Make sure the door is firmly closed behind you now; It tends to stick and Woody’s bench dog loves to jet out and root around in the neighbor’s garbage. No mystery about why they call the fuzzy little leg-humper “Stinky.” (ツ)
Pine and cedar plane shavings litter the floor of Woody’s shop and their fragrant aroma fills the air erasing the mutt funk. Autumn sunlight filters gently through the single dusty window as sawdust motes dance above a limp bench cat sleeping at the far end of the workbench dreaming of buffalo wings and big-eyed kittens. All appears well in Woody World.
Woody’s sitting at his workbench on his white Smith & Wesson padded stool where he has just unpacked his new chisel, admired it, checked the fit, finish and edge, and appears quite satisfied. He lays out a test mortise hole on a piece of scrap oak, picks up his gennou hammer (the one with the classic Kosaburo head and the sexy Osage Orange handle that turned out so well), and begins to chop a test mortise. But, wait!… Something’s not right!
With trembling hands, Woody examines the chisel’s cutting edge to discover the last thousandth of an inch or so has changed from smooth and sharp to ragged and dull. “Nooooo!” Woody wails as he lifts his arms to the ceiling, arches his back, and slumps to the floor on his knees in a pose reminiscent of Sergent Elias in that poignant moment on a battlefield in Vietnam; “I have been betrayed!” he cries with wavering voice. Yes, Woody’s a talented and enthusiastic drama queen in the Smeagle mold; Maybe even good enough to run for the US Congress.
Another of Woody’s qualifications for high public office is that he dearly loves to pull a cork, so while he walks to the corner Piggly Wiggly to get a 5th of tequila to anesthetize his emotional shock and refill his thespian fuel tanks, let’s take a load off and sit on his workshop sofa over there while I explain the cause of his emotional fragility. Yep, you’re right; It’s a recycled bench seat from an old Dodge Power Wagon he salvaged from a junkyard and converted to a sofa for watching ballgames and taking naps in the shop away from the jaundiced eye of “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” Don’t worry about your pretty pink dress, princess, it’s just honest sawdust.
With tools, tequila, and the mystery of steel involved, this could be a long story, so let’s consider how to solve this particular mystery before Woody gets back and starts up his caterwauling again.
But just so you don’t become discouraged, let me state right now that there is a tunnel at the end of the light, and that while all seems dark and hopeless to Woody now, he may actually have reason to rejoice greatly! But we’ll get back to that later in the story.
Your humble servant always asks the following questions when someone complains of a chipped cutting edge on a chisel or plane. When Woody gets back, and if he manages to remain coherent and vertical long enough, we’ll ask him these same questions. If your blades are causing you grief, you should consider asking yourself these questions too. Jose Cuervo and acting skills are not required.
- What sort of quality is your problem chisel? Low? Medium? High? How do you know? This is relevant because a poor-quality chisel will fail just by looking at it too hard;
- What type of chisel is it? A striking chisel or a paring chisel? Each type of chisel is used for different tasks and in different ways;
- What and how were you cutting when the edge failed? This is important because some woods are best cut in a different manner than others, and some cuts require a special approach if we are to avoid damaging the chisel;
- What is the bevel angle? If the angle is much less than the ideal for the type of chisel, plane, cut and wood, we may have found the culprit. Finding the perfect angle for your chisel and situation may take some experimentation;
- How did the edge fail? Did it crumble? Chip? Roll? A combo failure (with cheese)? This will tell us a lot about the tool.
- Was the wood you were cutting dirty? Did it contain embedded grit? This is an important question because many people carelessly use their valuable chisels, planes and powertools to cut hard minerals instead of scrumptious wood. The lesson? Don’t be a slob: Scrub your wood with a steel brush before cutting it. And saw off the last 3~4 millimeters off both ends of every board, or at least chamfer the ends with a block plane, drawknife or knife to remove the grit always embedded in end grain, before you put it through your jointer, thickness planner or tablesaw, or cut it with handsaws, planes or chisel. If you have not made a habit of doing this, don your scratchy sackcloth tidy whities, smear ashes on your face, then repent and be baptized because you have been abusing your innocent tools, Bubba. Clean your wood and you will notice the difference. Strange that no one I have ever asked this question to has admitted to using dirty, stony wood at first. The reason is usually simply that they didn’t realize it was filthy until I pointed it out to them, just as it was pointed out to me many years ago. What’s that you say? You don’t have a stiff steel wire brush in your toolbox?! Shame on you;
- Did you abuse the chisel by trying to lever wood out of the cut, a mortise for instance? This is a common cause of failure. People accustomed to using amateur-grade tools with soft cutting edges frequently discover the edge of their new chisel has chipped after using it like a cheap Chinese screwdriver to lever waste, never imagining the harder and more brittle steel of a quality chisel might be damaged. Such boorish behavior voids the warranty on our chisels, BTW, because a chisel is a cutting tool, not a prybar, can opener, or paint stirrer, much less a screwdriver.
Did your answers to these questions suggest any remedial action to you? The best answer to Question 1 is often to procure a better-performing tool.
But if your tool is professional-grade instead of hardware-store grade, then you may need to learn how to use it and maintain it properly. But that is a story for another day.
Let us shift our attention briefly to another, related mystery, one that has more to do with human nature.
Why Are the Blades of So Many Modern Tools Mediocre Performers?
It wasn’t always that way, but there are sound business reasons why chisel and plane blades are such poor performers nowadays, even in Japan, and like many things, it boils down to money. The numbers of craftsmen that routinely use handtools has decreased, and therefore the demand for professional-grade tools is way down. In Western countries the degradation of tool standards started even earlier.
In this situation, and where customer expectations are as high as an earthworm’s vest pocket, mediocre tools are simply more profitable for manufacturers and retailers. After all, low-quality materials are cheaper and it only takes ordinary machines and minimum-wage factory workers, not expensive trained blacksmiths, to make tool-shaped objects from mediocre-quality materials. Professional woodworkers won’t touch such crap, but amateurs, the inexperienced and those bewildered souls who judge performance based solely on lowest cost buy them by the ton.
More now than ever, “sustainability” is given pious, pompous lip-service, while the reality of modern society is that high-volume sales of colorful but poor-quality tools designed to meet planned obsolescence goals, manufactured in lots of thousands by Chinese farmers, and destined to become early landfill stuffing has become the only viable business model left standing. Gofigga.
More importantly, even if they would do better if given half a chance, inexperienced amateurs seldom have anyone to teach them how to use and maintain their tools, so they never learn proper maintenance principles and cutting techniques. When they damage their woodworking tool blades carelessly, they blame the tool supplier for their own failure. As Mr. T would say: “I pity the fool.”
Faced with this sort of consumer, it is simply easier and more profitable for tool companies to manufacture, and for retailers to sell, chisels and planes with softer, tougher blades suited to amateurs. I think you can see the vicious cycle.
A Non-technical Technical Explanation
Your humble servant’s earlier comment that Woody may have cause to rejoice about what appears to be metallurgical malfeasance may cause some Gentle Readers to wonder if I am mad as a sack of owls; Perhaps my most excellent aluminum-foil skull cap (the one with purty curly copper wires) malfunctioned permitting those icky inter-dimensional aliens’ mind-control waves to leak through.
Like our absent drama queen, I too was devastated when first faced with a manifestation of the Mystery of the Brittle Blade many years ago, but I can now explain why it may be sign of a blessing instead of a curse. It’s elementary dear Watson. But I think it best to provide some background and explain some time proven solutions before presenting the good news. Steak before ice-cream, you see.
I beg the indulgence of knowledgeable Gentle Readers who feel insulted by the lack of temperature curve drawings and jargon such as “pearlite,” “martensite” and “ austentite,” and ask them to understand that, while this blog is focused primarily on informing our professional Beloved Customers, many Gentle Readers require a less technical explanation. Simple hospitality demands that your humble servant make an effort to provide useful insight to a wide range of Gentle Readers. As a dude wearing a skirt and sandals in a movie once said: “ Are you not entertained?”
Quenching the Blade
When a blacksmith quenches a high-carbon steel blade in water in the ancient manner (called “Yakiire” 焼き入れ in Japanese which translates to “burn in” in English), the steel suffers a thermal shock, sometimes severe enough to crack it. This violent cooling also causes a peculiar crystalline structure to form in the metal, one that causes it to become harder and increase in volume, and even to warp to some degree. The casual observer may imagine the water cools the entire blade uniformly, but ‘tain’t so.
Those areas of the blade that cool the quickest form the highest volume of crystals and become hardest. In the case of chisels, planes, and kiridashi knives, the end of the blade has the most exposure to water, cools quickest, and therefore becomes hardest, at least during the first quench.
The blacksmith may carefully repeat the heating and quenching process multiple times, sometimes varying the heat time and temperature to achieve the desired crystalline structure and uniform distribution of small, hard carbides that define “fine-grained steel,” but the quenching process by itself always leaves the blade too hard and too brittle to be useful as-is.
Tempering the Blade
Now that the blade is hardened, indeed too hard, the blacksmith must mellow the steel, reducing its hardness while at the same time increasing its toughness by carefully reheating and cooling the steel to modify the crystallized steel in a process called “tempering,” in English and “yakimodoshi “ 焼戻し ( literally “ burn return” ) in Japanese. In this way, a steel blade hardened to Rc85 degrees during the first quench, indeed brittle enough to break into pieces if dropped onto a concrete floor, can be softened to a useful hardness while becoming at the same time much tougher.
In materials science and metallurgy, toughness is defined as the ability of a material to absorb energy and elastically deform without fracturing. To “elastically deform” means an object changes shape or deforms when pressure is applied, but returns to its original shape when the pressure is removed. For example, if you clamp one end of a piece of mild-steel wire in a vise and apply a little force with your hand at the other end it will bend at first and then spring back to its original shape when you remove pressure. This is called “elastic deformation.” But if you apply enough pressure the wire will not spring back (“rebound”) but will remain bent. This permanent bend is called “plastic deformation.” Mild steel wire is truly “tough as nails.”
Glass is the opposite case. While it exhibits more elastic deformation than most people realize it can, it will tolerate no plastic deformation, because when the stresses in glass reach the “yield point,” instead of bending plastically, it breaks.
A brittle blade is hard but not tough, and while it will elastically deform a little bit (often so little it’s unnoticeable), it too easily breaks. Proper tempering therefore, is critical to obtain useful toughness.
But this reduction in hardness and increase in toughness brought about through tempering is not always 100% uniform, and as mentioned above, the extreme cutting edge of the blade of a chisel or plane tends to be hardest and therefore most brittle in the case of hand-forged tools, even after tempering. The cheap, mass-production solution is to simply make the entire blade softer, say Rc55 for example, so brittleness will never be a problem. But such a tool is more a sharpened screwdriver than a cutting tool suited to the needs of professional woodworkers, IMHO.
I’m being too harsh, you say? Not even a little bit. A soft blade dulls quickly, wastes the professional woodworker’s time and money, and is irritating instead of useful. Perfect for turning screws, spreading spackle or stirring paint but not much good for quickly and precisely cutting lots of wood for pay, thank you very much.
Solutions 1 & 2
The Mystery we are investigating on Woody’s behalf is as ancient as steel itself. And of course there are reliable ancient solutions our blacksmiths employ. Let’s consider two of them.
First, create a crystalline structure in the blade through hand-forging that is more resistant to fracturing than ordinary steel regardless of its hardness. This doesn’t happen by accident.
Second, employ painstaking heat-treatment techniques combined with uncompromising quality control to achieve the right balance of hardness vs. toughness.
To help control the heat-treat process, our blacksmiths apply a special mud-like compound to specific areas of the blade to slow down the thermal shock during the quench and improve the steel’s crystalline structure. Every blacksmith has their own “secret sauce,” so I can’t tell you what it’s made from. This technique is not perfect nor unique to Japan, but we know it has been successfully used by Japanese swordsmiths for at least 900+ years
It ain’t rocket surgery, but factory workers in Guangzhou or Mumbai can’t do it.
So, we have discussed the reasons, and some solutions, but what to do about a blade that’s already chippy?
Assuming the blade has been forged by an expert blacksmith in accordance with the principles outlined above, the fix to chippiness (oops, did I coin a word?) is to be patient and sharpen the blade three or four times removing the extra-brittle steel exposed at the cutting edge, the area that became harder and less tough than the rest of the blade during the heat-treating process. With few exceptions, the blade will then “calm down” and stop misbehaving.
This is the solution we ask our Beloved Customers to employ when this problem infrequently arises. It requires faith, and patience, but it almost always works.
The last solution, and one I certainly do not recommend to anyone except as a last resort, is to heat the cutting edge under a candle flame. Not an acetylene torch; Not a propane torch; Not even a butane lighter; A candle flame only. You want the extreme cutting edge to become just a smidge hotter than you can comfortably touch with your bare finger. Don’t heat the entire blade, just the cutting edge.
BIG FRIKIN DISCLAIMER 1: This method won’t fix a poor-quality blade or one that was initially ruined during forging or heat-treat.
BIG FRIKIN DISCLAIMER 2: If you are careless and do this wrong you can easily ruin the blade!
But what insanity made me say that Woody should rejoice when the cutting edge of his new chisel crumbles? I assure you, my reasoning is sound, I have Woody’s best interests at heart, and I will explain all to him when he sobers up. Probably tomorrow afternoon, at this rate. (ツ)
But I’ll explain it to you now, if you will be good enough to get me a root beer to wet my whistle from Woody’s cooler over there. No, that’s not a Class M-3 Model B-9 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, it’s one of those mini-fridges sitting on two skateboards with a shop-vac wrapped in Christmas lights perched on top that Woody puts out on his front porch for Halloween to thrill the kids and to keep a sufficient stash of cold adult beverages, and root beer too, of course, close at hand. He’s very practical that way. Oh, BTW, please don’t tell SWMBO about the adult beverages, or you’ll ruin a great Halloween tradition and preclude many erudite discussions in the future: Vino Veritas
Ahh, that’s better. Nothing like an ice-cold root beer.
Now where was I? Oh yes, the reason for my optimism: A high-quality blade that crumbles like Woody’s did when brand new, and mellows after a few sharpenings, is highly likely to be an exceptionally fine tool!
On the other hand, a blade that is too soft when new will never crumble or chip, but it will always quickly dull and never improve. A veritable gasket scraper. (个_个)
There are exceptions, of course: some hand-forged blades are defective and crumbly from beginning to end, usually a result of overheating the steel during the forging process, a rookie mistake. You should return such a defective blade to the retailer you purchased it from. If, however, to save a few bucks, you rolled the dice and bought a tool without a warranty, or purchased it from an online auction, you will need to enlist the services of Murphy’s two bubbly buddies Mr. Doodly and Mr. Squat.
Somehow I doubt Woody will thank me for solving this piece of the Mystery of Steel for him, but I am confident he will love the flavor of that chisel for the rest of his life.
PS: If you found this interesting, you may find other posts regarding the Mystery of Steel found in our “Sharpening Series” interesting too. The one at this link in particular is relevant to this discussion.
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