The Ashley Iles butt chisels

Butt chisels? I’ll do a review of’em, but if you’ve read my blog before – you know what’s comin’ next! Let’s crack on with it.

This is a review based on my personal preferences and views. I am not affiliated with anyone, and paid full retail price for the products with my own money. I try to be as unbiased as I can.

For years I’ve been working with some sub-par tools. They have gotten me a long way, but at some stage you do need to step up the game. Getting better tools will make you better as a woodworker since they will produce a nice result much easier. It takes away some of the frustration. An example on this: I once sharpened my cheap chisels to the point where I could castrate mosquitoes (I haven’t had a mosquito bite in over a year, if that proves anything…). ONE welly into oak, and the edge looked like the Lofoten mountain range silhouette in midnight sun (google it, it is beautiful! Lofoten, not the edge of the chisel). No fun.

A butt chisel has a short handle that fits in the palm of your hand, and they have stort blades. They look like a well used chisel where the blade has been ground down to a short length over decades of use. Depending on ones preferences, they are very well suited for paring and detail work as long as the short blade length is not an issue.

I find upgrading your tools somewhat similar to playing an instrument. When I upgraded from some half-decent keyboard thingy to my Casio Celviano digital piano, my technique improved remarkably within a year. The same thing happened when I bought a Fender Stratocaster. The better instrument enabled me to improve as a musician by leaps and bounds.

My preciousses arrived! Some snacks from Veritas too, but that’s another review.

Now, a good set of chisels won’t make me an artisan over night, but they will make my life a lot easier. It has been on my wish list for years, and I finally got to the point where I felt I could spend a bit of money on a good set of high quality chisels. Narex and Lie-Nielsen chisels proved to be rather hard to find, but I could order directly from Ashley Iles. The lead time was 4-6 weeks.

And this is where the story takes a bit of a twist. I had two tabs open in the browser on my phone, and I accidentally ordered a set of 6 butt chisels over the bench chisels! But here’s the thing: I’ve considered the butt chisels for a long time. The short length seems more practical in use for detail work. One can hold the chisel between the thumb and two fingers and balance it while still have the end of the handle in the view. It is actually easy to “feel” if the chisel is plumb or not. The short handle means that the chisel fits in the hand, and I can use my palm to push the chisel through the cut.

The shorter blade means that these chisels won’t be usable for deep mortises. More on that later.

I got a set of 6 chisels, which includes these sizes:

  • 1/8″ (3mm)
  • 1/4″ (6mm)
  • 3/8″ (9mm)
  • 1/2″ (13mm)
  • 3/4″ (19mm)
  • 1″ (25mm)

For my bench- and mortise chisels, I doubt I will ever need a lot of different sized ones. I think 6, 13, 19 and 25mm would cover most needs.

The bad, the ugly and the very good.

From before, I have an assorted collection of chisels. I bought some Hard Head chisels, which is the brand of the chain Jula (similar type of chain to Aldi and Home Depot I think). They are really good chisels in most areas, but they do not retain the edge when working in oak. Subsequent sharpening has not improved them either; the theory being that there is good steel a small distance from the tip. In the end, I sold them for a song to a beginner woodworker. He got them sharpened and ready to go with a 35 degree bevel which should hold up a bit better, and I told him about the problems I had with them. They were very good chisels for pine and fir, though – I built the work bench with them. I bet he will enjoy them for years to come.

I have a few old beaters and paint can openers I found at a flea market. One of them is a short Stanley yellow handle 60 chisel. That one is a beast! It takes and holds the edge beautifully, and I bet I could use my 6 kg / 13 lbs sledge hammer as a mallet on it if need be! I got it in a pretty bad shape, but it cleaned up good. The short length also got me hooked on the butt chisels. A good find! But I did want a set of chisels with the same handle across all of them, and since woodworking is a hobby I wanted to treat myself to some nice tools.

Can you spot the hollow? Look for the arc of the polished area.

The Ashley Iles chisels are very slightly hollow ground on the back, which means polishing the back of them is a breeze. Remember – du DO NOT have to lap the whole back side dead flat! Just a few mm behind the edge will do, and it is a once only job. No need to ever touch the back side until you’ve worn the steel back far enough to remove the polishing you did initially, or you get a big nick or something. Don’t take my word for it, go see what Paul Sellers has to say about it.

They takes an edge easily on my sharpening station, and seems to hold the edge for a long time. A quick 15 second round on the strop, and they are good to go. They are really good to use, and i find the short handle gives me perfect control. The drawback comes when I need to use a mallet for heavier mortising- where a longer shaft is the winner (the bench chisel MK II model for example).

The short length and stubby handle makes them really nimble around the bench. While holding the chisel near the tip, they balance well without wanting to topple. You can sort of feel when you’re plumb. At the same time, you have the end of the handle in sight for wellying. The short length makes them great for fine detail work.

The side bevel has really slim edges, which means they will reach into the corners of a dovetail with ease.

25 and 3 mm

We’ll see over time how these chisel holds up, but from what I’ve heard they are great. Richard Maguire (The English Woodworker) and Matt Cremona are two well known woodworkers that use these chisels. Paul Sellers do not recommend them due to one chisel snapping on him. I think it is a bit harsh to judge a manufacturer due to one single faulty item though. Especially since Ashley Iles have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. In other words – if a chisel snaps, they will replace it for free. Unconditionally. They would not do that if their products snapped willy-nilly, now would they? Anyway, I from the – albeit yet short and limited – experience I have with these chisels, I think they are a very good choice. Certainly lifetime tools.

After I received the butt chisels, I ordered a set of four of the Ashley Iles bench chisels mkII and a couple of their firmer chisels. The quality of the butt chisels made the choice easy, and I do need full size chisels anyway.

I’ve used the chisels for some time now, and they are holding the edge extremely well. Especially the firmer chisels, which takes heavy wellying like nobody’s business, holds up beautifully even in hard white oak. The slim profile of the bench and butt chisels means that they will reach into tight corners (dovetails) easily. The handles are very comfortable. I will take some emery paper to the edges of the blade near the handle to make the edges more comfortable – they are good from the factory, but I want the edges a bit softer.

The firmer chisel in action

I’ll give these my thumbs up and recommendation, along with the bench chisels MKII and the firmer chisels. They hold their edge well, sharpens very easily and feels great in the hand. While not cheap, they are not too expensive considering the fact that they will last a lifetime. And then some.

If we compare the prices for a half inch (12mm) bench chisel, this is what I could find:

BrandPrice for one 1/2” chisel (Source)
Veritas PMV-11$92 (Lee Valley)
Lie-Nielsen$55 (Lie-Nielsen)
Ashley Iles bench chisel MKII$40.79 (Ashley Iles, £29.64)
Narex Richter$37.80 (Lee Valley)
Two Cherries unpolished$21.46 (fine-tools.com, €18.3)
Narex Classic$13.50 (Lee Valley)
Conversion rates and prices as of August 18th 2021

You can draw your own conclusions based on this, but do your research. Freight, customs and other factors will determine the total on the credit card bill. But from my chair here in Norway, these prices seem representative. I’ve seen 1/4” Veritas PMV-11 for NOK 1295,- ($145) and Lie Nielsen 1/4” for NOK 700 ($79). That might be at the extreme end, though.. Comparably, I ended up paying NOK 2700,- ($300) including freight, VAT and customs fees, for the six butt chisels. That means an average of $50 per chisel, compared to the $79 and $145 the Norwegian reseller prices I found. I paid about the same for the four bench chisels and the two firmer chisels.

I have not tried any other high-end chisels, so I cannot say whether they are worth the higher pricetag or not. I’ll leave that one up to you.

Butt chisels. Kind of a misleading product name, don’t you think? Are they everything we crack them up to be?

They certainly don’t do a half-ass job…

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