Chisels and Alchemy

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan

Lately I have been designing a new piece that calls for many small dovetails. The chisels that I use now, while fine for bench work, are unsatisfactory for delicate work such as dovetails and pairing. I know the limitations of my chisels – the blades too thick, the handles uncomfortable for pairing, the composition of steel not optimal for shallower bevel angles. With the limitations of my current chisels in mind I began shopping for a second set of chisels for dovetailing and pairing. Unfortunately I could not find anything that met my exact needs. I came very close to purchasing a Japanese chisel made by Hiroshi Koyama, but it did not have all of the qualities that I was looking for, so I began researching the possibility of making my own set of chisels.

The experience of working with a new material, steel, was exciting, and the process was a complete success, both in terms of knowledge obtained as well as the successful creation of tools that will allow me to further my work. Photographs of the process below:

To make the chisels, I began with annealed O-1 steel, which is at its softest point and may be worked with a grinder, files or rough sandpaper. It is at this point that the chisel blade is shaped. The steel is then heated to around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, which takes the steel from its softest state to its hardest. One indicator that the correct temperature has been reached is color. I watched the steel, cradled in a blue flame, change color from silver to yellow, orange, then bright red. Once the steel reached cherry red I immediately quenched it in oil. This quenching freezes the hardening process and insures that the steel will remain in a hardened state.

Once hardened the steel is very brittle and must be tempered before use. It is the tempering that determines how hard or soft the steel will be. There is no real right or wrong temper, just your preference depending on the use of the tool. Since I plan on using these chisels for delicate work, I tempered the steel at 375 degrees for one hour, which left the steel pretty hard. If I find later that the steel is too hard I will just make another chisel. That is the beauty of making your own tools.

I hardened the steel with the lights off so that the color of the steel could be seen clearly and accurately. I watched the blue flame of the torch dance across the metal in the darkened studio.  There seemed nothing in the universe but me and that flame.

I watched the color of the steel change – silver, yellow, tan, orange, red. I thought to myself, ‘this is magic, this is alchemy.’ To harden, to anneal, is to change the very composition of the steel from an unusable state into a usable tool that can carve and shape the wood, that will work in a symbiotic relationship with the craftsman’s mind to sculpt and create his visions. What is a tools except possibilities? And if you make your own tools the possibilities are endless.

These chisels that I crafted are my idea of what would be useful. The handles are seven and a half inches long, which is comfortable for pairing. The metal hoop on the end allows the chisel to be tapped with a wooden hammer if need be. The blades are four inches long and shaped to fit into tight dovetails without obstruction. One chisel is fishtailed to reach into tight corners effortlessly. The handles are one inch in diameter and straight.

These chisels, too, have a soul. They were not manufactured by a machine for profit. They were crafted with care and heart, they embody the aspirations of the maker, and I believe that the work will be all the better for it. “If you have succeeded in making yourself some really fine tools,” James Krenov wrote, “it does prompt you to work more carefully…they allow you to work more joyfully to exceed performances that you have done before.”

By making a tool, I am a part of the tool, and by use, the tools is a part of me. Shaping metal and tempering steel, working with new materials and methods creates possibilities. It is the continuation of growth, of learning, of being present. Annie Dillard once wrote, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until that moment that I was lifted and struck.” Bob Dylan put it this way, “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

I believe that craft is, ultimately, alchemy. It is the transformation of thought and materials, but it is also the transformation of the person. Carl Jung once wrote, “it is worth mans while to take pains with himself, and he has something in his soul that can grow.” Heat can temper steel, and steel and temper man.

“Ours is really a simple craft. But it is a rich one, too. At its best, the simple becomes obvious: A band of small discoveries, strung like pearls on a thread of curiosity, lending richness to our work.” – James Krenov


About Randy J. Arnold
This entry was posted in James Krenov, Shop Tips, studio, Theory of Craft, Tool Making, tools and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chisels and Alchemy

  1. Liz says:

    Lovely post, Randy. Just beautiful.

  2. Randy J. Arnold says:

    Thank you, Liz!

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