I got my first Lie-Nielsen tool today: A ¾ inch bevel-edge chisel.
From everything I’ve read about Lie-Nielsen, I knew this would be an exciting day… a milestone that marked a new phase of working wood. I’ve lost hours looking at the Lie-Nielsen website and catalog, imagining the day I’d open my first LN box and hold the tool that would immediately jettison me into a new level of craftsmanship.
After reading a great blog series on building a quality tool collection slowly (sorry, I’ve lost the link), I decided I would take the author’s advice, and start with one high-quality chisel. While a full set of Lie-Nielsen chisels isn’t in my budget, it seemed reasonable to build a collection of the tools I really use, one by one. The author made an excellent point: I probably don’t need the full set anyway. He suggested starting with a set of two: three quarter and three eighths.
It made sense.
So a few weeks ago I plunked down my $60 plus shipping to replace the one chisel I reach for time and time again: My cheap ass 3/4-inch Harbor Freight chisel, which came in a set of six for 8 bucks.
These are the chisels I learned on: Cheap chisels that allowed me to learn how to chop, pare and, most importantly, sharpen, because I wasn’t afraid of damaging them. If I ruined one, I could replace the whole set for 8 bucks. Properly sharpened, these tools have served me well, and I’ve often wondered what there was to gain by upgrading. If using these was so enjoyable, then using better chisels must be bliss.
So far, my entire tool set is made up of used planes and vintage saws, vices, mallets, etc., cobbled together from Ebay and yard sales. I’ve enjoyed learning about the tools by taking them apart to clean and condition them. They work great, and I love the feeling of working with tools that carry the sweat and energy of other craftsmen. I have a mortise chisel from the 18th century that I regularly use, and I am awed every time I pick it up. Each time I use it, I wonder what this single chisel has made in 300 years it worked before finding my hand, how many people have used it. Who were they? What did they build? Is any of their work still around?
But still I’d find myself experiencing tool lust as I saw the gleaming Lie-Nielsens in other woodworkers arsenals, and I’ve dreamed of the day I’d get to use one. The sound of my 1940s Stanley No. 4 shicking across a board is sublime: What would it be like with a premium plane.
Don’t know yet, but I know my reaction to my Lie-Nielsen chisel: kind of flat.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s beautiful. The edges bevel to nothing. The back is dead flat. It’s mofo sharp without even honing it. The handle gleams.
But it doesn’t feel right. The balance is all wrong, which means it’s not like the one I’m used to. The handle is too small, too slick. I ran it along a piece of pine, then a piece of mahogany, and it cut beautifully. But so did my Harbor Freight. The only difference I could tell was that the LN felt wrong in my hand.
Then there’s the fear factor. I’m afraid to hone it. I’m afraid to drop it. I’m afraid to touch it. After working with it and looking at it for about 10 minutes, I put it back in its wrapping and laid in on a shelf, then picked up my Harbor Freight and continued working on my project.
I may return it.
I’m sure I can blame my disappointment on my level of expectation, which was only heightened by the fact that they were out of stock when I ordered and I had to wait an extra three weeks for delivery. I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the UPS guy rang the bell and the dog went berserk.
I’m not saying it’s a bad chisel. I don’t even know enough to properly judge it. It’s just that it might not be the right chisel for me.
So… am I wrong? Have I just not learned enough to judge tool quality? Or is the tool you use really the best chisel money can buy?
I’m open to suggestions.