Owning a top quality set of bench chisels is a dream of many woodworkers. What is considered by many as the best set of chisels available, Lie-Nielsen’s set of 5 chisels cost $340 online. For many of us that’s much more than we want to spend. Luckily, there are plenty of inexpensive, yet good quality bench chisels available. One of the better buys is Irwin’s boxed set of six chisels. Online you can find them from about $55 to about $70. The only problem with them is they come with these horrible Polypropylene handles. Not only are they uncomfortable–they have a sharp seam and they feel slimy–they are plain butt ugly. With some minor effort you can turn these ugly cheap chisels into a set of high end looking and performing tools. All you need to do is replace the handles and tune up the blades a little. I did that to mine. Here’s how I did it.
The photo is from Rockler’s website. My set was identical. The box is pretty cheesy, but that can always be upgraded too.
The first thing you have to do is remove these ugly handles. They are made of polypropylene and are tough to remove. The easiest way I found was to cut a slice in all four side with a cut-off wheel and then wiggle the blade out. Another way to do it is to head the blade enough right by the handle until it comes loose. But this could take the temper out of the blade so I would use the cutting method.
As soon as you start cutting the hand starts to melt and cotton candy starts flying every where. It’s messy and stinks.
Here is the mess from just one cut.
All four sides are cut and I’m moving it back and forth while pulling.
Though they look like socket chisels, they aren’t. For a wood handle you’re going to need a ferrule to keep the handle from splitting. That tang is about 1 3/4″ long. Let’s make the handle.
I started with 1 1/4″ stock. I used some scrap cherry and cut it 1 1/4″ square by 7″ long. The original handles are about 4.5 inches long. I wanted my handles a little longer, 5 3/8″ long. 7″ is just long enough to give you room to turn the end of the handle and part it off. Use a four jaw chuck to firmly hold the square stock.
Lock in the handle stock but don’t support it at the other end.
Turn the handle to 1 1/8″ or what ever thickness you’re comfortable with.
Now turn the end for the ferrule.
Make the cut for the ferrule 1/2″ long.
I used a piece of 3/4″ ID copper plumbing pipe as the ferrule so I cut the end to 3/4″ diameter.
Just cut a 1/2″ long piece of 3/4″ ID copper pipe.
Clean up the bur on the inside of the cut and finish the ends on a disk sander.
Slip the ferrule on….
. . .and gently tap it home.s If you have to tap it too hard you might knock the handle off center in the chuck. If it doesn’t slide on easily, turn the end down a bit more and try it again.
The shank on the chisel is 3/8″ in diameter. Use a drill bit the next size smaller. Carefully drill about an 1/8″ deeper than the tang is long. Be sure the handle is still centered in the chuck. Move the bit into the turning stock very slowly until the bit gets started.
Now measure the length. I made mine 5 3/8″
Cut enough wood away so you can get a tool in there to round the end.
Start to shape the handle and cut down to the ferrule.
Before you cut the handle off sand it.
Once you finish sanding and remove the handle, square the end up. Or you can square it while it is still in the chuck.
All done. Insert the chisel.
Remember that cheesy box these chisels came in? It needs some minor modifications. The ferrules don’t fit in the slots. Make them bigger.
Here they are with the handles finished. Don’t they look better?
The blades of these chisels were very well made. They needed just a quick polishing of the backs to make them perfectly flat, and then a quick honing and stroping. I also added a secondary bevel. I have another set of these same chisels and one thing I found was that the hardning was inconsistent. You may have to anneal them with heat. Then reharden and temper them. This is not uncommon. I have drawers full of Pfiel carving chisels and most of them were perfectly hardened, but a few of them wouldn’t hold and edge long so I rehardened and tempered those few gouges. Now they hold an edge fine.
Here are some other ideas for handle shapes and designs.