It was unexpected serendipity that my first assignment with Pro Tool Reviews was to review Irwin’s Marples Brand Bevel Edge Woodworking Chisels. While my working arsenal of chisels numbers about eighty these days, some 39 years ago the first accession to this collection was an eight-piece set of Marples Bevel Edge Chisels – albeit with boxwood and not plastic handles. They have served me faithfully these many years and will serve a generation or two of Conover’s after me. While eighty may sound like I am a hoarder, many in the array get used frequently and the remainder occasionally. That is to say that one can never have too many chisels, for I have a good many beyond the eighty that I simply enjoy owning.
William Marples and Sons, Ltd were founded in 1828 in Sheffield, England. Sheffield is a city long associated with high-grade steel, hence the large number of famous English edge tool manufacturers located in the area. Marples was always known for producing a solid professional tool at a reasonable price. Sadly, English edge tool manufacturers fell on hard times during the late 20th Century due to Asian competition and English labor unrest. Marples was no exception, and in the mid 1990′s, Irwin purchased the company. Irwin is part of Newell Rubbermaid, a global conglomerate.
Historically, bevel edge chisels are a fairly recent innovation that evolved around 1820. They are a modification of a firmer chisel, which has a rectangular shape that tapers from the shank to the cutting edge. Beveling the edges was an improvement over the firmer chisel making it better for cutting dovetails. The bevel edge gave better access when cutting half-blind dovetails. The bevel edge design quickly became popular for bench work, and the Maples’ shape became iconic. Sometime in the 1980s, the company began offering their bevel edge chisels with a plastic, blue handle.
I once broke my 1/8” chisel and could only find a replacement with the plastic handle, which I removed and fitted with the original boxwood handle. Removing the old handle was quite a chore requiring a hacksaw and finally, acetone to remove the plastic. This brings up the construction style of the chisel itself, which is a shouldered tang that is embedded in the handle. I suspect the modern handles are molded around the chisel while the tang was forced into an undersized hole surrounded by a metal ferrule in the wooden handle.
Western style chisels are offered in two lengths: bench and butt. Bench chisels are longer and supposedly better suited for bench work such as cutting dovetails. Butt chisels are shorter and better suited for a carpenter working in the field. The shorter length allows for the tool to be carried in a belt pouch and makes cutting hinge and lock mortises in confined spaces easier. Oddly enough, many woodworkers, myself included, use Japanese Oire-Nomi chisels because they hold edges for an incredible amount of time. Oire-Nomi can be translated to mean “butt chisel” and they are shorter than Western bench chisels. I find the shorter length handier for all work.
Although Irwin has long made a blue plastic handled bevel edge chisel, they recently revived the Marples name. The chisels, however, are made in China, which has niggled the woodworking community. In defense of China, making a high carbon steel chisel is hardly rocket science, and Irwin has retained the look and feel of the original Sheffield model (see photo). Although I didn’t perform a Rockwell hardness test on Irwin’s chisels, the amount of effort required on the sharpening stones leads me to believe that they are about the same as my original. The company claims RC 58 to RC 61 on the Rockwell C Scale, which is the traditional hardness range of English manufacturers for keen edge tools.
As part of the “new Marples” rollout, Irwin is offering them in three styles. The traditional bench model with the time honored blue plastic handle is what I actually tested for this article. Irwin dubs this a Woodworkers Chisel. The second style is called a Construction Chisel and is the same blade with a larger handle that is capped with a steel plate to better resist very heavy pounding. Having severely pounded a good many blue handle chisels (and even my boxwood handled models) I would not waste the money on this tougher handle. Also Irwin does not offer the Construction Chisel in 1/8”, a size absolutely necessary for half-blind dovetails.
I found one improvement in the Irwin Marples Chisels over the original. My 1973 vintage chisels are the nearest size in millimeters to the listed inch size. This is a common practice for large manufacturers producing for a global market. My original Sheffield Marples 1” chisel (see photo 1) is 25mm or .984”. The new Irwin Marples is 25.476mm or 1.003”. For jobs such as inletting a lock or a hinge made in the imperial system (pretty much all of my work), having my chisel match a given inch width is most useful!
Irwin offers the traditional bench chisel in ten sizes ranging from 1/8” to 2”. The Construction and High Impact Butt are offered in nine sizes ranging from ¼” to 2”. Yes these chisels are made in China, but they exhibit the same level of quality and workmanship I got 39 years ago from Marples’ Sheffield model. Irwin offers the new line in a wide array of packaging, ranging from bubble packs and nylon wallets to wood boxes. Street pricing for an 8 piece set (the largest offering) of the Traditional Woodworker seems to be about $85, but I would buy the additional sizes at the outset. This will run you approximately $25 more, but the 1-½” and a 2” sizes are most useful! Irwin’s new Marples Chisels are a good choice for the working carpenter or the woodworker who needs a good, serviceable chisel at a reasonable price.
Ernie Conover is a veteran woodworking author with nine books, many videos and hundreds of articles to his credit. Ernie is also a lathe designer having developed his own lathe, and worked on the designs of the Nova and the Powermatic 3520b. When not writing, lecturing or consulting he is active in providing academic oversight and teaching at Conover Workshops—a craft school founded by the Conover family.