Esteemed Sheffield toolmakers Robert Sorby introduce a new range of bench chisels which Derek Jones puts to the test
The Robert Sorby Sheaf River Chisels
One of the chisels in use (PHOTOGRAPHS BY GMC/ANTHONY BAILEY)
It seems like an eternity since we had a complete new range of chisels from a UK manufacturer to rival those on offer from North America, Japan and Eastern Europe. I guess part of the reason could be that there have always been viable alternatives but not necessarily the interest to match and as they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Well now at last, the oldest surviving company of Sheffield tool makers - with 200 years in the business - have developed a range of bench chisels to change all that and we were happy to put them to the test.
Interestingly there's a couple of options to choose from, a traditional bolster and ferrule with leather seat or a tapered version more commonly associated with the overseas style of construction. Both have great appeal and I found it impossible to distinguish between the two for everyday use. There is perhaps a little more bite into the timber with the tapered version when struck with a mallet, but that's about it. In short, one design does not perform better than the other.
Choice of handle
The American ash (Fraxinus americana)
handles are well up to the job, by the way, and will resist becoming ragged around the top edge if used in this fashion for chopping out waste for pins or hinges. The shape and styling is traditional and in view of their intended use they are a touch on the bulky side for delicate work involving the smaller sizes; a common feature on all chisel sets with identical handles. There is a shorter butt chisel version that has a different feel altogether and will have its own uses. The compact design allows a lot of energy to be transmitted to the edge with greater control.
The sharp end
The business end will not disappoint. High carbon steel blanks incorporating a specially formulated alloy takes a good edge that, according to the chaps at Sorby, 'can be sharpened to 0.5 of a micron - four times sharper than a disposable razor.' The bevel edge tapers to around 2mm thick so you might look at regrinding these to prevent you from bruising the walls on dovetail sockets. Sounds drastic I know but you'll appreciate the difference and it might be worth buying in a spare specifically for this purpose.
There's no doubting their credentials as thoroughly useful chisels and in a way there's no need to say any more. However, in the premium chisel market there are signs that perhaps they are not as well finished as some of the competition out there. The grinding marks are very noticeable but where it counts they've got what it takes to easily go the distance. Robert Sorby's commitment to replace any tool that fails in the normal line of duty should be peace of mind enough.