An elegant weapon…

 

…from a more civilised age.

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I cut a lot of mortices.  Even something as simple as a little side table has at least eight.  One way to cut them is by boring out most of the waste with an auger, then paring out the remainder, but I could never get it to work right, especially with wood species with a strong disparity in density between earlywood and latewood (like pine).  I’d get the lead screw started, but then I’d hit one of those bands of latewood and it would push it off to the side, damaging the edges of my mortice.  About the only thing I could do was to use an auger that was waaay undersize, but then it took an extremely long time to pare everything down to the correct dimension.  But there is a quicker, more direct method.

These are mortice chisels from Ray Iles.  I would say I bought them here, but I didn’t.  Instead, my loving (and apparently scheming) wife managed three different scions of family so that I got these three chisels (1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″) for the winter solstice last year.  I had to restrain myself from sneaking off to find something to mortice…

I had a couple of vintage chisels with laminated blades that worked pretty well, but these new ones are extremely nice.  The D2 steel in them is the devil’s own to sharpen at first, but they hold up under the battering a lot better.  And bashing them about it the whole idea.

English style mortice chisels like these are colloquially known as “pigsticker” chisels.  They look kind of crude at first, almost like a shiv or something, but really they’re a very refined design.  See, these evolved to cut furniture scale mortices quickly, and with a minimum of fuss and kit.  The heavy blade can take heavy blows with a mallet to power through even tough woods, along with the long primary bevel (there’s a small secondary doing the actual cutting one that you may not see).  The very deep blade stays straight in the cut, while the oval handle helps keep it registered while you beat on it.  The other purpose of that long primary bevel is that when you get it deep in the mortice, it works with that deep blade to let you lever out most of the waste without having to mess with it much.  I can cut a mortice half again as fast with one of these as I can with an auger, and with less chance of bungling it.

So if you have a chance to try a mortice chisel, by all means do.  And if you then want to buy a mortice chisel, I definitely recommend these.  They are a well-executed continuation of a proven form, and almost too beautiful to use.

Almost.

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