Let me start off by saying I’m not an engineer, although I did flunk out of engineering school and join the Army. I’m also not a trained metallurgist, but I have done quite a bit of blacksmithing and tool making. In fact one of my homemade jobs made it into an issue of Fine Woodworking. So when I say I tested a batch of Irwin’s new version of the Blue Chips, think woodshop, not laboratory. My test criteria basically consisted of me sharpening the chisels and using them over the course of a day as I would normally use my own bench chisels. Then, given my experience using hundreds of chisels over the years as a cabinetmaker, I decided if I liked them. You know, do they stay sharp, do they hold up, are they worthy or are they paint can openers.
If you read my previous entry, then you know Irwin moved the manufacture of the Blue Chip chisels from Sheffield, England to China. Now, I’m not one to pass judgment on the global economy and all that, but I do want to provide our customers with good information and good tools. So into the shop I went with the new Blue Chips.
I spent about 4-5 hours sharpening and working with the new Blue Chips. I resharpened them as necessary. Mostly I chopped out the waste from dovetail joints in some cherry destined to become gift boxes. Cherry seemed to be a reasonable choice for a test wood since it’s fairly hard but not bone-crushing hard like purpleheart.
As with most mass produced chisels, it takes a few sharpenings to get a good idea of how they’ll hold an edge. This is because of decarburization. Decarburization occurs when steel is heat-treated and the carbon is burned away from the steel’s outer surface. Usually this weakened material is ground away after the tempering process, but not always. As a result, it typically takes a good flattening and a couple of sharpenings to see if a new piece of steel will hold an edge. This was certainly the case with the new Irwins. Initially some of the edges crumbled during the first few mallet blows. As expected, the edges held up better and better after the second and third sharpenings.
The handles have not changed. As far as I can tell, they’re still as durable as they ever were. One thing I did notice when comparing them to my old set of Marples is that they’ve shortened the smaller sizes somewhat. The 1/4” chisel was nearly a 1/2” shorter than the old model. The overall machining isn’t much different than the originals. I did find myself trying to be overly critical and nit picking at grinding marks. Truthfully, the backs of the Chinese Irwin’s were fairly flat and didn’t require much lapping. I started with a 220 grit Japanese stone, went to a 1000 grit stone and finished up with a 6000 grit polishing stone. In all it took less than 8 minutes per chisel to get them to where I was happy.
As far as edge retention, I can’t say that I was overly impressed. I’ve acquired some nice chisels over the years and have probably gotten spoiled. A set of Japanese chisels I have can be honed on Monday and stay sharp all week. Perhaps my expectations are too high. If you’re looking for a set of decent chisels for the job site or a starter set, then these new Irwins may be just the thing. Another set of chisels in the Irwin price range you should definitely look at is the Narex 6-Piece Bench Chisel Set (146012). Their wooden handles won’t hold up the rigors of hammer bashing like the Irwins, but the overall steel quality is certainly there.