Note: I added some more information today including shots of a some other mortise chisels. There are also some interesting comments submitted by readers below. Feel free to discuss in the comments section..
I’m Following up on a recent Twitter discussion (you can follow me @HKToolCo ) on making handles for traditional British “pigsticker” mortise chisels. I promised I would dissect one to see how the handles were attached. Granted, this is just one example, but I think it’s good evidence.
Here is the subject: a Marples 3/8in pigsticker with a broken handle.
The handle broke along the grain due to an off-center blow from a mallet. Judging by the mushrooming on the end of the handle it was used to being hit very hard. This handle didn’t have perfectly straight grain- it had some run-out along one edge. If you are making mortise chisel handle make sure to use riven stock and watch the grain!
Removing half the handle and leaving the bit in situ we see this:
(lots more on the next page)
There are a couple of things to note here: First, the hole in the handle is tapered . It is a rectangular hole to match the tapered rectangular tang of the blade. It was not bored with a drill, there are chisel marks or similar along the edges of the mortise. Also, the sides of the hole don’t match the taper of the tang perfectly. The tang has barbs cut into the corners of the soft steel tang with a chisel. These help prevent the tang from coming loose.
The bottom of the mortise is packed with what appears to be sawdust mixed with some sort of glue. it did not cut well with a chisel and was certainly not solid well. It had formed to the bottom of the tank. That, combined with the barbs on the tang made it very hard to remove.
With the chisel removed it’s clear there is evidence of charring along the edges and in the glue/sawdust bed at the bottom. I’d bet that the tang was heated and burned-in to the handle.
Two more examples:
The one on the right is a Woodcock mortise chisel, a lighter version probably sold as a sash mortise chisel. It has a boxwood handle with a bass ferrule. The one on the right is a F. Barnes & Co, Sheffield. It has an oak handle.
The Woodcock has a hole in the handle which is surely bored as the sides are very smooth. What’s interesting is that the tang was wrapped in thick wood shavings in order to make it fit snugly. I have no doubt this is the orignal handle.
The Barnes is a massive chisel with an oak handle. It has a much more crudely made hole for the tang and was not bored like the woodcock, or at least it shows some chisel work:
So, three examples, all different. This isn’t terribly surprising to me. After reading further, it’s clear that most makers (at least the big ones- Marples, Mathieson, Preston) sold these chisels unhandled, leaving it up to the user to attach a handle in whatever way they prefer. Mortise chisels were sold with handles, in your choice of beech or boxwood, but the price increased dramatically, doubling the cost of the tool in most cases.
More research is required, and more test subjects needed. I have a bunch of these around here somewhere. I’ll see what I dig up.