Firmer, mortise, paring & ripping chisels

What is a firmer chisel?

Nowadays when we talk about firmer chisels we tend to think of a fairly stout chisel with parallel sides:

Marples catalogue 1938

.. but in the past the term ‘firmer’ had a broader meaning, covering a wide range of general purpose chisels.

It is not clear why the term ‘firmer’ came to be used to refer to these chisels – the OED says it is an Anglicized form of the French word “formoir” (to form) and other dictionaries say it derives from the French work “fermoir” (clasp).

One of the earliest written account of woodworking in English that we have is the Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Work written by Joseph Moxon, first published as separate pamphlets in the late 1670s1)the complete third version published in 1703 can be found here.   Moxon mentions four types of chisel: former, mortice, paring and ripping. On the “former” he says:

Formers marked C 1, C 3. are of several sizes. They are called Formers, because they are used before the paring chisels, even as the fore plane is used before the smoothing Plane…

The paring chisel marked C 2. must have a very fine and smooth edge. It’s Office is to follow the Former, and to pare off, and smoothes the Irregularities the Former made.  It is not knockt upon with the Mallet…(instead) the top of the Helve (is) placed against the hollow of the inside of the right shoulder, with pressing the shoulder hard upon the Helve, the edge cuts and pares away the Irregularities

Moxon p69

So for Moxon the ‘former’ is used with a mallet to roughly chop out material and the paring chisel is pushed with the hand and shoulder to make fine paring cuts to clean up the job.   Was the term “former” an old spelling, or could Moxon have simply got the name wrong?

Some evidence that former is an older term that was eventually displaced by firmer can be found in Richard Neves’s 1736 Builder’s Dictionary  which mentions a “Firmer or Former”  chisel in a list of chisel types:

The city and country purchaser and builder’s dictionary (1736)
The city and country purchaser and builder’s dictionary 

 

Although Moxon was not a carpenter by trade and might conceivably have got the term wrong (note the liassez faire attitude to spelling in the 18th century – both these extracts are from the same edition of the dictionary!) and it also possible that Neve simply repeated the mistake, I think the more likely explanation is that both terms were in use in the C17th.

It is now generally accepted that many of the etchings in Moxon’s book were based on illustrations from an earlier French publication, André Félibien’s Des Principes de L’architecture (1676), and indeed this book shows a similar range of chisels:

A. Ciseau, il y en a deux biseaux  B. ciseau de lumiere  C. fermoir ciseau  D. fermoir a nez rond  E. bec d’asne (Félibien p139)

Félibien’s descriptions do not seem to completely match Moxon’s, in particular the first chisel is described as having two bevels whereas Moxon clearly describes it as having a single bevel2)“basil” to use his term, so it is reasonable to ask whether the pictures of french tools matched exactly their counterparts in England.

This french/English dictionary from 1756 translates Fermoir ciseau (chisel C above) as  “joiners straight chisel”, which is rather unspecific perhaps suggesting a general purpose chisel:

Dictionnaire royal, françois-anglois et anglois-françois 

Again, we can’t be entirely sure, but let’s give Moxon the benefit of the doubt and assume the illustration is a fair representation.

Certainly this style of chisel, where the body of the chisel is flared so it is wider at the tip than the shoulder,  was in use in England in the late 18th Century and we can see examples in the Seaton chest3)this chest of tools was put together by Benjamin Seaton in the late 1790s – they were hardly used and have survived pretty much intact, albeit the flair is rather less exaggerated than in the illustrations above4)By the later part of the 19th century the sides of firmer chisels were more or less parallel ( actually, although they have apparently parallel sides they are typically slightly tapered in two directions:  they taper in thickness from bolster to tip,  they also taper in width, widest at the tip.  These two subtle features help prevent the chisel binding in the cut.).

A sketch of one of Seaton’s firmer chisels drawn by Peter Ross for The Tool Chest Of Benjamin Seaton (2nd edition)

One interesting feature of the firmer’s in Seaton’s chest is they are much thinner than the firmers we are used to today.   No doubt this was convenient for fine work where tight access was required, for instance cleaning up the inside the tight corners of a dovetail joint, but the obvious disadvantage is that they are not as strong as they might otherwise be, making them vulnerable to damage when hit with a mallet.  Indeed several of the Seaton chisels are broken5) of the 48 chisels in the chest, there were 31 firmers and the rest were mortice chisels or heavier socket chisels both types designed for heavy duty work.    The firmers are two very closely matched sets one made of solid cast steel and the other laminated.   Perhaps he needed so many because they tended to break!.

The bevelled edge firmer

By the second half of C19th  the bevel edge firmer was becoming popular in England.  Although today we tend to think of this as a distinct type of chisel separate from firmers, in the 19th century they were simply another flavour of this general category:

 

Charles Nurse – 1891

This design is a good compromise between strength and utility –  the narrow edges allow easy access into tight spots and the thicker section makes for a robust tool –  but the design complicates manufacture6)there is additional grinding needed and heat treatment is more difficult because the different surface area on one side to the other changes the rate the metal cools and can cause the tool to warp when it is quenched and this is reflected in the price.

Registered Firmer

Another unusual term that has carried over from the C19th is ‘registered firmer’.   A clue to there intended use is that they are often only offered handled and have 2 ferrules:

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A Mathieson catalogue (around 1900) shows a chisel with two ferules (one on the end of the handle) and a thick neck. The image refers to a “Ship chisel” (suggesting rougher work?) but the subsequent price list refers to “strong ship or registered chisels”:
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This Marples catalogue from 1928 shows a chisel with two ferrules and a leather washer
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So there you have it a “registered” chisel is a stout firmer chisel with an extra hoop that prevents splitting when struck with a metal hammer and with the optional addition of a shock absorbing leather washer.  All these adaptions were intended to make it stand up to heavy work.

Why call them “registered”?  I’m afraid I have not been able to find out – one commonly offered explanation is that it refers to a registered design pattern taken out to cover this style, but I have not been able to substantiate that.

that’s enough firmers!

Paring Chisels

Paring chisels are long and thin:

Marples 1921

As their name suggests these chisels are used for paring and as Moxon explains should not be struck with a mallet.

Although this is not obvious from the (presumably not to scale) illustration in Moxon’s book we can guess that the C17th versions must have been longer than average because of how he describes their being pushed with the shoulder, which would be rather awkward with a standard chisel, but is surprisingly convenient with a longer chisel allowing you to ‘sight’ down the length of the chisel and carefully control the extent of the cut.

The additional length also helps ‘steer’ the chisel giving more control for finer work, while their thin profile allows the blade to flex so further control of how it cuts can be obtained by pushing down on the blade and using the handle as a lever to control pressure at the cutting edge.

From the 2nd half of the C19th they were available with parallel or bevel edges, with the latter being more expensive.

Ripping Chisel

a term that has fallen out of common use, the ripping chisel is,  according to Peter Nicholson:

The Mechanic’s Companion,By Peter Nicholson (1842)

.. and Moxon:

Moxon

so a ripping chisel an old chisel used for rough work or as a wedge for separating planks of wood that have been nailed together.

Mortise Chisels

Another very old design, mortice chisels have a distinctive trapezoid cross section and are very strong, being designed to be hit hard when creating a mortice. In recent times in America these chisels have been given the amusing nickname ‘pig sticker’.

Another version, called the sash mortise after the sash window making trade  is lighter and suited to the softwoods typically used in house joinery:

The design is very old and Roman examples over 2000 years old have been found:

1st to 2nd century AD found in Regensburg

The chisel nearest the bottom of the picture is the mortise chisel.  This example has a socket to receive the handle (now lost), but the Romans also made tang chisels (the middle chisel above is an example and has a replacement handle).

That’s quite enough old chisels.  In the next post, a bit about a (relatively) modern chisel – the Ward & Payne Aristocrat.

 

References   [ + ]

1. the complete third version published in 1703 can be found here
2. “basil” to use his term
3. this chest of tools was put together by Benjamin Seaton in the late 1790s – they were hardly used and have survived pretty much intact
4. By the later part of the 19th century the sides of firmer chisels were more or less parallel ( actually, although they have apparently parallel sides they are typically slightly tapered in two directions:  they taper in thickness from bolster to tip,  they also taper in width, widest at the tip.  These two subtle features help prevent the chisel binding in the cut.
5. of the 48 chisels in the chest, there were 31 firmers and the rest were mortice chisels or heavier socket chisels both types designed for heavy duty work.    The firmers are two very closely matched sets one made of solid cast steel and the other laminated.   Perhaps he needed so many because they tended to break!
6. there is additional grinding needed and heat treatment is more difficult because the different surface area on one side to the other changes the rate the metal cools and can cause the tool to warp when it is quenched

3 thoughts on “Firmer, mortise, paring & ripping chisels

  1. Very good introduction to chisels – looking forward to the Ward and Payne Aristocrat and further adventures in chisels – how about the heavy duty socketed types, shipbuilding ‘slices’ and all-steel (woodworking) variants.

    As it happens, here in Sheffield I’m finishing off a couple of benches fitted with Parkinson Perfects (earlyish model with the long base) and a Syers, all working quite well (after I’d got a new spring from a broken 1960ish Record for one of the Parkinsons – fitted perfectly) – the Syers has their characteristic upward pointing spear head cast in with “T Syers London No 2A” stamped on the fixed jaw and “Patent No 412” (sic) cast into the handle.

    Why do you think Syers was not himself the inventor and/or patentee? – from memory of searches I made a couple of years ago, his family had been in the furniture making business, he ran short courses in workshop practice and described himself as inventor. Later he seems to have specialised in horticultural inventions (folding ladders, fruit pickers etc).

    Further “parallel lines” – I have two sets of Wards Aristocrats (plastic and wood handle) – and too many other chisels – it’s not as if I’m a fine cabinet maker, my making is mostly rather rough and ready.

    Rgds
    Danny
    ps – let me have your email if you want me to try to send pix of the vices or chisels.,

  2. I looked further at your vice info and see the patent on the Syers type – so seems he wasn’t the inventor, although you do leave the door a little ajar by referring to a mystery person in Keighley (or London???) so two inventions and Parkinson’s just over the hill – I have also come across another vice maker from Yorks/Lancs but can’t find my notes just now.

    The 1880s seem to have been a wood tool inventing decade also in the US – especially Connecticut and Chicago.

    There may have been an earlier decade – the 1860s (John Lee 1866 pat 68215, usa)- the second part of a wonderful book on the H.O.Studley Cabinet discusses in detail the vices used in the American organ and piano trade – not QR, but high precision things of beauty – many variants, all look similar and not a makers name on any. The book “Virtuoso” by Donald C Williams, 2015.

    thanks for this website/blog
    danny

    Time for someone to write a nice history of vices — why don’t you?

    • Syer’s did indeed have a business as a Cabinet maker in London and we know from the 1881 Cabinet and Furniture Maker ad that he was also the sole agent for the Smith and Marks vice.

      It is intriguing that two business in Keighley both patented a QR vice within weeks of each other, unfortunately I could only find an abstract for the Smith patent and it does not say who the inventor is so, for now, it remains a mystery. If you ever take your Syers/Smith vice apart I would be most interested to see the workings!

      cheers

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