Got my first Lie-Nielsen. Why am I not excited?

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Blog entry by Steve Diogo posted 03-19-2014 03:11 PM 4660 reads 0 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I got my first Lie-Nielsen tool today: A ¾ inch bevel-edge chisel.

From everything I’ve read about Lie-Nielsen, I knew this would be an exciting day… a milestone that marked a new phase of working wood. I’ve lost hours looking at the Lie-Nielsen website and catalog, imagining the day I’d open my first LN box and hold the tool that would immediately jettison me into a new level of craftsmanship.

After reading a great blog series on building a quality tool collection slowly (sorry, I’ve lost the link), I decided I would take the author’s advice, and start with one high-quality chisel. While a full set of Lie-Nielsen chisels isn’t in my budget, it seemed reasonable to build a collection of the tools I really use, one by one. The author made an excellent point: I probably don’t need the full set anyway. He suggested starting with a set of two: three quarter and three eighths.

It made sense.

So a few weeks ago I plunked down my $60 plus shipping to replace the one chisel I reach for time and time again: My cheap ass 3/4-inch Harbor Freight chisel, which came in a set of six for 8 bucks.

These are the chisels I learned on: Cheap chisels that allowed me to learn how to chop, pare and, most importantly, sharpen, because I wasn’t afraid of damaging them. If I ruined one, I could replace the whole set for 8 bucks. Properly sharpened, these tools have served me well, and I’ve often wondered what there was to gain by upgrading. If using these was so enjoyable, then using better chisels must be bliss.

So far, my entire tool set is made up of used planes and vintage saws, vices, mallets, etc., cobbled together from Ebay and yard sales. I’ve enjoyed learning about the tools by taking them apart to clean and condition them. They work great, and I love the feeling of working with tools that carry the sweat and energy of other craftsmen. I have a mortise chisel from the 18th century that I regularly use, and I am awed every time I pick it up. Each time I use it, I wonder what this single chisel has made in 300 years it worked before finding my hand, how many people have used it. Who were they? What did they build? Is any of their work still around?

But still I’d find myself experiencing tool lust as I saw the gleaming Lie-Nielsens in other woodworkers arsenals, and I’ve dreamed of the day I’d get to use one. The sound of my 1940s Stanley No. 4 shicking across a board is sublime: What would it be like with a premium plane.

Don’t know yet, but I know my reaction to my Lie-Nielsen chisel: kind of flat.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s beautiful. The edges bevel to nothing. The back is dead flat. It’s mofo sharp without even honing it. The handle gleams.

But it doesn’t feel right. The balance is all wrong, which means it’s not like the one I’m used to. The handle is too small, too slick. I ran it along a piece of pine, then a piece of mahogany, and it cut beautifully. But so did my Harbor Freight. The only difference I could tell was that the LN felt wrong in my hand.

Then there’s the fear factor. I’m afraid to hone it. I’m afraid to drop it. I’m afraid to touch it. After working with it and looking at it for about 10 minutes, I put it back in its wrapping and laid in on a shelf, then picked up my Harbor Freight and continued working on my project.

I may return it.

I’m sure I can blame my disappointment on my level of expectation, which was only heightened by the fact that they were out of stock when I ordered and I had to wait an extra three weeks for delivery. I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the UPS guy rang the bell and the dog went berserk.

I’m not saying it’s a bad chisel. I don’t even know enough to properly judge it. It’s just that it might not be the right chisel for me.

So… am I wrong? Have I just not learned enough to judge tool quality? Or is the tool you use really the best chisel money can buy?

I’m open to suggestions.


16 comments so far

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile (online now)


16711 posts in 3394 days

#1 posted 03-19-2014 03:46 PM

Sounds trite, but “try before you buy?”

Those tool events, though definitely not for me, seem to be something you might ought to check out. Because you are right – if it doesn’t feel right in your hands, it’s not worth the money plunked down for a LV or LN or any other premium tool.

Good topic, good story. Thanks for posting.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. - OldTools Archive -

View Manitario's profile


2816 posts in 3659 days

#2 posted 03-19-2014 03:48 PM

The most important difference I find between my $10 department store chisel and my $200 japanese chisel is that the Japanese one holds an edge for a very, very long time. Also required much less tuning out of the box. Does that make it worth $190 more? Maybe. Does it satisfy my tool lust? Absolutely!

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View Furnitude's profile


380 posts in 4283 days

#3 posted 03-19-2014 04:10 PM

You raise some good points. Our expectations are often out of whack with reality. And sometimes we are on the lookout for the best possible when the good enough would be, well, good enough. It’s hard to know if something feels right when you have a limited point of reference. Maybe you should try to experiment with different kinds of chisels to see which ones feel right for you. Granted, that’s difficult because there aren’t any stores where you can walk in, and find a large range of premium tools (LN, LV, Blue Spruce, etc.) to check out. Do you have friends nearby who might have tools to try out? Are you involved with a guild or club? I’ve experienced the same issue with a premium chisel that I bought—I’m afraid to hone it. But you know what, that’s a fear that needs to be conquered. For your new chisel, if you spend some time getting used to it, I’ll bet you anything it will perform like a champ for decades. But if you just don’t like the feel of the tool and don’t want to use it as a result, I say return it. I believe Lie-Nielsen wants you to be genuinely happy with your purchases from them. That’s a win-win for them. Happy customers beget more customers. If you’re afraid to hone it, I say conquer the fear. Tools are meant to be used. Edge tools are meant to be honed. But if you feel everything falling short of impossible expectations, then you are never going to find the perfect tool. Find tools that will work for you, no matter the price level, age or premium status. Good luck.

-- Mitch, Also blog at

View theoldfart's profile


11643 posts in 3227 days

#4 posted 03-19-2014 04:11 PM

Steve, if the tool doesn’t have a good “hand” to it I’d return it. You won’t be inclined to use it if it doesn’t feel right.

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View Natalie 's profile


367 posts in 2742 days

#5 posted 03-19-2014 04:27 PM

I would agree with Charles. The reason to upgrade a hand tool like that is about the quality of the steel, and how well it holds an edge. I have a set of Marples, my starter chisels, and somewhere early on, I think I “burned” the steel, by letting it get too hot while sharpening it one of two of them. This makes the metal softer and I get chips and divots in them which take FOREVER to hone back to flat. I am sentimental about these and would hat to retire them, but I am really ready for a better set. I am more experienced now and think I can do right by a higher quality set of chisels.
Regarding the feel of the tool. Most tools are designed for hands bigger than mine and I have been known to take some material off the wooden handles of some tools to fit my hands better.

-- Natalie - My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I don't like to go there alone.

View Rob's profile


704 posts in 3847 days

#6 posted 03-19-2014 05:28 PM

I’m currently chisel-less, so I have to defer to the other comments here which say the quality of steel and the experience right out of the box are largely what you get for the premium price.

Regarding the fear issue, I think you just need to look back at the abuse you’ve put the HF chisels through and ask yourself, was there anything you did to them that you weren’t able to fix? If not, then I wouldn’t worry so much. But be sure to pick them up by the metal socket and not just by the wood handle, just in case the handle is loose (I got that tip from a LN video).

As far as the balance is concerned, I think whatever you’re used to is going to feel best. When you try a tool that is balanced differently, you’ll be like one of those suckers at the carnival who tries to ride the reverse-steering bike. It’s completely different from what you’re used to, so it’s all wrong.

If you keep the chisel you’ll probably get used to it over time, but it may still be a little disorienting to switch back and forth between your HF and LN chisels.

-- Ask an expert or be the expert -

View Mario's profile


195 posts in 4172 days

#7 posted 03-19-2014 05:40 PM

As a professional woodworker all I can say is buy it if you need it, indeed it is the steel quality, durability, and performance that set these apart. You might be able to execute beautiful work with the cheapest chisels, no doubt about it, but the time required to set them up for fine work is something you just can´t afford in a profesional shop. I have an old set of Buck Bros chisels used for trimming excess concrete, and they do feel right, but were never close in performance to the LN, Veritas, Blue Spruce, or japanese chisels. Sometimes you have to modify the handles or make new ones to suit specific challenges, honing is an almost daily task but still a lot easier on a well made tool. Play with it, get the best out of it and remember, it is a tool meant to be used.

View Brad's profile


1141 posts in 3516 days

#8 posted 03-19-2014 05:55 PM

I would echo Smitty’s try before you buy mantra. The Lie-Nielsen events are perfect for that purpose. And other posters are correct in my view. If it doesn’t feel good/right in your hand, you won’t use it.

However, I would submit that your chisel experience has been shaped by your use of HF only. I would suggest that you try the LN on some projects and see if you don’t change your mind. I’ve had that experience with some tools. My Stanley #3 seemed too small to me when I first used it, but it’s become a treasured smoother. My MFs #9 took a little getting used to the tote, but now I love what it does to smooth surfaces. Another example. I was getting good results from my LN #4, but not fantastic. I’ve learned a lot about setting up smoothers since I got it. So I tried putting a very mild camber on the blade, and dialing in the adjustment slowly. Now it does leave a fantastic finish.

My point is, I consider trying different tools by different makers part of the woodworking learning experience. And so I give them some shop time before giving up on them.

If your LN chisel still doesn’t feel right, then by all means return it. There’s no shame in using HF. I have some cheapie chisels that I love to use for chopping. For the same reasons you listed.

-- "People's lives are their own rewards or punishments."

View Texcaster's profile


1292 posts in 2450 days

#9 posted 03-19-2014 08:55 PM

I bought a complete Ulmia set when I started because that was the industry standard in L.A. at that time. Since then I’ve picked up many second hand chisels, some felt right others so so. I got used to all of them. A good chisel is a good chisel.

-- Mama calls me Texcaster but my real name is Mr. Earl.

View Steve Diogo's profile

Steve Diogo

89 posts in 2368 days

#10 posted 03-19-2014 10:17 PM

Excellent advice everyone. Tonight I’m going downstairs and honing that sucker, and then it’s mine. I checked out the LN site and it looks like I can get a longer handle, which I think will fix the feel problem. As always, I appreciate the advice and support! – s


View JayT's profile


6402 posts in 2987 days

#11 posted 03-19-2014 10:29 PM

I’d echo the others. My personal experience is that my couple of Two Cherries chisels felt very strange at first. Of course, it is mainly because the handle is a different shape than I am used to. I’ve kept using them because the steel is too darn good. The edge they take and how long they hold that edge is leaps and bounds better than my others (decent quality Stanley Baileys). As time has gone on and I use the Two Cherries more, they don’t feel so alien any more and are actually starting to feel comfortable.

One advantage you have with the LN is that it is pretty easy to change a handle on a socket chisel if you still don’t like the feel after using it some more. You just have to turn a new handle or have a friend turn one for you. You can’t do that as easily with tang chisels.

As for the fear factor. It’ll go away the first time you drop the chisel and have to regrind it. :-)

-- - In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

View Bigrock's profile


292 posts in 3738 days

#12 posted 03-19-2014 10:39 PM

I got real lucky and I was in a Woodworking Class a few years ago and another student had some L N Tools and he was nice enough to ask if I wanted to try one of his chisels. Yes, and I was hooked. I also tried his shoulder plane. You guessed it. I put then on my Christmas List. Great Tools are not cheap. What I liked was the weigh (not to heavy or to long) and the handles were easy to hold on the Chisels. The small shoulder plane stayed sharp and was also not too heavy. I can not handle L N large shoulder plane because it is too heavy. Please pick and choose the tools that you need and feel good to you.
Enjoy Woodworking

View changeoffocus's profile


467 posts in 2393 days

#13 posted 03-19-2014 10:45 PM

I enjoyed your story, you may have a bit of buyers remorse or maybe don’t feel you are not worthy of such a nice tool. I thought the replies were quite informative and I was glad to see you made the final decision to enjoy what you’ve earned.
I know for a fact the buying the best of tools cannot guarantee me being a good mechanic (a word from my trade)
but there are far worse things to purchase than good tools because they last a lifetime and you a less likely to abuse them.
It’s for sure you are a very good story teller.

View Lynn Bradford.'s profile

Lynn Bradford.

71 posts in 2638 days

#14 posted 03-19-2014 11:48 PM

A great topic, and fantastic discussion. The elite will let you believe that brand is everything. I saw a video of Paul Sellers (50 years at the trade) showing how to tune up a cheap set of chisels he bought, for the purpose of showing us young ones that price has little do domwith it.

I used to read in the forums how a Crapsman (Craftsman) table saw was junk. I feel using mine now for 14 years, that any tool worth its salt has tune-up procedures in the manual. Open the box, and tune up the tool: Harbor Freight, Crapsman or whatever. Be proud of what you use.

-- Lynn Bradford | Indiana | A poor excuse is better than none.

View Chris McDowell's profile

Chris McDowell

644 posts in 2929 days

#15 posted 03-29-2014 10:00 PM

Very interesting read. It’s gotta be just that you are used to the harbor freight ones. It’s probably similar to something like driving a stick shift. You learn how to do it and get comfortable in your own car. Then you drive someone else’s car that is stick shift and it feels very strange. The clutch feels different, the shifter may have more play in it, etc. But after a few hours, you get used to it. I say keep it and just give it some time.

-- Chris, , FACEBOOK: , Proverbs 16:9

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