Sharpening Cheap Chisels, Is It Really Worth It?

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Forum topic by 18wheelznwood posted 03-11-2021 10:56 PM 2095 views 0 times favorited 33 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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146 posts in 279 days

03-11-2021 10:56 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question chisel sharpening

A dear friend of mine bought me a set of “budget” chisels for Christmas. So far I believe I’ve spent around 4 times the value of the set in sharpening supplies trying to get them in decent shape. Being new to the finer points of woodworking, ie sharpening, I think I’m learning an expensive lesson here. I initially started out buying several grits of water stones and some stropping supplies. After 3 hours on one 1” chisel with the 600 grit stone I was making little progress just flattening the back. I’m not dumb and realized that this was going nowhere fast and wearing out a perfectly good waterstone. So I bought a “Scary Sharp” float glass and sheet abrasive sharpening system.

The top chisel is one of the untouched ones and the bottom is the result of about 3 hours of work today. It is now razor sharp and easily sliced paper. Another of life’s little lessons I guess.

33 replies so far

View Loren's profile


11277 posts in 4897 days

#1 posted 03-11-2021 11:26 PM

Well, in my experience only relatively expensive chisels retain the edges longer than cheap ones. Of course you can get a lemon that isn’t properly hardened but most cheap chisels are probably adequately heat treated. I haven’t tried Narex or brands in that price range, only cheaper chisels and ones in the $50 per chisel and up range. I have a set of Marples butyrate chisels that weren’t that hard to bring to working condition with a Makita wet grinder but also a cheap set of Amazon chisels I was sent to review which I sharpened on diamond plates and honestly the Amazon chisels aren’t worth the work to me. You can prepare chisels on a $10 oil stone though, maybe not well enough for fine woodworking but well enough for carpentry.

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Bob Gnann

143 posts in 922 days

#2 posted 03-11-2021 11:57 PM

Budget chisels are made with budget steel. Sorry to say that but yes one of life’s lessons. I bought a of mid priced Craftsman chisels 20 years ago and they sharpened up well, so I thought. About 5 years ago I found a set of Stanley chisels made in USA still sealed in their hanger cards at a yard sale. These chisels sharpened up razor sharp in about an hour for the set of six. At least you got a tool box set for rough work out of it. And when you get that good set you’re all practicesed up on sharpening!

-- Bob Gnann. "Don't cloud the issue with facts.". Groucho Marx

View splintergroup's profile


5887 posts in 2471 days

#3 posted 03-12-2021 12:17 AM

Even if they are cheap (and you can spare the time to tune them up), as Bob says it is nice to have a set of chisels for carpentry around the house.

They are also nice to leave in a visible location for when the wife goes looking for something to pry open a can of old paint 8^)

View 18wheelznwood's profile


146 posts in 279 days

#4 posted 03-12-2021 12:23 AM

These chisels are definitely going to be my beater chisels! Had my eye on a nice 4 pc Narex starter set before I was given this set. I’ll get them eventually.

View Sycamoray's profile


101 posts in 489 days

#5 posted 03-12-2021 12:40 AM

I can’t agree with the assertion that budget chisels are made from budget steel. In fact, lots of “high end” steel is budget steel which has been held to exacting spec during manufacture. The problem is that budget chisels may have been hardened and tempered unevenly, and/or may be shaped like a banana. Plus, the maker hasn’t ground them with any care. The low budget price is a result of inadequate QC; with the exception of the latest powdered metals, the costly chisels aren’t made from expensive steel.

I bought a set just like yours 15 years ago. I still use them. Like you, I spent a stupid long amount of time sharpening them the first time. I also ground the sides to match my most common dovetail angle, cut off the plastic handles and slapped on some dogwood because that’s what I had on hand. For me, it was worth the effort because every subsequent sharpening has been easy and they work perfectly fine.

View SMP's profile


4849 posts in 1155 days

#6 posted 03-12-2021 12:44 AM

Cheap chisels are a great place to learn to sharpen and hone and change angles etc for different tasks. And to build skill. Paul Sellers uses a set of cheap chisels from Aldi and they work for him.

View RClark's profile


174 posts in 3434 days

#7 posted 03-12-2021 02:08 AM

Here’s a pic of the difference between cheap chisels and better chisels.

On the left is a Stanley “Fat Max” chisel and on the right is a Narex chisel. Both see relatively same usage, both are ground to same bevel angle. The Stanley starts out just as sharp, but quickly loses its edge, and quickly gets messed up in the process.

When I’m woodworking, the Narex is the go-to. Rough carpentry and repair tasks around the house? Stanley and the Craftsman.

-- Ray

View bandit571's profile


29749 posts in 3932 days

#8 posted 03-12-2021 03:56 AM

Sometimes…the ONLY thing that feels “Quality” is one’s wallet….bought 2 sets of Aldi’s chisels…first set was right when they came out….$7 for 4. still in hard use…..used one yesterday…the other set is 2 yrs newer, still going strong….I also have a bunch of vintage chisels….Witherby, Butcher, Buck Brothers ( BEFORE there was a Home Depot) have found no difference between the vintage and the Aldi’s…..My Mortise chisels are narex, and the vintage ones….and a 12mm from Japan.

“Rough Carpentry”? That used to be, for me…Stanleys, the No. 60s, with the yellow plastic handles….

Some that complain of the “hours, and hours spent”.......makes me wonder just what ARE they doing…as that job should only take LESS than 1/2 an hour for the really bad ones…...must be taking coffee breaks while changing out stones….?

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View tvrgeek's profile


2292 posts in 2898 days

#9 posted 03-12-2021 10:25 AM

By the time you get them all tuned up, you will know what grits to use. Even very good tools don’t come ready to use. better, but not ready. The back is always the longest part, but you should only need to do it once. Quality of the paper matters a lot. Cheap paper gets dull and quits cutting fast.

From my preferences:
You are not there yet. The back ( only the last inch) should be a mirror. Not shiny scratches, mirror like a glass mirror.
It looks like the edges right at the tip are a little rounded. Maybe just the picture. I start on the backs with 420 paper, then 600, 1200, diamond plate, 2000, 3000 paper on glass.

Your primary bevel is too shiny, but has deep scratches. The primary does not need to be polished, but no scratches. So that means your micro-bevel would need to be a milli-bevel. My micro bevel is just 3 or 4 strokes by hand on 3000 and then strop. Strop is critical. Some use leather, some use a bit of MDF, loaded with green stropping compound. I did not realize how critical it was until recently.

There are cheap chisels. Handy for ugly jobs. Good inexpensive chisels. (I have a set of Marples) And then really good chisels. I have one new Narex 1/2 inch as that is the size I grab most often, and several older ones I inherited from my grandfather. I did not quite get the difference between good and great, but there is one and it is worth it. But, if you need to trim a bit of oak flooring or shoe mold on a repair job, you really want that cheap chisel and you want it sharp.

View PBWilson1970's profile


220 posts in 643 days

#10 posted 03-12-2021 02:07 PM

My take on affordable chisels is that the steel is pretty good, but the fit and finish may be not so hot.

There are a few companies using higher quality (and performing) steel but the chisel and plane blade community has a ways to go until they get into some of the super steels found in higher end knives these days. There’s usually a trade-off when you’re using some higher end steel, which is that some may be a bear to sharpen and some may chip rather than roll if you hit something hard and you’ll be spending a bit of time repairing to get them back to tip-top shape.

I kinda wonder if a reliable and quick sharpening system is the way to go. If you can go from reasonably dull to shaving sharp in under a minute or two, does it really matter what kind of steel you have? I’ve settled into a setup that works for me: hollow grind on the grinder, go through my four diamond sharpening stones and finish on a strop. Once I have it in my Lee Valley honing guide, the stone and strop work goes super fast. Back to work in no time!

-- I love the smell of sawdust in the morning.

View Axis39's profile


549 posts in 846 days

#11 posted 03-12-2021 02:27 PM

I like what PBWilson1970 says.

I have a pile of chisels. Some inherited from two generations. Some bought new. Some bought used. Some are inexpensive beaters, some are mid-priced and there’s a mixed set of Japanese chisels my wife bought me for Christmas last year.

I ma a big fan fo the vintage chisels I own and the Japanese chisels. I use them more than any fo the newer stuff in the shop. Bit, if I am going out on the jobsite to do any kind of rough work, the beaters come out.

I keep my beaters sharpened to 1k on a diamond stone. I picked up a set of Kobalt chisels while in the midst of a move, had stuff packed up and needed to do a repair. I just cleaned them up again the other day.

For years, I used the scary sharp system… on a budget. – piece of granite and a bunch of wet/dry paper. I used that set up for years! So, don’t think of it as spending more money than the chisels. Think of it as an investment into sharpening you’ll use for years ot come on other tools, too.

-- John F. SoCal transplant, chewer uppper of good wood

View therealSteveN's profile


8923 posts in 1823 days

#12 posted 03-12-2021 03:39 PM

I have a huge assortment from some low dollar Stanley yellow plastic handles from back in the 70’s that I used to set doors, hinges, and whatnot with as a Carpenter, to a few Japanese high dollar tools. Off the top I’d suggest Lee Valley PM-VII’s for mid to high priced, and as a good chisel starting out.

If you buy I never suggest “Kits” where you get many sizes. I say buy different brands, and a size that you need right then. Having an assortment off the start will help you understand faster what you like, because they are all chisels, yet vastly different, even among the same type, say bench chisels. Each brand will have different balance, weight, edge, shoulders, solid tangs, or partials. All will affect the use.

I would suggest trying both Japanese, and Western, both have different qualities. If I had to say I’d think the Japanese, at least what I have last longer between required touch ups. I do have some low dollar Japanese chisels as well as some high dollar, and feel that extends across the board.

I use a Worksharp most of the time, though I have grinders, and water stones, oil stones. I find the WS get’s me back to ready a LOT quicker than anything else I have tried, Literally 5 seconds can renew an edge, so I can go another hour or so, and I’ve never seen anything do a secondary bevel as fast as the WS.

-- Think safe, be safe

View dschlic1's profile


515 posts in 3219 days

#13 posted 03-12-2021 06:31 PM

I would say that you need to use a coarser grit to start with to flatten the backs. If you need to remove a lot of material, start coarse and work your way up. In any case like others said, it only needs to be done once.

I have two sets of chisels: a Harbor Freight set and a Narex set. Both take an excellent edge. With the Narex chisels, I find that they last longer before needing touching up. On that point I have found that frequent honing is all that this needed. I rarely need to re-establish the bevel.

View MrRon's profile


6188 posts in 4492 days

#14 posted 03-12-2021 07:17 PM

It’s all about the steel. Low carbon steels just won’t take an edge. It’s the same as kitchen knives; no matter how much you try to get a sharp edge on a knife, it just won’t get sharp. That doesn’t necessarily mean expensive chisels or knives are better. I found cheap kitchen knives in an oriental grocery, around $5.00 that are incredibly sharp and keep their edge. They are easily kept sharp with a few swipes on a diamond stone. You can find the same in chisels, but it takes time to experiment with different brands to find the one with the right steel. Off course the edge angle is different with knives and chisels. Knives have a more acute angle and can get a sharper edge, but the steel has to be able to withstand the thinner edge, so a high carbon steel is needed. Chisels have to withstand more punishment than a knife. I would suspect a HSS would be best. It would be harder to sharpen, but would hold it’s edge better than a low carbon steel. I am not an expert on steel, but found by experience which steel works and which doesn’t. The steels used in traditional Japanese chisels and knives are about the best there is, but usually very expensive, but fairly inexpensive ones can be found.

View Lazyman's profile


8004 posts in 2636 days

#15 posted 03-12-2021 08:09 PM

It is funny. I bought two 4-piece sets of the yellow handle Harbor Freight $7 chisels a few years go to use a beaters. They actually take and hold an edge better than the Marples set I bought from Garrett Wade 35 years ago so I often reach for those first, even for finer work. Sure, the side bevels are uneven but that has never prevented them from working well.

EDIT: One more thing. If you are just learning to sharpen, better the mess up the edge of a cheap tool than an expensive one and have to remove a bunch of expensive steel to fix it.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

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