Six of One, Half a Dozen of a Dead Horse

Christopher Schwarz, the editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, has again posted another intriguing blog post. This one is about the best wood for chisel handles. I posted a response, and I’m content with what I said, but the more I think about the question he posed an answer to it doesn’t really seem helpful.

In the interest of that full disclosure thingy that everyone seems obligated to say before they give an opinion, I have to say that I have met Christopher Schwarz briefly at a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event a couple of years ago and that we have exchanged a couple emails in the past four or five years in response to his blog postings, but Mr. Schwarz wouldn’t recognize or remember me if he had to pick me out of a lineup. Oh, and I subscribe to his magazine; for now.

Mr. Schwarz’s question is essentially this: What is the best wood or woods for a chisel handle and what is the scientific basis for that designation and what else can you do to keep a handle from splitting? After careful consideration an answer became evident. It depends, none, and not much.

Commonsense dictates that a tougher wood, such as hickory, makes a good chisel handle. It takes a lot of punishment, is readily available, and is fairly easy to work. I don’t have any scientific information to bear this out, but do I need it? Hickory has been a preferred wood for tool handles for hundreds of years, so that’s good enough for me. Will it split while you are using your chisel? Eventually, yes. What can I do to prevent it splitting? Choose clear, straight grained wood and maybe glue some leather on the handle for your mallet to bang against, but otherwise it will split eventually.  Locally, you might have a better alternative to hickory, such as osage orange or persimmon. You might have a worse alternative, such as red oak, but it probably will get the job done. A good piece of red oak will outlast a bad piece of hickory, so we shouldn’t get caught up in which species is supposedly the “best”. The best is really the best available to you at the time, and I can live with that.

On one level, I don’t want to know the answer to Mr. Schwarz’s questions. It will probably lead to a run on whatever wood gets chosen. Everybody will run out and buy wood “x” to make their chisel handles from rather than letting nature take its course and let their old handles wear out. It might even lead to an endangered species. The Schwarz Effect has been documented.

I’m reminded of a line from an old book I once read about woodworking. It might have been Randolph Johnston’s The Book of Country Crafts. In it the author describes making a handle for some tool and says something to the effect that everyone talks about the superiority of hickory, but “we will ‘make do’ with ash”. You can practically here the disdain in the author’s voice that people would turn their noses up at a perfectly serviceable wood like ash just because something else is believed to be superior. Again, the best wood is the best wood you have available. Support your local sawmill.

I hope Mr. Schwarz finds a satisfactory answer to his question. Scientific progress is a good thing. But there are some questions that lead to dead ends, though they seem important at the time. In the movie The Name of the Rose, the reason that the main character, William of Baskerville, is at this monastery in the 13th century was to try to debate the answer to the question did Jesus own His own clothes.  On one level it has a bearing on the vows of poverty the Franciscan monks and others took, but compared to the rest of Jesus’ teaching and influence it seems a pretty minor point. That’s how I see this question.

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