Old Plastic-Handle Stanley Chisels

At one time, back in the 1960s/70s, Stanley (and a few other manufacturers) decided that whatever styles and shapes that had been perfected over the generations needed to be redesigned. So, in came a lot of plastic and new shapes.

Around that time  they produced a really snazzy black and yellow egg-beater drill, too, that I bought on an impulse. It came with all sorts of design awards………….

What I disaster that was.

Amongst the guys I worked with, I never lived that thing down. It didn’t work well at all – in fact, although it looked the part, all nicely rounded and shiny, it was very poorly made and soon bits started falling off it, starting with the screw that held the handle on. Eventually, I think I must have thrown it in the dock……….

But at the time we thought that a new design was all good stuff, at least I did, and that is how I came by four of their black plastic-handled chisels.

These Stanley 5001 chisels are some of the first woodworking tools that I bought, one at a time as I needed them, probably about 45 years ago. At the time Stanley still had a reputation for quality – at least in the UK they did, though I do confess to thinking that Record made better quality planes… but that’s another matter………

There are Stanley 5001 chisels still cropping up from time to time on the second-hand market, but mine were long ago relegated to scraping paint and hacking putty off windows. Which is a shame because under the rust and paint they comprise a decent piece of steel, capable of taking a good edge.

But those plastic handles…………………..

.Stanley 5001 (1)

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I don’t normally use brute force and hammers on chisels, unless they are cutting mortices and I use stout socket chisels for that sort of heavy work.

But these did a lot of garage work, before I had a proper workshop (or knew about sharpening properly) and as a result the plastic handles themselves are quite badly bashed and are starting to de-laminate in places. Frankly, they look a mess. Forty-odd years is a good innings for any tool handle, but I’m convinced that wood stays the course better than plastic.

In any case I decided to clean them up and fit some new wooden handles.

Stanley 5001 (2)

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Getting the handles off was a fight in its own right. I had seen example of these chisels with some very attractive wooden replacement handles on UK Workshop, a British woodworkers’ forum, so if others can do it, removing them in one piece is a possibility.

I originally posted a question about their effective removal and got a few helpful response.

One suggestion was to freeze them down in a deep-freeze for 24 hours, then deliver a blow to the (hopefully, by now) brittle plastic with a club hammer. Another suggested sawing them off short with a hacksaw, just above the tang, then cutting the stump downwards so that it could be dislodged with a few taps of a hammer.

This latter method had some merit because it indicated to me that the plastic handles  are a push fit on the tang rather than being hot moulded onto the metal. So, I decide to try getting them off on one piece in the same way that a conventional tang can be tapped off a wooden handle.

The method was to use one of the chisels to start to dislodge each of the handles and then finish with an old screwdriver. The chisels were inserted in the vice and by tapping the handles. I got the first one off and all became clear. When exposed, the tangs turned out, in fact, to be cylindrical rather than being tapered with a machined clench mark stamped onto the sides to prevent rotation. You can see this in the picture.

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Here they are removed. The appearance of the collar below the handle is tapered to suggest a socket chisel, but it’s all one piece; this taper provides a substantial shoulder about 5 mm wide all around so that a wooden handle, turned square on the end, will seat itself securely. In their original state they were assembled with a white plastic washer which I’m led to believe by Stanley experts has some sort of significance (the alternative being Yellow) but as far as I can see it was a plastic washer with little more than cosmetic function.

When removed and measured, I could see that each of the tangs on the four chisels are exactly 3/8″ in diameter and 1-1/2″ in length from the shoulder.

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First off, then, to get the remainder of the surface corrosion off. This is a bath of Corro-Dip rust remover where they will remain immersed for a day or two.

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I have a limited stock of Boxwood bits which I use for handles and small decorative pieces but in this case I decided to use Apple Wood. This small piece is from a tree that was cut down by my neighbour many years ago. It turns well, doesn’t splinter and absorbs shock well which makes it an excellent material for handles.

In the days of wind and water power, before steam and electricity, Apple and other suitable fruitwood were a traditional choice by mill-wrights to make replaceable gear cogs.

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With the Apple wood cut into  blanks, I’m marking the centre line right around each blank. When making handles on a lathe it is essential to establish a pilot hole for the tang that is on the centre axis of the piece. I will use this centre line to establish the axis of the handle so that it fits squarely onto the chisel.

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The easiest way is to drill the blanks on the lathe. First, the tool rest is aligned so that it is parallel with the drill. Next, at the lowest speed, a 1/4″ pilot hole is drilled, about 1-1/12″ deep, advancing the blank along the tool rest.

This is repeated for all the blanks, then the tool rest is removed and then, one at a time, the blanks are pushed onto the drill. Start/stop the lathe momentarily and as it coasts down, the dead centre of the opposite end will become clear – mark it with a pencil. When the blank is remounted for turning, the marked centre and the pilot hole is the true axis of the piece.

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The blank is remounted for turning and the edges knocked off with this roughing gouge. It soon reduces it to a cylinder.

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I decided to keep the new handles as close as possible to the shape of the original. The tang-end of the handle is on the tail stock, the rounded, head end is near the head stock and it has been turned to size. The skewed chisel gives a planing action to shape the handle. It remains now to turn it smooth, all down with the same tool and to burnish the handles with a handful of shavings.

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The chisels are out of the cleaner bath and here they are alongside their new handles, prior to being united. One thing that is unexpectedly clear is the darkened section below the shoulder of each chisel, which I can only explain as the extent of the original tempering process. Why It should suddenly become visible is unclear, but I found out subsequently that it polished out when I re-flattened the backs.

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The tangs are 3/8″ diameter. I selected a steel twist drill that is also the same size but as a precaution I drilled a test hole in a piece of scrap wood, just to test the fit. I was looking for a very tight friction fit the full length of the tang. This was precisely what I got.

The pilot holes are now re-bored with the correct size 3/8″ diameter drill – exactly 1-1/2″ deep.

These are going to be an exact, tight fit. There’s a real danger that the compression effect of air in the hole can split the wood handle when they are tapped home; to avoid this happening, I am running a small groove  down the side of each of the handles with a slim chisel to allow air to escape.

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The handles are assembled and the chisels are lined up to receive  the first of a few coats of oil.

Tomorrow I shall flatten and polish the backs before giving each a new edge. From being a set of old hacking chisels, these are probably good for another 40 years.

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4 comments
  1. It’s so pleasing to see these old tools restored to better than new by someone who clearly knows how to produce a quality result. I particularly like the thought you gave to relieving the air pressure from the socket. In an age where everything appears to be obsolete as soon as we have got it home, it is refreshing to see vintage things expertly given a new lease of life. Good clear photos as well :)

    • Nick,

      Thank you for your kind words. Those old Stanley chisels do contain some surprisingly good edge-holding steel for a tool of its class.
      I’ve learned from experience of the power of compressed air……… by my calculation the space occupied by the tang is a little over 3 cc, there’s enough compression there to split that handle like a carrot when it’s driven home!
      The same applies to joints. For maximum strength I like to have a smooth, close fitting tenon in the mortise; air pressure can force it apart in just a couple of minutes, so I usually put a small chamfer along one of the corners to let the ait out.

  2. Very nice job mate. I sometimes consider getting a lathe just for the ability to make handles. I have a set of plastic handled marples that would be much nicer in wood.

    • Patrick,

      Lathes are great fun. Why not have a go?

      Good quality tang chisels (without handles) from the 19th and 20th centuries are quite cheap on the internet. But most sellers fail to show the important part – the back of the blade near the tip. Ask for detailed photos of this part. If this is clear and free of pitting it can be flattened, cleaned up and new handles made. The steel in some of those old chisels was first class.

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