Evaluation of a Lee Valley PM-V11 Chisel

P. Michael Henderson
Tests performed 7/25/2012, 7/26/2012, 8/19/2012 with the pre-production chisel and on 9/8/2012 and 9/9/2012 with the production chisels

I expressed interest in the new Lee Valley PM-V11 chisels on the Saw Mill Creek forum because I teach hand cut dovetails and am constantly looking for better chisels for chopping them out (ones that will hold an edge longer).  Rob Lee saw my post and contacted me to offer an evaluation chisel, with the request that I provide feedback on the performance of the chisel.  I accepted, and Rob sent me a pre-production PM-V11 3/8" chisel.

I evaluated that chisel and found that it performed only slightly better than an A2 chisel.  I wrote up my evaluation on a web page and sent the link to Rob.  Rob subsequently contacted me to tell me that my experience was very different from what LV was experiencing in their lab.  He expressed concern that the pre-production chisel they sent me had not been properly hardened.  He explained that they had a bunch of chisels which were being used for packaging evaluation and other things, and those chisels had not been heat treated. Perhaps I had been sent one of those.  He then sent me another PM-V11 3/8" chisel and a LV carbon steel 3/8" chisel.  I performed the same testing with those new chisels, and the results of that second testing are presented here.

Some of the pictures in the evaluation below are of the initial pre-production chisel, but the production chisels are exactly the same, except for the heat treatment.

My evaluation focuses only on the the performance of the chisel in chopping out wood, such as for dovetails.  Please keep this in mind when reading this evaluation.  Your needs may be different and you should evaluate various chisels to see how they meet your specific needs.

The chisels I received were packed in a plastic package as shown below. 

The ends of the chisels appear to have been dipped in a plastic product to protect the edge.  The chisel is not coated with lacquer or any other preservative (which is good).

I checked the width and it's exactly 3/8".

The chisel is 7/64" thick on the cutting end.

The blade tapers in thickness to 3/16" near the handle.

The width of the chisel is constant (3/8" for this one) all the way up the blade.  The sides of the chisel are angled at about 75* on both sides.  Most dovetails have sides that are about 7* (8:1) so the chisel should work fine for chiseling out half blind dovetails (the dovetails would have to have more than a 15* angle for the sides to be a problem, and 15* would cause the sides of the tails to be too fragile).  Note that the angled sides go all the way down to the back of the chisel. There's no flat on the side of chisel.  This is a good thing for dovetail use.

The 3/8" chisel weighs 2.9 oz. or about 82 grams.

The overall length of this chisel was slightly more than 9 1/2" long.  The handle is about 5" long and there are two flat spots on the upper and lower face of the handle (Upper and lower face means in reference to the orientation of the cutting edge).  This might help orient the chisel in your hand and possibly keep it from rolling off the bench.

The blade is about 4 1/2" long.

Let me discuss chisel handles for a moment.  Here's a sample of some of my chisels and the Lee Valley (LV) chisel.  From bottom to top they are: Lie-Nielsen (LN) handle that came with the LN chisels; a LN 1/8" chisel with a shop made handle of ebony (same size as the original LN handle); the LV chisel; a LN 3/8" chisel with a shop made handle (cocobolo); and a Blue Spruce 1/2" chisel with a shop made handle (bloodwood).

For my hand, the LN chisel handle is way too small.  It's not too bad on a small (narrow) chisel like the 1/8" but for larger chisels it's very uncomfortable in my hand.

The LV chisel handle fits my hand well, reaching to the heel of my hand - and I think my hand is about average size.

The handle I made for the 3/8" LN chisel is a bit too long.  I was probably over-reacting to how short the stock LN handles were.  I use these handles fine but a bit shorter would be better.

The LV chisel is a tang chisel, while the LN chisels are socket chisels.  When I first started making chisel handles for my tools, I preferred socket chisels because I felt they were easier to make handles for.  But the LN socket chisels have a problem - they're too well made in the socket area.  The socket is an exact taper and smooth on the inside of the socket.  Handles just don't stay in the sockets well.  Old socket chisels had much "rougher" sockets.  The taper was not perfect and the inside of the socket was quite rough from manufacture.  Old chisel sockets often look like they were hand made, and irregular.  This roughness helped keep the handle in the socket.

With the LN chisels, I had handles come out of the sockets many times while using the chisels (and sometimes the blade would fall to the floor - cutting edge first, of course - requiring major re-sharpening). I finally had to epoxy the handles into the sockets to be sure they'd stay in.

Additionally, I learned to make handles for tang chisels and was surprised at how easy it was.  The secret is to drill the hole for the tang before turning the handle.  Once you do that, making a tang handle is easy.  The Blue Spruce chisel in the above picture is a tang chisel - I made a bloodwood handle for it and it works fine and the handle stays on.

Now to discuss sharpening the LV PM-V11 chisel.  I flattened my Shapton stones - 1000, 5000 and 8000, and started with the back of the LV chisel.  The metal is a bit matte (not shiny) but it polished up well.  The chisel back was flat from the factory.  It had a few striations in it but they polished out easily.  Here's the chisel before flattening and polishing the back.  I found that the PM-V11 steel sharpened as quickly on my stones as any of the other chisels I own, especially A2 chisels.

And here's what it looked like after polishing.  I used green polishing compound to bring up the shine after using the 8000 stone.

To sharpen the edges, here's my sharpening setup.  I have a WorkSharp 3000 that I use to establish the primary bevel at 25*.  I use 120 grit sandpaper on the sharpening wheel for that task, and I have to be careful not to overheat the carbon steel chisels when grinding that bevel.  For the secondary bevel, I have Shapton water stones, in 1000, 5000 and 8000.  I can usually only use the 5000 and 8000 for the secondary bevel.

I used the Lee Valley sharpening jig to put the secondary bevel on the chisels.

I honed the secondary bevel with the 5000 Shapton stone, and finished with the 8000 stone on each chisel.  I examined the edges under a 10X loupe to assure that each edge was well sharpened and straight across the arris (no roughness along the arris). I was very careful with the sharpening - I made sure each chisel was sharpened as well as I possibly could get it. There were no issues with sharpening the PM-V11 steel - it appeared to sharpen about as quickly as the A2 steel.

Here are the five chisels used in this evaluation.  From top to bottom:  a LN 3/8" A2 steel chisel; a Harris Tools Cr-Mn steel chisel about 1/32" wider than 3/8" (maybe made in Czechoslovakia); the LV 3/8" carbon steel chisel; the LV 3/8" PM-V11 steel chisel; a Grizzly Japanese style (laminated) chisel, about 1/32" less than 3/8" in width (note that I made a western style handle for this chisel); and a Swan brand antique 3/8" chisel, marked "Best Cast Steel", probably made in the late 1800's or early 1900's.  While the Japanese and the Harris Tools chisels were probably sold as metric chisels, neither measured an even number in mm - the Japanese chisel was a bit less than 9mm and the Harris Tools chisel was a bit wider than 10mm.  I don't think these slight variations from 3/8" in width affected the results.

The Japanese chisel consists of a layer of relatively high carbon steel with a backing layer of very low carbon steel.  When the tool is heat treated, the high carbon steel takes the heat treatment and is hardened, but the low carbon steel will not harden.  The high carbon steel is hardened to a greater degree than is common in western chisels.  While this higher hardening makes the steel brittle, the low carbon layer supports the high carbon layer and provides support to keep the high carbon layer from fracturing when the chisel is used, for example, to pry chips from the bottom of a mortise.

All were sharpened with a primary bevel of 25* and a secondary bevel of 35*.

[Short side discussion:  The reason I do a 25* primary and a 35* secondary is because when you drive a chisel into a piece of wood, the chisel has to push the wood apart to penetrate.  A smaller primary bevel allows a deeper penetration than, for example, a 35* primary bevel.  However, a 25* bevel would not stand up to the chopping required for cutting out dovetails.  That's why I put a secondary bevel of 35* on the chisel.  This gives me an edge which will stand up reasonably well to the chopping, while still gaining the benefit of deeper penetration from the 25* primary bevel.]

I took some scrap maple that I had around the shop, about 1 1/2" wide and 3/4" thick and chopped about 1/2" off with each chisel, doing several with each chisel.  I did not cut all the way through the wood so that I would not cut into the bench and possibly damage the edge.

I made a lot of chips.

After each cycle of one "dovetail" per chisel, I examined the edge of each chisel with a 10x loupe. 


 I am not able to take micro photographs of the edges, so I can only offer my subjective evaluation of what I observed.  However, I hope I've described my testing procedure well enough that anyone can reproduce my tests to check what I'm reporting here.

I repeated the tests three times.  That is, I started from sharpening the chisels three times, and chopped "dovetails" each time until the edges began to show "damage".

Overall, I found that all the edges held up fairly well.  The Swan chisel was the first to exhibit roughness in the arris.  

In each of the tests, it was clear that the Lee Valley PM-V11 edge held up the longest.  I was surprised that the A2 chisel did not hold up better.  It was probably better than the plain carbon steel chisels, but not by much.  The laminated chisel tended to fail with nicks in the arris, probably caused by chipping of the edge.  The rest of the chisels also failed with nicks in the arris, but also with folding over of the edge.

The LV PM-V11 chisel eventually failed with nicks and some foldover, but it took longer.

My overall summary is that Lee Valley has a winner in their PM-V11 chisel.  I like the handle, the shape of the blade with angled sides that go all the way down to the back, the weight, and the length.  The most important point, however, is that the new steel holds an edge better than the steel of the other chisels I tested.