Ward & Payne Aristocrat Chisels


So far as I can discover the Ward & Payne Aristocrat chisel is the only chisel ever to have been granted a Design Award.   The Council of Industrial Design (CoID) granted the award in 1959:

CoID – Ward & Payne – Design Award 19591)you can see the rest of the 1959 winners (and other years) here: CoID winners 1959

The CoID was set up by the British Government as part of its plan for post-war reconstruction.   In a remarkable piece of foresight the Government of the day recognised the important part design would play in helping British firms compete in the global economy and they aimed to promote:

‘by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry’.

It was deemed so important to reestablishing our position as a leader in international trade that the creation of CoID was approved by Churchill’s Cabinet in 1944 while the country was still fighting the war.

Despite the noble intentions and prescient insight that led to the creation of the CoID the design awards sometimes received a sniffy reaction.   Rather unfairly, in my opinion, as they did select some absolute crackers:

Was the Aristocrat a good pick too?  Read on!

Aristocrat Chisels

I was intrigued by these unusual chisels when I first saw them and, when a set came up on ebay, I bought them thinking it would be interesting to compare these premium models to my motley collection of old chisels.

They were pricey – nearly £20 each if you include postage – but based on the nearly intact Ward and Pane Transfers I was hoping they would be little used.

I was pleased to find they had not had much use. In fact the 1’’ and ¾’’ look like they still have the original grinding marks on the bevel. The 1/4” has been honed but appears to be the same length as when new.  Only the 1/2” has seen a lot of use:


The shape is like a typical parallel-sided firmer but rather than having sides at 90 degrees they form a bevel at 75 degrees from the face – an unusual design:

W&P 1” (left), Marples 1” paring chisel (middle) and Marples 1” bevel edge firmer (left)

Other than their unusual but elegant look, their main claim to fame is the patented handle design incorporating a threaded rod, one end of which is screwed into a tapped hole in the socket and the other into a cap which, when tightened, secures the handle to the socket:

GB806614 July 1957

This invention claims to solve the following problems:

a tool with the usual tang to be driven into a hole in a ferruled handle is always liable to have the blade work loose from the handle in use, and the same difficulty is found with the lesser-known type of tool in which the blade is formed with a tapered socketed shank

And further that

… the handle may be formed of wood, but advantageously as regards avoidance of splitting it may be formed of a plastic. A damaged handle may be readily replaced by unscrewing the cap

According to the WP catalogue from 1964 replacement handles were indeed available and available in both wood and black plastic:

The other interesting thing is that some of the (presumably earlier) marketing material says that the “blade is HAND forged”. This reference to “HAND” is conspicuous by its absence in the 1964 catalogue marketing – perhaps a sign that economies were needed a few years after this model was introduced:

The marketing bumf differs on heat treatment also – I don’t know what the difference between “Induction heat treatment” (1964) and “High Frequency heat treatment” (earlier) is, but I rather suspect it too is something to do with cost controls.

The purpose of the handle design is not to allow you to clout them as hard as possible, rather it is to stop the handles coming lose or falling off – a problem even the excellent makers at Lie Neilsen have been unable to prevent with their socket chisels since wood will shrink or expand according to the amount of moisture in the atmosphere.

The Aristocrats were about 3x the price of the equivalent standard bevel edge firmer mentioned in the same catalogue, although surprisingly they are not the most expensive chisels W&P offered. This dubious honour belongs to “high speed steel tipped joiners chisels” which are another 30% more again.  According to W&P these are a “World first”2)to be fair they did patent the manufacturing technique, although HSS tools were a bit of a rage in the 1960s.

The catalogue was recently posted to archive.org and here is the page describing their high speed steel chisels:

Compared to standard chisels, Aristocrat chisels are rather uncommon, no doubt a reflection of their very high price and relatively short production run.

Other than looking cool, were they a good solution?   Of course tradesmen have made do with simpler chisels for millennia, but we can at least agree that the Aristocrats resolve the problem with socket chisels:  although it is arguably not a great inconvenience to fix a loose handle it will never be necessary with the Aristocrat.

I think it would be a bit harsh to judge the Aristocrat chisel a failure based on its apparent limited number of sales – the 1960s were a difficult time to be selling premium tools and the market was rapidly changing to suit the needs of infrequent DIYers rather than people using tools to make a living.

Perhaps the time is ripe for a reintroduction – indeed Lee Valley seem to have taken it as inspiration for their drawbores as did Rob Cosman for his IBC range of chisels.

A design classic?  Yes, why not.

original packaging


1 you can see the rest of the 1959 winners (and other years) here: CoID winners 1959
2 to be fair they did patent the manufacturing technique, although HSS tools were a bit of a rage in the 1960s

5 thoughts on “Ward & Payne Aristocrat Chisels”

  1. Hello again,
    I’ve not checked, but if they really were precision ground to a much higher accuracy this would add to the cost as most chisels were forged and ground ‘close enough’ for wood working. They also have another advantage that some of the very expensive US chisels of today make much of – ie no ‘land’ at the edges, so better access to the inner edges of a dovetail.
    The through-bar seems to work, but I suppose if you clout it too hard the thread might well distort and stick.

    I find your note of the Wards HSS chisel v interesting – in the ’80s there were some very cheap Chinese chisels on the UK market – looked a bit like the v expensive Japanese ones but were in fact laminated HSS on steel of a small socket type (name like crystal or jewel?). Somewhat more advanced versions of these are available today, also from China.


    • Actually, the boast about the precise dimensions (along with the sharp edge) just suggests they’re ground in dies rather than being ground by a skilled grinder on a silicon carbide wheel. The latter usually doesn’t affect width much, but correction of any warpage after hardening and tempering might. I read the article above quickly so I may have missed it, but chisels of the era when the aristokrats were made were experimenting with more stable steels and hardening and tempering processes. Unfortunately, these usually reward the manufacturer, but not the buyer – as in, some have hardness limitations, others have less than lovely composition uniformity. I would expect that a process to make these precisely with lower skill and perhaps more automation (relatively) yielded exact sizes where the chisels were ground to width leaving a blunt knife edge on them.

      Older chisels would’ve been forged in a die mostly likely and then harden and tempered and finished by a skilled grinder, and then glazed if they were high cost.

      IT was right around the time these chisels were made that nearly all of that was phased out.

      The very precise edges on american chisels made in the last decade or two is just an artifact of automated process. zero lands on the corner of a chisel can be very uncomfortable to use, and in heavy work, the corners are weakened somewhat and will leave earlier. A fine land gives the steel at the corner much more support than none.

  2. ps – the 75deg might be a useful angle – most dovetails are around this angle so it would fit for the corners, and not bad for a mortice (usual angle 90deg less a bit for clearance, say 85deg)

    • I think you would have to hit it very hard indeed to damage the screw threads – the bar is in tension and you would have to compress/break the plastic or wood body to do any harm to the metal rod. As for the geometry it is definitely a compromise between strength and keeping a relatively low profile at the corners – if the user is after the lowest possible profile they are better off with a more standard bevel edge I think.

  3. Lovely write up. Very interesting. I saw them a 1960’s “Woodworker Magazine” and though “That’s where IBC got their idea”. Hopefully I’ll find one in the wild.


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