Updated 8/20/10 - Added note on different version from Highland Woodworking
Review: Narex Bevel-Edge Chisels
A superb value in workhorse chisels
$35 for a set of four, $75 for eight from Lee Valley. Also available individually. Highland Woodworking sells what appear to be the same chisels but with slightly different handles. Available in a 4-chisel set for $27 as well as a 6-chisel boxed set for $60.
Chisels are not complicated things. A piece of steel with a sharp edge on one end and a handle on the other. But they get used constantly. Tuning up dovetails, cleaning out dados, chamfering an edge, the diversity of uses is endless.
Likewise, the diversity of designs and pricing seems endless, too. There are general-use bevel-edge chisels, as well as specialty chisels like mortising chisels and paring chisels, along with specialized sub-versions of each of those. Truly overwhelming.
The real workhorse in any woodworking shop are the bevel-edge chisels. Capable of doing almost any chiseling job, they're the one type of chisel that everyone owns. Prices can vary wildly, a set of four chisels can range from $5 to several hundred dollars. Generally, the expensive ones are well-made, ready to use, feel good in your hand, and hold an edge well. Cheap ones are shoddy, require a lot of work to prepare, with no thought to fitting your hand, and dull quickly because of the softness of the inferior metals used.
And then there are the surprises. The Narex bevel-edge chisels from Lee Valley definitely qualifiy as a surprising value.
The Narex chisels are definitely at the low end of the price scale, yet they're surprisingly well made. They feature an Rc59 chrome-manganese steel blade with a moderate bevel side, which makes them nice for cleaning up the inside corner of dovetails. And while nicely machined, the sides are not so crisp as to be uncomfortably sharp. The backs are almost completely flat out of the box, requiring just a little work to flatten them.
The business end of the chisels are easy to sharpen/hone and hold their edge very well. Just not much to say about that. Even after quite a bit of use, they'll still take delicate curls off an edge. The blade lengths are are moderate and easy to control whether paring or chopping.
The handles look like something produced in a junior-high wood shop. Yet they feel nice in my hands and the hooped end has stood up to various mallets and hammers just fine. The only issue (and it's minor) to arise is the hoop finish has corroded on the largest chisel, which I use by far the most. I assume that something from my skin has reacted with the finish. The seldom-used ones are still nice and shiney.
I purchased these chisels a year or two ago with the intention of getting "good" chisels later down the road. While I definitely see the worth of fine chisels like Lie-Nielsens, I don't see myself being forced to get them because of the limitations of the Narex chisels. These will do just fine.