Contributed by Randall Nelson
Whenever tool collectors gather and start discussing E. A. Berg Company chisels, they often arrive at the subject of rare and unusual Berg chisel patterns that they have seen or desire to possess. In 2003, when I first became aware of the availability of Swedish chisels on Ebay, I made the acquaintance of Tom Johnson, a famous Berg tool collector who was then in the process of divesting himself of his extensive collection. While in the process of bidding on some of his offerings (most of which sold for much more than I could afford), I also attempted to learn more about the history of Berg tools from the master. He told me that, in his opinion, if they actually existed, Berg crank neck chisels would be the rarest of the rare. He said he had heard rumors that a set of them was in existence somewhere in the mid-west, but that in over 40 years of serious Berg tool collecting he had never seen a single one.
For most chisel aficionados in the 21st century, the crank neck chisel is something of an enigma, since very few of us would have any reason to use an off-set incannel gouge chisel when involved in doing normal carpentry. These are the tools of another age, the heavy industrial manufacturing era of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Crank necks are generally found in two styles, incannel gouges and flat chisels. They were an essential part of the standard tool kit of the patternmaker, the man who made the wooden patterns that were used to make the impressions for doing sand casting for items to be made in cast iron. The molds and forms had to be very exact, so that the different cast elements would fit together properly when assembled. Patternmaking in wood was one of the specialty industrial arts and each craftsman had graduated sets of gouges and flat chisels, in both straight and offset patterns. WW2 brought about the need to do this type of work more quickly and the development of castable plastics and shapeable Styrofoam doomed the patternmaker’s woodworking tradition. By the early 1960’s, the purpose of these specialty carving tools had disappeared.
As for the fabled Bergs, the first revelation was several years ago when I heard that a pristine group of 10 Berg crank necks had appeared for sale on the Swedish Ebay site Tradera, which I had been unaware of until that time. I was told they were being offered at a phenomenally high price. At the time, I thought this must be Tom Johnson’s elusive set, finally revealed. But strangely, they were being offered by a seller in Sweden, not the mid-west. When I saw photos of them I thought they were a strange looking set of tools, very angular incannel gouges with long, thin, flat-looking necks and highly polished finishes. The necks were so long, they looked like they would flex if you tried to use them! They had Berg #951 wood handles with the typical 50’s-60’s era blue stickers (one was missing its handle) and Berg sharks and metric size stamps on the blades. A few of the chisels appear to have had some of the info etched on the necks as well as stamped, all of which indicated 1960’s production, when Berg was being absorbed by Bacho. They did not appear to have been used at all, since the stickers on the handles seemed to be untouched. My first thought was, why would the Berg Company make a set of tools for a now-vanished industry? Was this someone’s back order from the 1930’s that finally got delivered, 30 years too late?
(Photos 1, 2, 3, 4)
Thanks to the magic of Ebay, fifteen years after first corresponding with Mr. Johnson I have now seen several other examples of Berg crank neck patternmaking chisels being offered on Tradera. This style of chisel might not have been quite as rare as was originally thought, at least if you were living and collecting in Sweden. However, since this pattern of chisel was not illustrated in any company catalog I have yet seen, I am guessing that they were always special order items. Although the Berg Company did not seem to solicit special orders from their customers, I assume that it would have been much easier to make such an order if you were a craftsman living and working in Sweden and could communicate directly with the factory. Also, the ones I have seen subsequently on Tradera all have earlier versions of the Berg shark stamp and each appears to be unique, fashioned in a more hand-made style, quite different in appearance from that group of 10 that appeared for sale several years ago.
(Photos 5, 6, 7)
Photos 5, 6 &7 are of a gouge that has been polished after shaping, much like the group of 10 just mentioned. However, I believe it was produced at least 20 years earlier, since it also has what I refer to as an Art School handle. This was a Berg handle model that I have never seen listed in any of their catalogs, although there are some gaps in their handle numbering system that may account for this. I am guessing that this handle style was only available during the 1920’s. Of course, this style of handle may have been available later as a special order. The chisel in photos 8 & 9 has what appears to be a user-made handle, and its blade stamp is the same as the one on the previous chisel, the Berg shark with the double fin. The same seller has offered several other long blade patternmakers chisels with very similar handles, so they all possibly came from one collection of work tools.
(Photos 8, 9)
The chisel in photos 10 & 11 is the only example of a Berg flat crank neck I have seen. It’s blade stamp is from 1930 or before.
(Photos 10, 11)
These three earlier versions have all the hallmarks of being actual specialty items, probably each was made specifically for a particular client when ordered and not part of any larger production run. As such, I would expect that each would have more of an “individual” appearance. From the very small number that have appeared on the market it would appear that the Berg Company may have only made one or two of these a year, and a different worker might have been assigned to making each tool, resulting in the different levels of workmanship and finish that are apparent. It does seem strange that Berg didn’t add a line of crank necks into their standard production by the 1920’s, since this would have been the glory period of Swedish heavy industrial manufacturing and patternmaking.
In a recent email discussion on the subject of Berg crank-necked chisels with Kim Malmberg, well-known collector and commentator on tools in general and particularly things Berg-related, he made these observations on the items in photos 5- 8:
“I have seen several of these and my own thoughts have been that they are modified incannel gouges whose necks have been bent. Can’t prove it because I don’t have one of these. But the shape of the end of the blade where the neck starts bending just looks a bit poorly made from a factory which was quite good at putting finishing touches to their tools.
The one with the homemade handle has a bolster, which the other one doesn’t. It could have been ground off. Don’t know but I can see why a user wanted to modify these flat incannel gouges. I have five of these (model no 936) and they don’t feel very good when the hand is parallel to the blade. This model is listed in the retailers catalogue no. 30 from 1936. It is the only incannel model I have seen listed, just as you say. The crank neck gouge we both have seen with the thinner neck does appear factory made, but these? I don’t know.”
A crank-necked gouge chisel is, as he noted, merely a modified incannel gouge, but if you were to measure it, the neck is probably a bit longer than the average gouge, to allow for the S curve bend. But were they merely user modified tools, as Kim suggested? As a wood carver and tool collector, many times I have gotten damaged or broken chisels that need to be modified or repaired. Sometimes it is a chisel blade with a broken or crushed socket, probably because the previous owner hammered on the chisel socket without having a handle attached, or it might be a missing tang, from a tool that got stuck too deep into a piece of wood and then they snapped off the handle trying to free the tool. To repair the damage you need to reshape or remove the part that is out of alignment, then weld on a new piece of pre-shaped replacement steel, whether for a section of the socket or for a new tang. I have always attempted to keep the manufacturer’s temper in the blade when making these repairs and have done this by setting the blade upright in a can of soaking wet sand, with the area to be repaired sticking above the can. The area where you weld on the new steel heats to a cherry red, then cools to a blue-black color and now has no temper and the junction between the blade section that remained in the wet sand and that above the sand exhibits a rainbow pattern of straw, purple and blue. This characteristic color difference would be quite noticeable in any such user-modified tool, unless you re-polished it.
The reason I say this is that there are only a few such tool repairs that the typical wood worker is going to attempt without ruining the temper of his tool. To re-bend the neck of a long gouge into a crank-neck pattern, you would need to hold it while you heated and bent the neck into the desired angle. I don’t see how you could do this and not lose the temper of the entire blade in the process. To illustrate, here are four chisels from my own collection. The first image is a pair of socket chisels I repaired. The color change is more noticeable on the upper chisel. The second picture is of two large German gouges that were broken by users and returned to the art supply store as defective. I purchased them for half price, repaired them and have been using them for 40 years. The color “rainbow” is evident on both of these blades.
(Photos 12, 13)
In my collection of tools I have quite a few cranked neck chisels, mostly made by Buck Brothers, one of the premier American tool makers of the 19th century.
(Photos 14, 15, 16)
In almost every instance they do not exhibit any attempt at doing finish grinding and polishing on the bent neck section of the chisel, probably because it is such an odd shape and very difficult to grind and polish evenly. It would be so easy, when doing this free-hand, to snag the tool on the grinding wheel and mess up the lines of the tool. Also, it would be dangerous for the worker to have the tool catch on the grinding wheel and flip in his hand! Remember, there were no guards on grinding tools back then, so any safety concerns about how to finish the tool would have been up to the individual worker. I believe this is the reason the majority of them were left “in the black”, just as the older Berg tool in picture 8 appears, rather than polished, as the tool in photos 5-7. Also notice the difference in the neck pattern between the Buck Brothers tools and the later Berg crank necks. The Buck Brothers design provided a very stiff, no-nonsense tool, just like the earlier production Bergs.
In the Buck Brothers crank necks there is quite a bit of variation in the angle of the bend. Some are done so that the handle is raised but parallel to the blade, others so that the handle is at a 30 to 40 degree angle to the blade.
(Photos 17, 18)
I’m guessing this was done to the specifications of the craftsman ordering the tools, since this would probably have been an aid in doing specific types of work, especially if you having to reach deeply into a pattern to do modifications. If a tradesman decided he wanted to change this angle later, he would have to heat the metal and take the chance of losing the temper in the blade or try to bend it cold and take a chance of breaking the tool. Back then, I think that very few woodworkers would have had access to welding torches, so doing the type of metal heating such work would have required at home would have been quite difficult for the average worker. That’s why I think all these earlier Berg crank neck chisels were made at the factory, and as such, represent special order Berg tools from an earlier period, not something purchased from Berg and then later modified into this pattern.
I have included these photos of five more Berg patternmaker’s chisels, possibly from that same workman’s collection- note the similarity of the handles on them. The handles are in such good condition because these tools were only meant to be pushed by hand, never struck with a hammer. They were made to be used by skilled tradesmen for many years. It would be nice to know if these chisels all came out of the same craftsman’s tool box!
(Photos 19, 20, 21, 22)
These examples of Berg crank necks and long incannel gouges were all offered on Tradera over the last few years, but so far, to my knowledge, not a single example of a Berg crank neck chisel has ever surfaced for sale in the US. And I still wonder- is there a set of Berg crank necks still hiding out there, somewhere in the mid-west?
Contributed by Randall Nelson