Ashley Iles, One of Sheffields Finest

The company of Ashley Iles has been in existence since 1949 when Ashley decided that he wanted to make and offer superior tools to people of his previous trade, pattermaking. These carving tools and wood turning tools have become one of the premium grade of hand held tools today. Each one is still fashioned in the old traditional way, by hand forgers, grinders and hardeners allowing the Ashley Iles Company to offer an unconditional guarantee.

“Any goods manufactured by us found faulty in material or edge keeping quality will be replaced unconditionally. Any tool returned to us, which we have made, we will regrind free of charge.”

With that kind of guarantee how can you go wrong, my own carving tools that I have, I’ve had since they were given to me as a present 34 years ago and are still serving me proud to this very day. My small set of five London Pattern carving gouges were for being accepted to my patternmaking apprenticeship and are now being put to good use in the carving of my Welsh Lovespoons. In my latest carving, these carving gouges are put to the test on the seed pod of a Queen Palm and are proving to have as keen an edge as they did when they were first purchased all those years ago.

My set of five Ashley Iles London Pattern straight and curved gouges.

My particular tools have the older style 5 inch boxwood handles as opposed to the beechwood handles of today. All the blades range from 5 inches to 6 inches in length and are still in excellent condition with minimal rust pits even after being in an outside garage for numerous years. The beauty of these carving tools is once the edge is honed it takes considerable time for it to become blunt again, most certainly a tribute to the manufacturing process.

During my resharpening process I was thinking about how these particular tools were manufactured which prompted me to contact Ashley Iles direct. I asked if I could share their videos with people who did visit this weblog and it was a resounding yes, even to the point that if I did require any specific video they would capture it for me.

Now that’s what I call customer service.

To give you an idea of how these carving tools are produced in the traditional way I will explain with the use of Ashley Iles video clips. To view the video clearly, right click on the links and “save target as.” This will save the video to your hard disc for multiple viewings with the best quality.

The first process in making one of these carving tools is to form the bolster and the tang, this is the part of the blade that fits into the handle. As you can see from the short video it is very much a hands on operation with the operator moving the blade blank back and forth to produce the required shape. The noise factor would be pretty intense so ear defenders are a must as are safety glasses. The white hot blank is pounded by the mechanical spring hammer which has the necessary die to form the shape. Regular heating in the electric furnace to 1000 degrees centigrade will keep the metal malleable allowing for a precise shape to be formed.

With the tang and bolster formed, the blade can be reversed and then the spring hammer is put to work in drawing out the blade to the desired length keeping an overall thickness of approximately 1/8 to 3/16 inch. What we have to realize is, this is going to be noisy and hot work as the machine works the metal. As you can see from the video the amount of hammering can be detected by the pieces of fettling that are jumping up and down on the anvil area.

Close up look of the blade with the Ashley Iles motif stamped into the metal

Once the blade has been drawn out, the basis of the tool is reheated to straighten it ready for forming the shape of the gouge on the hydraulic press. This is where the close proximity of the electric furnace comes into its own, these modern day furnaces are electronically controlled and are close to the operator so that no time is lost in transferring the white hot metal to the anvil for shaping. The foot operated press forges the curve of the gouge effortlessly and precisely giving it the shape that will continue throughout the process.

With the general shape formed, it’s time to clean up the blade. This is achieved on the first wet grind. With wet grinding it helps to preserve the hardness of the blade by reducing the amount of heat and removing the grindings, it is at this stage where the burrs and irregularities are removed. Even thought the large grinding wheel is running through a bath of water the blade will get very hot so the operator will use some type of guard to protect his fingers while applying pressure to the blade, probably some kind of leather strop.

With the major grinding completed on the outside of the blade the attention is then drawn to the inside. As you can imaging the size of the grinding wheel would be dramatically reduced to only grind the inner flute and as you can see from the short video the operator is applying pressure with some type of pressure pad. This major grinding takes care of all the scaling that occurs during the forging process bringing the metal to a uniform look. The final process is to polish the outside and then the inside with the linisher, this takes care of any sharp edges and burrs, bringing the finished tool to a high polish.

Well that gives a little insight into the making of these fine edge tools by Ashley Iles but it is unfortunate that they are not that well known here in the United States apart from a few specialist shops. I’m one of the few that do own these tools and put them to good use in my latest carving “Lovespoon from a Queen” so we’ll see how this carving eventually turns out.

Many thanks go to Tony and Barry Iles for allowing me to use their video clips in my presentation and special thanks to Tony’s wife Christine for the prompt response to my request. The Ashley Iles Company now resides in East Kirkby, Spilsby, Lincolnshire.

How to Carve Wood: A Book of Projects and Techniques  Carving Found Wood: Tips, Techniques, & Inspiration from the Artists  Woodcarving: Tools, Material & Equipment, Volume 1

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