Getting Sharp

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
and every single one of them is right!” — Kipling


Whenever I start a new major project, one of the routines I go through at the beginning is to inventory my hand tools and sharpen anything that needs it.  I don’t like having to break stride to sharpen a plane that I need, or break off cutting joinery because my chisels aren’t sharp.  Sharpening is a Zen process for me – the discipline of sharpening helps me focus my concentration.  If I’m being sloppy or getting frustrated then stopping to touch up a plane or chisel puts me back in the groove.

Tools & StonesAt least, that’s what I tell everybody.  Truth is, sharpening is not my favorite task. It’s boring, it’s often messy, and it’s not why I got into woodworking. But you might as well learn to love it, because it’s necessary. Until tools that never grow dull are invented, it ain’t going nowhere. So today and yesterday, I spent a couple of hours sharpening a few things that really needed it, and doing a quick touch-up to some others.


There are more different ways to approach sharpening than I can count. Oil stones… water stones… systems by Tormek, and Robert Sorby… even sandpaper.  If you ask a dozen different woodworkers how to go about it, you’ll probably get a dozen different answers.

I’ve looked at several different ways, and guess what: they all work, and they all produce good results. I don’t think sharpening is really much of anybody’s favorite task, so the best answer is to find a system that works for you and isn’t too awful to do, get used to it, and stick to it. I’ve considered (many times) one of the Work Sharp glass-plate systems, but I could never really justify the expense.  I had a good set of Arkansas stones when I started out, but the oil is extremely messy to deal with, and gets into everything.  I finally settled on water stones. I get really good results with minimal mess and hassle.

I’m not going to go into a drastic level of detail about the actual technique.  Too much has been written on it already for me to have much to say of value. If you really feel the urge, look for a copy of Leonard Lee’s The Complete Guide to Sharpening (available at


I always start out by touching up my four primary chisels (1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″, and 3/4″).  Probably 95% of my chisel work is with one of those four.  A couple of them were ground to an angle I didn’t like when I got them (too steep), and I’ve had to regrind them.  After that, sharpening becomes a journey, not a destination: every time, they get a little better. My chisels are mid-grade Crown chisels of Sheffield steel with rosewood handles, and they work just fine.  The wood handles limit me to a wooden mallet, but I prefer using one anyway.

Sharpening is all about where two edges meet: the face of the blade and the back. Both surfaces have to be honed in order to get there.  I also put a final 1 or 2 degree microbevel across the hair’s edge of the blade – usually about 1/32 of an inch. That’s just what it sounds like – a secondary bevel across the edge of the blade. Its function is to speed up sharpening; you usually only have to touch up that tiny bevel instead of sharpening the whole face of the tool.

I sharpen on three Japanese waterstones, in 800, 4000, and 6000 grits. I should probably add a 2000 grit step into the sequence, because it takes quite a while to get the scratches left by the 800 grit stone out on the 4000. I also use a nagura stone (the little white stone) to raise a slurry on the finer stones before use.  It’s actually the slurry that does most of the abrasive cutting of the blade. The stones have to be flattened, either on a synthetic stone designed for the purpose (for coarse stones), or against each other (for the fine ones).

They have to be soaked in water before use, so I’ve taken to storing them in water all the time, with a few drops of chlorine bleach to inhibit algae growth.  I do tend to store them dry in winter – I’m afraid of my garage dropping below freezing, and that turns wet or damp stones into piles of expensive gravel.

The microbevel is visible on the edge of this chisel. Note the slurry formed around the edges of the stone.

Sometimes I sharpen freehand (usually when I’m trying to focus my concentration). I often touch up the microbevel freehand. But the majority of the time, I use a Veritas Mk. II sharpening jig. It allows me to work faster, and I get more consistent results. I also have a small set of curved and rounded stones for sharpening carving tools.

One thing to note: these things are sharp when I’m done. Although we think of horrific shop injuries with power tools, a cut tendon from a chisel that slips can be completely disabling.  Sharp chisels and plane blades are every bit as sharp as (and often sharper than) surgical tools. Don’t use them for that accidentally.


I dearly love hand planes. I’ve made several, and they’re an absolute joy to use. My little Lie-Nielsen apron plane is the only one I use regularly that I didn’t build.

Sharpening for plane blades is exactly the same as sharpening chisels – same stones, same sharpening jig, same microbevel, same techniques.  It takes slightly longer, because the blades are wider.


Scrapers (particularly card scrapers) are a completely different animal.  They don’t have sharp edges as such; they have square edges with a raised burr.  These really are the simplest woodworking tools… they’re just pieces of thin, hard metal. And they’re absolutely indispensable.

The edges are prepared by squaring them with a small mill file, honing the edge flat, and then drawing out the burr with a burnishing rod (a piece of harder metal – you can also use the back of a chisel).  The result is a wire-thin raised burr on the edge that takes fine shavings when drawn across the wood.  They’re easy to use, and there’s not a single flat, finished piece I’ve ever done that wasn’t scraped at some point. They’re great for removing small scratches, pencil marks, and cleaning up the surface. It’s especially good for working on the surface of highly figured wood that’s subject to tearout – like this fiddleback maple (left).

I also use a cabinet scraper – essentially the same tool, with a thicker blade in a two-handed holder.  Great for large surfaces, but cuts slightly more aggressively.

Next: Rough lumber prep and dimensioning.

Starting Points

Every project starts with the same elements: an idea (or an actual plan), a pile of wood, and – hopefully – some tools.  This is the “lost” Gustav Stickley side table, as published in Popular Woodworking.  It’s usually called the “lost” table because it was never a production model… there’s only one existing example.  Most Stickley furniture is identified by model number, as it was designed to be factory produced, but this particular table was never a general production design.

The wife-unit (Cathrine) wants a small table to go by the sofa, but there’s a space limitation.  If it’s too wide, it’ll cause traffic problems getting from the living room to the kitchen.  I looked at a lot of table designs, and didn’t find anything perfect.  This one is close, but I’m going to have to make a design alteration – it’s about an inch and a half too wide in the original version.  So, I’m going to narrow the front and rear aprons and the drawer to compensate.  I realize this will change the overall proportions of the table, and yes, I’m a little nervous about the outcome.

Some Challenges

This looks like a pretty simple design, but it’s got a lot of challenges: The 3 1/2 degree slant to the front and rear of the table has to be accurately reproduced throughout the construction, including the tops and bottoms of the legs, the side aprons, and the drawer itself.  Also, the drawer is built with dovetails – and I intend to cut them by hand, instead of by machine.  The slant of the drawer has to be included in the dovetails as well.

Therein lies one of the primary challenges: my dovetails are lousy.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve watched the amazing “three minute dovetail” videos, and mine take considerably longer. I took Howard Hale’s class at Woodcraft in Addison, and I’ve done some practice.  My chisel work is fine, and my layouts are correct, but I have a *terrible* time sawing accurately to the line.  I tend to drift to the inside, and have to do a lot of cleanup, which invariably makes them look sloppy.  Or else I saw past the layout mark slightly, which looks horrible when it’s assembled.

So one of the things I’ll be doing during this project is regular practice in cutting the joint, so that I’ll be able to do an acceptable job when the drawer construction starts.


Most Arts-and-Crafts (or Mission Style) furniture is quartersawn white oak.  I’ve already done a couple of pieces that way (see the wine cabinet pictures on my Flickr page).  It’s beautiful, and traditional, but not what I want to go with the other furniture where this table is intended.  I also don’t want to use walnut (my usual choice), because I think it will just look wrong somehow.

So I’ve settled on something really different: mesquite.  I recently did a jewelry box in mesquite, and I loved the texture and feel of the wood, but it’s going to produce yet another challenge. It’s extremely hard, dense wood, and it’s going to make some of the construction even more difficult and labor-intensive.

I picked up 25 board feet of beautiful, clear mesquite at Woods of Mission Timber last week.  I usually don’t try and obtain clear, straight wood – I think it looks artificial, somehow.  Wood is organic, and should be flawed and have character.  Wood with perfectly smooth, straight grain looks like formica. But the gentleman at Mission Timber laid out a perfectly matched set of almost flawless lumber for me, and I decided that deliberately including knots and flaws would be a distraction from the very clean lines of the table.

Mesquite wood is very distinctive. No two pieces look alike.  It tends to have a lot of knots, defects, ingrown bark, and mineral streaks. Even straight, clear lumber like I have for this project is going to have a lot of variation. Up to 50% of the tree is discarded, due to the thick outer bark and twisting surface.  Fortunately, it grows large with sufficient water – as large as mature oak trees. It’s considered a ‘replenishable’ hardwood, rare, and exotic.  It’s harder than either oak or maple. It typically doesn’t degrade in weather, and isn’t prone to splitting or warping. Most of the larger mesquite lumber (including what I’m using) comes from here in Texas, south of San Antonio. It also isn’t cheap – this was $14 per board foot.


I do as much as I can with hand tools alone.  But I’m also not a masochist.  Although a lot of this will be handwork – including almost all of the joinery – I’m not going to attempt to thickness all the lumber by hand, or ripsaw all the lumber to width.

That means table saw, band saw (for the front and rear aprons), planer and jointer to bring the lumber to thickness and square it, and probably mortising machine (which is a drill press attachment) to cut the mortises. I may decide to chop some of them by hand, but the angles are going to be extremely tricky, so I’ll probably get better results by machine.

Right now, the rough mesquite is sitting in a pile, letting the temperature and humidity equalize for a few days.  As you can see, Ceilidh is ready for me to get started.

Next: Tool preparation and sharpening. Oh, joy.