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.

Methods

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 Amazon.com).

Chisels

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.

Planes

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

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.

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