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In:In the Shop

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Sharpening is arguably the most essential part of working wood with hand tools and one of the most intimidating.  If your tools don’t seem to “work right” they are probably dull.  Chisels, saws, hand planes, anything that cuts wood really, will function better and better the sharper they are (though there is a point of diminishing returns with sharpening).  Most guides to sharpening start at the beginning (grinding a profile, lapping the back, etc.) and carry the process through to a finished tool. This feels (and can be) very time consuming.  The reality is once a tool is prepped, sharpening takes minutes and is very simple.  Only repairing a damaged tool, like a dropped chisel, will ever take more than a few minutes once that tool is up and running.

Here’s what sharpening usually looks like in my shop.  I pull out my little bin of accessories (pictured below) and get set up.  This involves flattening my waterstones (for more info click here) and setting up my honing guide.  My honing guide has a straight roller as well as a cambered roller, so depending on the tool I’m sharpening I may have to swap rollers.  Then I set the angle, clamp down on the tool, and I’m ready to go.

Sharpening accessories.

Sharpening accessories.

One quick tip, if you’re only planning to re-hone an edge on your finest stone you can just jump into it, but if you need to start on something course (less than 8,000 grit) the stone typically needs to soak for a few minutes.  I generally put my stones in a plastic bin to start soaking, then get my tool set up in the jig.  Usually by the time the tool is set up the stone is almost ready to go.

Another thing that can help beginners or if you’re sharpening a tool you’ve never sharpened before is to blacken the cutting edge with a permanent marker.  Take a couple strokes on your stone and check where the marker has been removed.  This gives a clear and early indication of any problems that may be arising.  If you know the blade is square, for instance, but you’re removing marker from the corner of the cutting edge, then your blade is either mounted at a skewed angle in the jig or you’re putting too much pressure on one side of the tool.  Regardless, the sooner you catch it, the easier it will be to correct it.  If the cutting edge isn’t square to begin with, the marker helps to indicate when you’ve removed material all the way across the cutting edge, re-establishing the desired square edge.

Marker on the cutting edge

Marker on the cutting edge.  After one stroke I can see I’m removing material evenly, right at the tip of the cutting edge.  Ideal for a micro-bevel.

Up to this point, I’ve burned about 5-10 minutes of my time getting everything out, soaking the stones, and getting the tool set up.  Before I begin to actually sharpen, I check my guide’s cam position. The Veritas guide I use has its roller wheel mounted on a cam  which makes sharpening micro-bevels fast and easy, but only as long as you remember to start the roller on the lowest cam setting.

Notice the brass wheel on the side, the little notch is pointing up and to the right.  This is the low setting for establishing the primary bevel.

Notice the brass wheel on the side, the little notch is pointing up and to the right. This is the low setting for establishing the primary bevel.

Now you can see the little notch is pointing down and to the left.  This is the high position for tilting the blade up slightly, creating a micro-bevel.

Now you can see the little notch is pointing down and to the left. This is the high position for tilting the blade up slightly, creating a micro-bevel.

So with the tool mounted, the cam set in the low position, and the stone soaked, I take a few swipes on my 4,000 grit stone (usually, occasionally I go back to 1,000 if I have more material to remove).  I check to make sure I’ve sharpened all the way to the tip, then rotate the cam wheel to raise the tool and hit my 8,000 grit stone.  When the bevel is polished, I carefully remove the tool, polish the burr off the back of the tool and wipe it down with oil.  Done.  This should only take 2-3 minutes.  I could stop here, but because I’ve taken the time to get everything out and prep the stones, I typically try to capitalize on my effort by finding 4-5 tools that might be getting dull.  I hit each one and clean up.  When all is said and done, I’ve spent 20-30 minutes sharpening, start to finish, but I’m left with several razor-sharp tools and when you’re using quality tool steels the edge lasts a long time.

So don’t let sharpening intimidate you, it’s fairly simple and absolutely necessary.  For more information, you can check out the course material I developed for a sharpening class I’ve taught.  Sharpening Handtools

-WMT

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