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Sharpening 101 for Newbies- What Should I Use? #1: Sharpening Methods I've Tried

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Blog entry by BigRedKnothead posted 03-04-2013 01:53 PM 2854 reads 14 times favorited 22 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Sharpening 101 for Newbies- What Should I Use? series no next part

Early on, a woodworker is forced to decide upon a sharpening system or product. And I know we have some folks on Ljs who are just entering the wonderful world of hand tools. This is my attempt to not leave those people hangin when it comes to sharpening. Clearly, planes and chisels are just handsome paperweights if they’re not sharp.
Let me start by saying that I am far from an expert. Shoot I’ve only been using and sharpening hand tools effectively for about a year. I spent the previous three years frustrated, wasting time and money when it came to sharpening my tools. I am only taking the time to write this because I think it may help some fellow LJ’s save some frustration and cash. I realize I don’t have near the knowledge a lot LJ’s have. My only qualifications are my experience with these methods and my ability to sharpen very effectively as of now. Which leads me to my:

DISCLAIMER: When it comes to woodworkers, sometimes you’re better off talking politics or religion than bring up sharpening. If you have a system that works…great! Go with it. This is not to convert anyone to my way of thinking.

I have tried several systems, and this is what I’ve found:

Scary Sharp:
Pros:
- Cheap startup. Honing guide, piece of glass, some sandpaper, and your off.
- It does work.
Cons:
- I always struggled with this method. Even now that I am very capable of getting a sharp edge with stones, I still can’t get what I like with sandpaper.
- Kind of a pain scraping and replacing sandpaper often. Very often.
- Not cheap in the long run. You’ll forever be buying sandpaper.
- A proper setup with many grits takes more space than stones.
- Time. Changing sandpapers often makes this the slowest method I’ve tried.

Some people love it. You can tell I don’t. I really believe any money you spend on this method could’ve been spent on good stones that will last much, much longer.

Worksharp power sharpening:
I have only tried this setup at the Woodsmith store. Also, I have used blades people sent me sharpened this way.
Pros:
- Works fast with a small setup
- I was impressed with the edge it gave on chisels
Cons:
- You will forever be buying abrasives again.
- As far as I know, there is no way to camber a blade. A deal breaker if your gonna use planes a lot.

Water Stones:
This is the first stone setup I had. The video was good, and taught me how to sharpen chisels freehand. The flattening stone is a joke, as Amazon reviews will note.

Pros:
- They sharpen well, they cut fast. Especially the 8000 grit. It’ll give a mirror polish.
- There’s many makes to pick from. Some pretty reasonable.
- The most popular method with lots of info available.
Cons:
- They dish. They need to be flattened often. Some, like Shaptons aren’t as bad.
- Cost. Good stones aren’t too bad, at first. But they don’t last forever. Heavy use might necessitate stones every couple years. Additionally you really need a diamond flattening stone to properly flatten them. More $.
- They are Messy! You really need a dedicated area. You don’t want these things on your bench.
- Time. I found the time saved by really fast working stones was lost in flattening and cleanup.
- Water and metal don’t mix. You’ll need to treat your blades afterward to avoid rust.

Despite these downsides, some people love ‘em. I can’t argue with their effectiveness. It’s a preference thing. I just wish I knew more of what I was getting into before I bought some. Now you do. I sold mine on ebay for darn near what I paid for them.

Oil Stones:
Here’s the tutorial that led me try oil stones:
http://antiquetools.com/sharp/
The guys at toolsforworkingwood.com carry the stones mentioned in the tutorial. However, they are often out of stock, so I went to Hartville tool via Amazon.
Pros:
- Flat! The Arkansas stones come flat and stay flat. India stones need a little flattening when you get them, but stay flat for a long time.
- Cost. A good Norton translucent Arkansas stone and an India stone will run about $100… but your done. The Arkansas stone will last you the rest of your life. You may have to replace the India stone, ore even get a couple more grits as I have, but they’re a measly $20.
- They work. Finish up with a leather strop and you will have a razor sharp edge.
- No rust worries.You use oil (I thin it with WD-40).
Cons:
- They cut slower.
- You can spend a lot on high end stones like Dan’s Whetstones etc.
- Because they are natural, large stones cost more. That’s why I went with the Nortons. They were the most reasonable 8×3s. I can’t say if the more expensive stones work better or not. I will try others eventually.

I really don’t mind having to spend more time at each stone when I don’t have to flatten them or cleanup afterward. Overall, I believe I spend less time sharpening with oil stones. Obviously I am biased to my current method or I wouldn’t be doing it.
My Sharpening Setup:

Extra course diamond stone, Norton medium India, translucent Arkansas stone, MKII honing guide, Leather strop, WD-40.

Other Sharpening Aids and Recommendations:

Veritas MKII Honing guide:
Pros:
-This jig is foolproof and very well made.
- Offers a additional camber roller so you can camber blades.
- Blade registration jig helps you get blades/chisels set straight at the same bevel angle every time. This eliminates one of the biggest downsides to using jigs. If you don’t get the blade set the same, you’ll grind a different bevel every time. See Pic:

- At the turn of a knob you can add a micro or secondary bevel. I use this all the time. Cuts back on grinding a new bevel.
Cons:
- It pricey for a jig. About $65.

Despite the cost, I really think it is worth it for a newbie to get this jig. I have a cheaper side clamping jig that never held my chisels right because of the side bevels. This jig is foolproof and was really my gateway to success. As with all Veritas goods, their return policy is great if you don’t like it.

Bench Grinder:

Recent additions to my shop have been a Woodcraft slow speed bench grinder and a Veritas tool rest.
Hallelujah. I have been grinding bevels with my MKII and 80 grit psa sandpaper for a while.

It works. I still use this method to flatten the backs of blades. Some guys use a belt sander. Probably works too. I just think those things are evil.
If you get serious with hand tools, you’ll eventually want a grinder. But you can get by without it. Just be careful you don’t burn your irons and ruin the temper. That’s why a slow speed grinder is a good idea.
A grinder is one area you can save money. Find an old adjustable speed grinder at a garage sale and get a good white wheel. Make your own tool rest if you want. Some guys even get an old hand-spun grinder.

To Surmise:
I know what your saying, “Jeepers Red! We’re broke with a young couples here. Now you recommend a $175 setup (Norton oil stones and a Veritas MKII).” I know. Believe me, I’ve been there. I am totally a blue-collar guy with 3 kids and a stay-at-home wifey. Almost every tax return, Xmas and Bday present in my late twenties was woodworking related. Save and mow lawns if you have to. I’ve done some crazy odd jobs to get tool and lumber money. When it’s your passion, you don’t care. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can produce high enough quality furniture that people are willing to pay pretty darn good money for it. I am grateful that I don’t hurt for woodworking cash anymore. It’s a fun place to be and I hope you get there if that’s your goal. However, if money’s tight for you now, your gonna have to sacrifice and work for it, just like I did.

These purchase decisions won’t end with sharpening equipment. You don’t have to be on Ljs very long to find forums like this: http://lumberjocks.com/topics/47287 “Tools bought but wish you hadn’t.” Guys saying, “Buy nice or buy twice!” It’s true. I’m just glad I was able to sell some of the stuff I didn’t like on ebay;-)
You may be able to save a little by finding some used stones. As I’ve posted elsewhere, a hand tool newbie would do well to save money when buying their hand tools rather than sharpening stuff. You don’t need a Lie Nielson or Veritas plane to start. Truth be known, I have several high end planes. I like some of my old Stanley’s and Millers falls just as well. There are very affordable $30-$50 oldie-but-goodie planes from guys like:
Don W- http://timetestedtools.wordpress.com/tools-for-sale/
Walt- http://www.brasscityrecords.com/toolworks/new%20tools.html
Neither of these guys are in it to make a quick buck, and their planes should be pretty much ready to go. Don’t know where to start? I’ll bet they can recommend something.

If I save anybody any time, frustration, or cash, then my effort was worth it. Like I said with my disclaimer, this wasn’t intended to provoke a sharpening debate. This was written with the genuine motive of helping some fellow Ljs wade through the overwhelming mire of sharpening methods. Whatever method you choose, I just hope this blog saves you from having to buy another because you didn’t realize what you were getting into. Even better, I hope this gets you on your way to sharpening effectively. That’s when the fun starts.

I could make a part 2 to this blog showing my sharpening procedure if some of you would find that helpful. Although I’d be inclined to refer you to the guide on toolsforworking.com. That guy covers free hand pretty well and that’s how I sharpen chisels. I still love my MKII for plane irons though.

Take care and happy shavings ya’ll,
Red

-- Red -- "That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." W. Whitman



22 comments so far

View DouginVa's profile

DouginVa

486 posts in 940 days


#1 posted 03-04-2013 03:15 PM

I kind of went the same route as you…scary sharp, WorkSharp, waterstones. I also have a bench grinder that I ONLY use to square up plane irons or chisels that are in real bad shape. I re-furbish a lot of hand planes and thats when it gets the most use from me. Not for fine work though….I’m not good enough on them to keep the same angle going and keeping the cutting edge square to the stone.

A note on the worksharps; if you bought the wide blade/iron attachment it does come with a jig that allows you to set the blade in the jig for a micro bevel…..if that’s what you mean by providing a “camber”. The jig works in the same way as those wood blocks that you’ve seen attached a fixed distance to the edge of the board they are attached to so you can set the blade at a consistent angle in you bevel guide.

http://www.worksharptools.com/ws3000-parts-and-accessories/wide-blade-attachment-for-ws3000/flypage.pbv.tabs.acc.tpl.html

I use this for all of my plane irons. It comes with a flat bed that is attached to the top of the WS3000. It has leveling capability so you can level it to the same plane as the discs. The irons are held with a roller device that works in the same way as those inexpensive bevel guides.

I couldn’t locate a video for the wide blade attachment though.

-- Just a man with his chisel.........

View BigRedKnothead's profile

BigRedKnothead

5086 posts in 649 days


#2 posted 03-04-2013 04:27 PM

Doug, by “camber” I mean having an actual radias on your bevel of your blade as one would want with a scrub plane or jack plane. Is there a way to do that with the worksharp that I am not aware of?

-- Red -- "That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." W. Whitman

View Don W's profile

Don W

15060 posts in 1234 days


#3 posted 03-04-2013 04:34 PM

Nice write up Dan. About the only part I might be in some disagreement is the need for the expensive jig. But I would love to try one to see what I’m missing. The eclipse style seems to work for me, although most of mine are free hand.

-- Master hand plane hoarder. - http://timetestedtools.com

View chrisstef's profile (online now)

chrisstef

10941 posts in 1673 days


#4 posted 03-04-2013 04:53 PM

BRK – on the WS i can get a small amount of camber by loosening up the slide that holds the iron and moving the iron left and right slightly. What has also helped me is hitting the corners of the iron with a file then regrinding away at it.

-- "there aren’t many hand tools as awe-inspiring as the #8 jointer. I mean, it just reeks of cast iron heft and hubris" - Smitty

View BTimmons's profile

BTimmons

2128 posts in 1152 days


#5 posted 03-04-2013 05:13 PM

BigRedKnotHead -

Stumpy has done a couple of modifications to the WorkSharp 3000 that address two of the limitations you mentioned. In this video he shows how MDF and polishing compound can be used instead of spending more money on the glass discs and sandpaper meant for the WS3000. And in this later video he illustrates how to put a camber on a plane iron with a simple modification and homemade jig.

Thanks for the write-up. I’m sure it’ll help a lot of folks.

-- Brian Timmons - http://www.BigTWoodworks.com

View BigRedKnothead's profile

BigRedKnothead

5086 posts in 649 days


#6 posted 03-04-2013 05:46 PM

Thanks for the feedback guys. I kinda figured there was something that could be done to get a camber on the worksharp. If I add anything to my sharpening arsenal, a worksharp will probably be it. Sounds like more folks are using it than I realized.

DonW- Another motivation for making the time to write this blog is because I have found blogs from guys like you very helpful.

-- Red -- "That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." W. Whitman

View MaroonGoon's profile

MaroonGoon

280 posts in 625 days


#7 posted 03-04-2013 06:45 PM

Great write up, Dan. It definitely gives me a good direction to take! I was actually speaking with whom I call a “master woodworker” after my church service yesterday so the timing of the article was perfect since sharpening and hand tooling is on my mind right now. With my next paycheck I’ll be taking your advice and investing in the Veritas jig and some good oilstones (anti-rusting is important to me because of the high humidity we have here in my neck of the woods so thats a big deciding factor).

This was unexpected but my favorite part of this article wasn’t even in the sharpening section, it was the encouraging words towards the end. Sometimes I just need an extra kick in the butt to get going and what you said really motivated me to spend some money despite how hard it may be right now. Like you said, if it is truly a passion then you will find a way to get it done and I definitely find myself in that situation. I look forward to the day when I “won’t have to hurt for woodworking cash anymore” like you are experiencing now. haha

Thanks again for the great write up and I’ll let you know how my progress goes.
-Eric

-- "Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone." -- Pablo Picasso

View Mauricio's profile

Mauricio

6820 posts in 1818 days


#8 posted 03-04-2013 06:56 PM

Great post BigRed. I hope this encourages more people to blog about their favorite process. I would love to read them all! I just love a good friendly sharpening debate.

I’m still trying to settle on my favorite. The sharpest edge I have gotten is with 3M paper but I always procrastinate on changing the paper when needed. That for me is the major downfall of the process. Dan uses disposable MDF tiles for this which I haven’t tried yet. That solve part of the issue but there is still the cost problem.

I’m on the crossroads of either going further into Water Stones or further into Diamond stones followed by stropping. However, stropping gets a sharp edge but nothing like 1micron and .3 micron film. At least in my experience when tested on pine end grain.

I’ve found a way to flatten my water stones with very little mess using a DMT stone, a brush from the dollar store, and a bucket of water. So I may get an 8K stone.

So I’m still trying to decide…

Your argument for Oil Stones is pretty strong, However you could do the same with Diamond stones for about the same cost. That would eliminate the speed issue from oil stones no?

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Sandra's profile (online now)

Sandra

4493 posts in 742 days


#9 posted 03-05-2013 01:13 AM

Great blog Dan, thanks.
Sharpening has been one of those topics right up there with dust collection that gets close to being overwhelming with opinions and options.

I have the Veritas honing guide and angle jig as well as two DMT diamond bench stones. I quickly realized that I should have ordered the larger stones, but I seem to be doing okay with them. Problem is, I don’t know how sharp sharp is supposed to be. My chisels are certainly the sharpest I’ve ever used, because they’re the ONLY ones I’ve ever used!

I appreciate posts from those who remember what it’s like to be a newby.

Thanks

-- No, I don't want to buy the pink hammer.

View Mauricio's profile

Mauricio

6820 posts in 1818 days


#10 posted 03-05-2013 01:29 AM

Sandra, test your edge on soft pine end grain. A piece of 2×4 will work. It it leaves a smooth edge then you have a very sharp tool.

Which DMT grits do you have. Do you follow it up with a strop?

Oh, and I strop with Flexcut Gold compound, good stuff.

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Don W's profile

Don W

15060 posts in 1234 days


#11 posted 03-05-2013 01:34 AM

Sandra, you should be able to slice end grain and have it smooth, even on hard wood. If not, you’re not sharp enough.

-- Master hand plane hoarder. - http://timetestedtools.com

View ShaneA's profile

ShaneA

5313 posts in 1265 days


#12 posted 03-05-2013 01:43 AM

Nice write up. I like my WS, but I do hit the edge on a water stone after my highest grit (3600) on the WS. Seems to get it a bit sharper. I recently also got the leather strop wheel for it too, but haven’t tried it yet. Sharpening is a lot like woodworking, there are a lot of ways to get you there on the journey. Whatever you like and yields results you are happy with is the best way. Enjoy the ride.

View DouginVa's profile

DouginVa

486 posts in 940 days


#13 posted 03-05-2013 03:27 AM

There isn’t an actual accesory to give you a camber on the WS3000. You could do it with plane irons the same way you would with a bevel guide on sand paper on granite, just put more finger pressure on the edge of the iron as you’re sharpening. I’ve done that to get a bevel back to square so if you started with square on an iron you could theoretically put a camber on it.

-- Just a man with his chisel.........

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1526 posts in 1142 days


#14 posted 03-05-2013 05:29 AM

Very nice blog Dan, I would only add that you can mix and match as you need. If I have a chisel that has been mistreated and/or I want to change the bevel angle I use the scary sharp method with a coarse paper. This would take too long with water or oil stones. Once I have the chisel where I want it I move to water stones.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View BigRedKnothead's profile

BigRedKnothead

5086 posts in 649 days


#15 posted 03-05-2013 09:32 PM

Well, I’ve learned from this blog as well. I had no idea so many people were using worksharp and/or diamond stones.
Only thing I’m still curious about is whether high end oil stones like Hall’s or Dan’s Whetstone are any better than Nortons.

-- Red -- "That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." W. Whitman

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