Now you have brought your tools home and maybe even gone to the effort of finding nice homes for them in your work space. You might even have started tuning them up and that good. The most important part of making a hand-tool work is getting and keeping the edge sharp. a planes sole can be flat as can be and still be a paperweight because the blade is dull or sharpened to a bad angle.
In the next section of this class I would like cover how to sharpen all of the edged tools in the kit.
First off let’s dispel a few myths:
There is nothing magical about a sharp edge (though what you can do with it certainly feels that way) a sharp edge is the intersection of two highly polished surfaces at a near zero radius. I say near zero because…
There is no perfect edge. You will never see a 100% sharp edge; any surface looked at closely enough is going to have flaws. What’s important is that you get a good enough edge to do the task at hand.
There is no right way to sharpen a tool. As long as your edge is sharp enough to do the work, how you got there does not matter. Sharpening, just like any other task in woodworking is a personalized decision. Your methods are going to vary from mine here and there, that’s OK. If you see another woodworker doing something you like, try it, if not let them go about it their own way.
And lastly, it does not take years to learn how to sharpen. You can put a hair-shaving edge on a tool in a single afternoon. Your edges will only get better from that point, and you will get to that edge faster and with less thought…so maybe it does take years to learn how to sharpen…but it does not take years to start getting sharp tools.
The intricacies of sharpening tools are numerous and can be daunting so let’s just start with the most basic question. What do I use to sharpen? As I see it you have three really viable options for putting a keen edge on your tools (for ease of reading we are just talking about tools in the category of planes and chisels…we’ll talk saws later):
1. Scary Sharp (sandpaper attached to any flat substrate material…usually glass)
I started with scary sharp. I used 400, 1500 and 2000 grit silicon carbide sandpaper attached to MDF “stones” as well as glass substrate
It was easy for me to understand the concept of using sandpaper to polish steel…after all, as a jeweler I had used sandpaper thousands of times to polish metal. The introductory cost is cheaper than any of the systems: about $40 bucks worth of stuff and you are set to go. The system is adaptable since you can use so many different grits of sandpaper on so many different types and shapes of substrate. You can sharpen any tool to a highly keen edge using this system….So why in heavens name did I recently kick the system to the curb?
Because I am cheap and lazy. For all the benefits of scary sharp I hated having to replace the stones all the time because of wear and tear. The cost and the maintenance time add up making scary sharp the most expensive and maintenance intensive of the methods to sharpen your tools. The rule of thumb on changing the sandpaper I came up with…about half as often as you probably should.
Surely having read all the current literature on the subject I should have picked water-stones.
From what I understand water stones have amazing polishing properties, they cut fast and they use water as a lubricant to sluice steel away to prevent it from clogging the stone. I have not used this system so I cannot personally recommend it. If i were to use this system I would grab a 1000, 5000 and 8000 grit stone (but if anyone who reads this blog and uses water-stones would like to add there two cents on them I would appreciate it.). When I decided to switch from scary sharp there were three very important reasons I did not choose water stones: 1. My shop is not insulated and if the stones are subjected to freezing temperatures they will crack. 2. The fast cutting speed is the result of the fast breakdown of the stone, they dish frequently requiring vigilant care. 3.Most water-stones need to be soaked before use…If I had to wait 10 minutes before I sharpened a tool, I would probably put off sharpening longer than I needed to.
Which Is why I opted for option 3.
I use a Medium India, a Soft Arkansas, and a Hard Translucent Arkansas stone along with an untreated leather strop. Here is a picture of my current sharpening set up.
Oilstones have been around a long time, they may not put the same polish on your tools that 3000 grit silicon carbide can, or do it as fast as a waterstone. But if you look at a lot of the furniture that was built in the last 300 years or so…you can bet the tools that built it were sharpened with a good ol oil stone. If it sounds like I am biased to these stones it’s because I am. I found the system that works for me and the flaws in the system are not even flaws. Sure they cut slow, no problem, that helps me conserve steel. They may glaze from time to time (rare) but they stay flat. They are ready to go as soon as I am. My tools get free rust prevention every single time I sharpen them. With a bit of attention in stropping, the edge is plenty sharp for any task I would throw at it. One safety tip here, get a metal container you can keep oily rags in (yes, that’s what the Altoids tin is for) so they don’t burn the shop down.
All three systems work. Pick one and get to work. Use it for a long enough time that you can understand what you are going to like in the long term.
Next up we will actually put an edge on a chisel…If I can convince my wife to help take pictures for me.
-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan