Hand Tools Odyssey #1: What is Sharp?

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Blog entry by gizmodyne posted 09-13-2009 06:12 PM 3284 reads 2 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Hand Tools Odyssey series Part 2: Razor Sharp »

Intro to Hand Tools
Three Saturdays ago, Kristin and I woke up early and headed down to good ol’ Cerritos Community College to start our new class, Woodworking with Hand Tools.

Previously we have taken Basic Woodworking, Cabinet Making and a Furniture Lab together. I have also taken table making and a few more lab classes. I have a pretty good grip on basic furniture making and power tool use, but have been frustrated in my use of hand tools. Kristin is not a fan of huge power tools and recently inherited some old tools from her Grandpa. We finally decided to take the class and good thing as they are discontinuing weekend courses after this semester due to crummy state budget here in California.

By the end of the course we will learn to sharpen and restore chisels, card scrapers and planes. The final project is a small tote/box that features hand cut dovetails, through mortises, and wood that is S4Sed using hand tools. We are excited to learn.

Week 1: What is Sharp?
After a few introductions we went right into a discussion of:

1. Why use hand tools?
2. What is sharp?
3. Wood structure and tree anatomy

For a few great answers to these questions I recommend (based on our syllabus we bought and are reading these)
1. Why hand tools?
“The Nature and Art of Workmanship” by David Pye. This is a somewhat esoteric but interesting book about the execution of workmanship as a dying art. It is too complex for me to sum up at this time. I do think it is required reading for all woodworkers.

2. What is sharp?
The Complete Guide to Sharpening by Leonard Lee is a must have for all woodworkers.

To quote: ... ” a sharp tool can be defined as one that has a keen edge that will hold its shape in repeated use for a given material and technique while producing a good surface finish on the the wood.”

Week 2: Chisels
We came back to class with some of our old planes in hopes that our teacher would evaluate them. The course can get pricey as the list of required hand tools is quite extensive.

Week 2 of class began with a recap of chisel cutting dynamics. A similar discussion can be found in the Leonard Lee book leading to the conclusion that correct sharpening angle is balance between efficiency of cutting and durability of the edge.

Our instructor demonstrated his process of sharpening chisels which involves:
1. Lapping the face
2. Grinding a double bevel
3. Honing and polishing the bevel

Sounds easy? Hmmm.

Our first assignment: Lap the face of the chisels. Our class defines lapping as transferring one shape to another. In this case we will transfer the flatness of our stones to the face of our chisel. (Note: I will the refer to the flat part of the chisel as the face as per my class).

In our sharpening arsenal:
Granite Surface Plate
Wet Dry Sand Paper
Set of Norton Combination Stones
King 800/ 4000 Combo Stone
Leather Strop
Aluminum Oxide Honing Compound

All of this will set you back somewhere between $150 and $200 U.S.

The Method
Overview: Lap stones… Lap chisels… Repeat

Our chisels to be sharpened. My older set of Marples at the bottom. They have been abused by a Work Sharp Sharpener (more on this evil machine later). In the box: a set of Irwin chisels (newer Marples) I got for $17 bucks with 50% off coupon at a Rockler clearance sale (cha-ching).

Also my black handled paint/ glue scraping chisel and a crummy Harbor Freight Chisel.

We filled a 5 gallon bucket with water and soaked our stones. Meanwhile we got out the new Granite Surface Plate.

We set it up on our workmate on a towel in preparation for flattening our stones.
In preparation I “broke the back” of some 220 Wet Dry paper and soaked it in the bucket. The idea here is that it prevents the corners from turning up when I adhere it to the paper.

Here Kristin “Squeegees” it down to the granite.

You would think your stones would come flat. The Nortons actually were, but best practice is to flatten ‘em. My King stones were dished from prior use. Also, you the Nortons cut fast and wear away quickly which requires constant flattening. The surface plate is a necessity (you can use plate glass or a DMT stone too). The Norton kit comes with a flattening stone that keeps its shape fairly well but also requires maintenance

We drew pencil lines on the stones so we can watch our progress. You can see a sheen where the light reflects off the worn areas in some light, but the pencil marks help.

To flatten: just rub the stones on the Wet Dry paper

Chamfer the edges to help prevent cuts. They are extremely sharp after flattening.

I alternated between a skew angle and a horizontal approach. For one grit I would move with the chisel set at an angle this created an even scratch pattern that I could remove with the next grit.

My pressure is all on the left hand being careful not to tip the chisel up.

For the new set of chisels, Kristin removed their factory finish with lacquer thinner.

Most of the new chisels started off with grind marks from the factory. This is the HF chisel but the Irwin’s have a similar pattern.

A new Irwin chisel.

Here is one of my old Marples after lapping but before stropping.

After lapping from 220 to 1000 to 4000 to 8000 I polished the chisels on a leather strop with aluminum oxide. Here are the results on three (the instructor said we have it down).

I have a Work Sharp and I am almost convinced that it is one of my least useful tools. I devastated a 1/4” chisel on it a few months back. Check it:

It is too easy to roll the narrow chisel on the fast moving plate of the Work Sharp

After lapping on the 220 stone you can see that I am starting to flatten the back. I am pointing at the area. The cloudy diagonal marks indicate where I have begun to flatten.

A bit later as the pattern “spreads”.

Finally the same chisel after moving through all of the grits and polishing on a strop.

With narrow chisels I have learned to use a back and forth (as opposed to side to side) motion.

We have 9 chisels lapped between the two of us. We each worked for about 10 hours.

Next time: The bevels.

-- -John "Do I have to keep typing a smiley? Just assume it's a joke."

11 comments so far

View interpim's profile


1170 posts in 3457 days

#1 posted 09-13-2009 06:19 PM

very nice… you could shave in the reflection

-- San Diego, CA

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4098 days

#2 posted 09-13-2009 06:57 PM

Nice work on the chisels.

For me, the strop is the key to a really wicked sharp chisel.

A carver taught me to strop regularly and sharpen less. This has worked well for me.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View a1Jim's profile


117091 posts in 3575 days

#3 posted 09-13-2009 07:04 PM

Thanks for sharing

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 3820 days

#4 posted 09-13-2009 07:59 PM

Giz, this is a nice blog on sharpening. And it is wonderful that you two not only are able to take classes together but also have had the classes available as well. I am sure you will enjoy the rest of the course and keep us posted on the progress.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View Walnut_Weasel's profile


360 posts in 3221 days

#5 posted 09-13-2009 09:50 PM

Great blog!! I will be sure to put this one on my watch list!! Thanks for all of the great detail. This is very useful for me since I do not have a good class on this within a 2 hour drive.

-- James -

View Julian's profile


880 posts in 3524 days

#6 posted 09-14-2009 12:01 AM

Looks like they are sharp alright. I’ll stick to my method using the grinder and a particle board wheel for sharpening, and sandpaper on glass for the initial flattening of the back.

-- Julian, Park Forest, IL

View HokieMojo's profile


2104 posts in 3726 days

#7 posted 09-14-2009 03:04 AM

EXCELLENT blog! Thanks so much!

View gizmodyne's profile


1779 posts in 4088 days

#8 posted 09-14-2009 06:27 AM

Hi all…. Thanks for reading and the comments.

At this point the chisels are not sharp, the faces are simply flat. The bevel still needs to be ground and honed.

-- -John "Do I have to keep typing a smiley? Just assume it's a joke."

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3332 days

#9 posted 09-15-2009 11:21 AM

I’ve read about and tried different sharpening methods including good quality jigs with limited success. Most say that good quality waterstones are the very best, but I haven’t tried these. Instead, I bought a diamond stone with medium on one side and fine on the other.

I spray a little water on it and sharpen by hand. I’ve learned the proper technique for this and I get a razor edge in about two or three minutes after initial grinding when grinding is necessary. That means I can shave hair off my arm with it. From then on, as long as the edge isn’t damaged, I just touch it up with the fine side of the stone as needed. This normally takes about 30 seconds. I know some people finish with a leather strop getting excellent results. Be aware though that good hand skills are necessary here to avoid rounding over sharp edges. That’s why I don’t us a strop.

My chisels are always sharp and even though they are inexpensive ones, they perform very well with a minimum of fuss. I suppose they could be even sharper, but sharp enough is good enough for me. I hope you will find some value in my comments, I am not being critical of anyone else’s methods, but just to show that different people have different attitudes and approaches to this subject. As they say, all roads lead to Rome. Good luck in your quest.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Walnut_Weasel's profile


360 posts in 3221 days

#10 posted 09-15-2009 04:58 PM

I have one water stone and compared to sand paper, it is a LOT faster. I would like to compare it to a diamond stone one of these days…

-- James -

View Beginningwoodworker's profile


13345 posts in 3671 days

#11 posted 09-26-2009 04:24 PM

Looks great!

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