Learning to Sharpen

  • Advertise with us

« back to Hand Tools forum

Forum topic by Mark Colan posted 07-20-2013 04:52 PM 1619 views 2 times favorited 15 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Mark Colan's profile

Mark Colan

211 posts in 2841 days

07-20-2013 04:52 PM


I have mainly been a power tool woodworker, but recently bought some used planes – a #3, #5, #7, and a little trim plane that I don’t know what it’s proper name is. The total was around $200 from Tool Barn, Bar Harbor, ME, a great little store. I already had a small block plane and some chisels from my Dad, and one I bought, that need work. I never liked hand tools like these because they seem so difficult to use. Well, of course they are not, so long as they are properly sharpened, but I have never done that. I also own some nice kitchen knives that could be sharper and want to learn to sharpen them like a pro.

Obviously the time has come to learn to restore and sharpen blades. I have a Chinese dual-grit stone intended for kitchen knives, and no experience. So I started reading about various kinds of stones, the things you need to do to keep them flat, guides, and so on. Expensive, and inconvenient.

Somewhere someone mentioned Brent's Sharpening Pages . I like the idea of starting simple, so this appealed. I thought it would be a cheap way to start. It’s not, exactly, though it is less than the stone and guide approach.

As I embark on tooling up for sharpening, and then actually trying to sharpen, I’ll write here about what I learn. I would welcome any comments from those of you who are experienced with sharpening. Keep in mind that I am starting as an absolute beginner on the subject, aside from knowing how to use a steel on a kitchen knife.

You can think of this as a review of my experiences of using Brent’s extensive documentation on the subject.

Overview of Brent’s System

In a nutshell, Brent’s system relies on two kinds of jigs. First, there is a piece of glass with abrasive film attached via adhesives. The glass is glued to masonite, and the masonite will have a non-skid material on the bottom so it stays put in use. He recommends three grits, so there are three glass jigs.

The second jig is a guide designed to hold plane blades, chisels, etc at the right angle. Brent tells you all about how to make them, as this is really the heart of his system. He suggests making guides specific to the width of the blades you sharpen. I have not studied them yet, but I think he has a different guide for chisels.


I ordered the glass at a glass store. I figured 1/4” plate glass would be better, until I got a price on four 6×16” cut pieces and it was like $92, because they had a minimum piece price for 1/4” glass. They also have a minimum of $5 for 1/8” glass (total $21.25), and I went for that. I don’t have much experience with glass cutters, but I think I could have done better had I taken the time to shop around.

Brent recommends Weldbond for the glue. It does not seem to be available locally, and I wanted to work on the project this weekend, so I used a glue called E6600 clear medium viscosity that I got at an arts and crafts store. It was just over $7 for a tube and I used most of it. It specifically includes glass and wood as materials it glues.

He suggested some kind of non-slip fabric for the bottom. No experience here, but the hardware store had this rubbery (actually latex, I think) lacey stuff that is designed to put under carpets. It was about $8 for a 2×4’ piece.

Last, the abrasive films. Probably not available locally, but I got a basic supply from a place in NY delivered Friday when I ordered Wednesday. Brent recommends three grits: 15, 5, and 0.3 microns, and he recommends the kind with self-adhesive backing. The place sells a package with two sheets each of those, and since the 15 micron is said to wear faster than the others, I ordered some extra of that grit.

I had a scrap of 1/4” masonite big enough to make the protective bases for the glass.

Assembling the Glass Plate Abrasive Jigs

Brent recommends sanding the edges of the glass because it can be sharp from the glass shop. In my case, the glass did not seem sharp, almost certainly because the glass cutter sanded them a bit, but I sanded them more and rounded the corners anway.

I cut the masonite to size, about 1/2” larger than the glass on width and length, to have 1/4” borders around the glass. Brent does not tell you how big to make it. I had meant to make it a bit extra long so I could put a hole in the top to hang on the wall for storage, but due to operator error, when ripping to length I had the wrong setting.

Next step was cleaning the glass before gluing. He did not say to do that, but for appearances and adhesion it seemed like a good idea. Then I put glue on the perimeter of each piece, a line down the center the long way, and three lines dividing the other way into equal sizes. I then attempted to spread the glue with a scrap, then pressed the plate onto a board.

The E6600 glue is not as viscous as I had hoped: it did not spread well. Perhaps Weldbond spreads better. They are different glues; in particular, E6600 is clear out of the tube, and Weldbond comes out white but is said to dry clear.

The critical thing is that the glass stays flat. Pressing it to spread the glue could cause it to be slightly uneven. However, it cannot flex much the narrow way, which is the more critical dimension; flexing the long way is probably not a problem for even sharpening. Also, I suspect that since the glass wants to be flat that it will even itself out a bit.

You may think I’m worrying about nothing, but I figure if tolerances of 0.3 micron (the grit of the finest film) are at stake, that would be the maximum unevenness I could tolerate, and probably I need much flatter than that.

Brent suggested taping the corners to prevent drifting while it’s starting to cure. I used masking tape to tape two opposing corners for each board.

Later, I can go back down and glue the backing on each. I’m taking a break because we’re at the end (I hope!) of a heat wave, and I’m not big on working hard in the heat. Still plenty hot today, but cool air is supposed to finally move in this evening.

I will include pictures in this work, but for now, there’s just text.

-- Mark, hack amateur woodworker, Medford (greater Boston) MA

15 replies so far

View Iggles88's profile


247 posts in 2357 days

#1 posted 07-20-2013 05:13 PM

Good luck on your journey of learning to sharpen, I have used the same system with the same exact grit sizes, worked pretty well but I’m moving on to stones this week. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes for you.

View Mark Colan's profile

Mark Colan

211 posts in 2841 days

#2 posted 07-20-2013 06:21 PM

Hi Iggles,

Thanks for your comment. Can you tell me why you are moving from Brent’s system to stones? Is there some way in which you think his system does not solve a problem you have? Will you use both, or just stones?

-- Mark, hack amateur woodworker, Medford (greater Boston) MA

View Iggles88's profile


247 posts in 2357 days

#3 posted 07-21-2013 07:00 AM

Hey mark, I’m switching for the most part because I just ran out of papers and I don’t want to buy new papers every time I run out and I wasn’t getting the results I’ve gotten from using other methods. I also didn’t like the replacement of papers on the glass. Just a lot of maintenance I didn’t like too much.

View Iggles88's profile


247 posts in 2357 days

#4 posted 07-21-2013 03:18 PM

I shoild also probably mention that i used 1/8” glass and while i dont think it had anything to do with my results being less then expected the glass was definitely out of flat by a considerable amount. Yours may not be but if i were to continue using this method id need to move to thicker glass or even granite

View Lee Barker's profile

Lee Barker

2170 posts in 2846 days

#5 posted 07-21-2013 05:18 PM

I use chisels and small planes mostly. Furniture shaping, paring, scraping. General everyday stuff; no carving or lathe work.

I use PSA discs, which I have anyway, on a granite cutout from a bar sink. The cutout is not superflat, but I get what I need, easily, by hand, no gizmos or excess stuff.

An assessment of what you want your cutting edges to do will guide how deep in the pool you wade.

Kitchen knives are quite a different sharpening scenario from plane irons and chisels.

Story to illustrate: A friend, woodcarver (fond of whacking on teak) can sharpen anything. He used to take quite a kit along when he was traveling and staying with friends, offering to sharpen their kitchen knives. He discovered that what he could produce in the way of an edge was inappropriate to kitchen cutlery. Now he carries one of these and says it does a better job than any of his other systems.

BTW, I’m wondering if your idea, a helpful and creative one, would be more at home as a blog on your home page than the here’s-my-question form.



-- " his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage, he hath strange places cramm'd with observation, the which he vents in mangled forms." --Shakespeare, "As You Like It"

View Mark Colan's profile

Mark Colan

211 posts in 2841 days

#6 posted 07-21-2013 08:46 PM

Iggles, I realized when gluing the glass that 1/8” glass has plenty of flex. The problem is that the glass shop wanted about $23 each for four plates of 1/4” glass.

-- Mark, hack amateur woodworker, Medford (greater Boston) MA

View Mark Colan's profile

Mark Colan

211 posts in 2841 days

#7 posted 07-21-2013 08:50 PM

Lee, thanks for all of your comments. Although I do not assume that kitchen knives will necessarily use the same sharpening devices and techniques as my workshop blades, I am hoping that what I learn will carry over somewhat, but I am focusing on workshop tools first.

The ebay device looks useful. I see there is a newer version on Amazon now – more expensive, of course, but perhaps the 1-2 punch will be required for my fairly dull knives.

I am a little surprised by your suggestion that I take this to a private blog. Private blogs get less reading and participation in my experience, and my purpose is both to learn from others as well as hopefully encourage others to learn and try. I have seen others post series’ on lumberjocks, and have done a series in the past which was well received. I’m a little puzzled, though not offended, by your suggestion that his isn’t the right place for such a series.

-- Mark, hack amateur woodworker, Medford (greater Boston) MA

View Iggles88's profile


247 posts in 2357 days

#8 posted 07-21-2013 09:34 PM

I did read that in your first post mark, i dont think the 1/8” will be a big issue just wanted to give the heads up. 23$ seems insane for glass, id get granite plates at that price.

View planeBill's profile


506 posts in 2405 days

#9 posted 07-22-2013 02:06 AM

Its actually float glass that you should be looking for. Its flat. Those prices sound way high to me too. If there are any furniture stores near you that have a repair shop they may have some shelves for say, a curio cabinet, that they would sell or give you that would work OK and may be free.

-- I was born at a very young age, as I grew up, I got older.

View Lee Barker's profile

Lee Barker

2170 posts in 2846 days

#10 posted 07-22-2013 05:42 PM

Quote: I’m a little puzzled, though not offended, by your suggestion that his isn’t the right place for such a series.

Mark, you are a true gentleman. I thank you for the response. As you describe it, in terms of exchange of information, I see that I was wrong. (not the first time, he repeated, nodding).

Let us carry on and explore your journey toward the Ultimate Edge.

Now hand me that Magic Slicer Miracle Blade III and signal Chef Tony to toss the pineapple in the air!

Kindly, and gratefully,


-- " his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage, he hath strange places cramm'd with observation, the which he vents in mangled forms." --Shakespeare, "As You Like It"

View brtech's profile


1029 posts in 2918 days

#11 posted 07-22-2013 06:12 PM

I think you are overly worried about how flat the glass is to the masonite.

It could be off by 1/8” and the system would work, but see below.

The method depends on the front surface of the glass being flat, not the front of the glass parallel to any other surface. It also depends on the abrasive film being flat against the glass. Using the adhesive backed film helps because it has a pretty uniform adhesive layer.

If the front surface of the glass is flat, and the film is flat against the front surface, not much else matters.

Since you are pressing against the glass as you sharpen, you want to avoid cracking it. That makes the glass to masonite bond flatness matter some, but not a whole lot. As long as you don’t have a high spot between the masonite and the glass, you will be okay. You don’t even need to spread that adhesive around much. Just run some squiggles, press and let dry.

View divingfe's profile


14 posts in 2178 days

#12 posted 07-22-2013 07:32 PM

Hi Mark, good luck on the beginning of your sharpening adventures. Some things I’ve learned (I’m about 6 months ahead of you, only in this particular venture): I have 3/8” plate glass, purchased from a “left-overs” bin at a glass supply outfit- seems to work well and had the edges already beveled- I took what size they had, about 11×25. seems to work ok, fairly flat, smooth and rigid. It cost me about $40 bucks, if I were to do it again, I’d go to a granite counters place and spend the $40 on a leftover, about 18×30. For mounting, I used 3/4 ” MDF, cut to fit the glass- I didn’t want any overhang beyond the glass edge- in order to make smoothing the backs of chisels/plane irons easier. Then I lay it on a “kitchen-drawer” style of rubber mesh- it grips really well, and removes easily for dust cleaning between grits- in order not to ‘contaminate” the smaller grits with larger grit particles.- a very important part of sharpening. Then, in addition to the mesh underneath the glass, I use another layer underneath the MDF, on top of my bench/table. There is a minor amount of flex, but it’s distributed over the whole glass surface- I’ve had good results. Many different kinds of sandpaper around, generally price seems to dictate durability, clogging, backing- material quality. My favorite is a relatively new 3M product “PRO GRADE- Advanced” (??) paper. Its purple and I like it because the back of the paper backing is coated with Post-It note stuff. It sticks to the glass without glue or…..
It holds well enough for my purposes, and I don’t have to mess with spray adhesive, and seems quite durable. I use a crepe stick for removal of metal dust- it REALLY extends the life of the paper. When I do use s/paper with regular backing, I use a very light coating of spray adhesive, just enough to make the backing surface tacky after a few minutes, so it will just hold onto the glass surface. That way , it’s much easier to remove/replace. If your are using several pieces of glass ( one for each grade). then of course that is minimized, but still….. I’ve used this system for flattening and smoothing the soles of the planes, and also with the inexpensive sharpening jigs, for the bevels, especially establishing the initial bevel, or re-establishing a damaged bevel One thing that I think is VERY important. If, sharpening/flattening, honing, etc, and the surface seem to be taking FOREVER to shape up, don’t waste your time. Switch to a coarser grade immediately( that is, really, 5 minutes earlier ;-)) ) . If you are using the proper grade, it should happen very quickly indeed. From then on, its just a matter of replacing bigger “scratches” with smaller “scratches”, as you switch to finer and finer grades of paper, and your mirror image becomes brighter and sharper.

I don’t know which is best (chuckle), the mirror finish getting brighter and brighter, or the lovely sound a really SHARP plane/chisel makes as it cuts the wood. Best of luck, my friend

-- Shortest distance between two points - a straight line. Longest distance - a shortcut.

View Mark Colan's profile

Mark Colan

211 posts in 2841 days

#13 posted 08-10-2013 08:42 PM

Dan Paret, local wood artisan, taught a class on sharpening today at Cambridge Center for Adult Ed. His approach is to keep things as simple as possible so that one is more inclined to sharpen more often, thus using tools that are more sharp. He asserts that sharpening more often is less work than starting from tools that need correction.

His methodology is similar to Brent’s Sharpening Pages – using sandpaper (not film) rather than stones etc. He starts by gluing down some 320 grit paper on flat 1/4” glass which is used to support the sandpaper you actually use, to keep it from slipping around. 120 or 150 for remedial (damaged) tools, or start with 220 for new tools, then 400, 1000, 2500. No water or oil.

He does not use jigs to hold the angle. Instead, he grinds a hollow using a 6” grinder, and the edges of the arc are used as a guide. The downside is that eventually you will sand away the arc and have to hollow it again.

Aside from chisels, he also taught how to sharpen and use a scraping card, using a burnisher and 1000 / 2500 sandpaper.

After mastering the basics on a 3/4” chisel that was in relatively good shape, I restored a 1/2” chisel which had a chip out of the edge, and a slightly pitted surface from corrosion. The metal looks like new now, but that’s not what’s important: I need to make them WORK sharp, too, and now I know how.

Like dancing, sharpening is not something I think I could learn by reading about it. It was very helpful to have demonstrations, and then have him look over my shoulder and offer guidance, plus help troubleshoot problems.

Now I have a foundation, and it’s time to practice.

-- Mark, hack amateur woodworker, Medford (greater Boston) MA

View kdc68's profile


2657 posts in 2272 days

#14 posted 08-10-2013 08:48 PM

Thank you Mark for a lot a useful information here…adding to my favorites for future use

-- Measure "at least" twice and cut once

View Mark Colan's profile

Mark Colan

211 posts in 2841 days

#15 posted 08-11-2013 07:49 PM

For those of you who have added this as a favorite, I suggest you favorite my new blog (Learning to Sharpen) that replaces this one for future entries.

Lee Barker wrote: “BTW, I’m wondering if your idea, a helpful and creative one, would be more at home as a blog on your home page than the here’s-my-question form.”

It’s been a year or two since I wrote a blog entry, and I had forgotten that there was a separate blog facility within Lumberjocks. So Lee, you’re right after all, and I’m moving all future comments on sharpening to the new blog. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

-- Mark, hack amateur woodworker, Medford (greater Boston) MA

Have your say...

You must be signed in to reply.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics