What is the history of sharpening?

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Forum topic by comboprof posted 09-08-2014 12:59 PM 1303 views 0 times favorited 8 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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277 posts in 1937 days

09-08-2014 12:59 PM

In particular what was the common pre-WWII method for sharpening bench planes, chisels and so forth? Did for example, Bailey or Stanley have any recommendations on which method to use?

-- -- Cheers, Don K. (Michgan's Kewenaw peninsula)

8 replies so far

View bondogaposis's profile


5093 posts in 2554 days

#1 posted 09-08-2014 01:31 PM

I’m pretty sure oil stones were the most common method before WWll.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View lwllms's profile


555 posts in 3484 days

#2 posted 09-08-2014 01:40 PM

Yes, Stanley had sharpening instructions. Here’s the back of a block plane iron from the 1970’s.

This was basically the same method Peter Nicholson wrote about in 1842 and also the method Joseph Moxon alluded to in the 1680's. It’s a system that evolved on workbenches over centuries and I don’t think there’s been much improvement in spite of all the claims and paraphernalia out there.

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

5128 posts in 4163 days

#3 posted 09-08-2014 02:14 PM

Sharpening has, for some reason, become the holy grail of woodworking. it is certainly a requirement, but not the end-all, be-all quest in the workshop.
Having said that, I use a Makita water stone wheel system, a grinder (7” with Norton grey wheels), 2 water stones, and a strop. I don’t have the need to challenge Vulcan about metallurgy or use 40 gazillion sub-micron stuff to attack wood.
My methods seem to achieve all the razor edges I’ll ever need.
Just my thoughts.


View comboprof's profile


277 posts in 1937 days

#4 posted 09-08-2014 02:28 PM

lwllms Great thanks. Having read these three… It seems that they all use stones and grinding wheels. Stanely does not mention oil or water, Nicholes uses oil, but Moxon uses water (spit).

It seems that Moxon suggests using a hand stone in favor of a bench stone, but it is not clear. I have to read through them again.

Bill forgive me but I am not asking what you use. I am asking historically what was used.

-- -- Cheers, Don K. (Michgan's Kewenaw peninsula)

View Mark's profile


971 posts in 2177 days

#5 posted 09-08-2014 02:38 PM

My father in law (RIP) was an old school carpenter from England. I received his set of oil stones, in wooden boxes he made. They work just fine.

-- Mark

View oldnovice's profile


7333 posts in 3570 days

#6 posted 09-08-2014 06:53 PM

lwllms, so what you are actually saying is that new ”cutting edge” sharpening technology is not really required to get a tool sharp!

-- "I never met a board I didn't like!"

View lwllms's profile


555 posts in 3484 days

#7 posted 09-09-2014 02:45 AM

That’s pretty much it, oldnovice. Extra coarse diamond stones are great to keep oil stones flat and fast cutting so they’re an improvement. Diamond stones, though, are lousy for sharpening because they have such a low density of abrasives and leave a scratched rather than polished surface. If you’re preparing a lot of old tools or freshly heat treated tools then a lapping machine is helpful for initial flattening. For example I heat treated and flattened 30 plane irons today. I wouldn’t suggest a lapping machine for most woodworkers unless they have a lot of money to burn. Other than these and better grinders woodworkers of the early 19th Century had all the advantages we have. Things like honing guides and the Tormek power hones get in the way and slow you down because they force you to focus on the bevel. The bevel is a snap, it’s the flat face that’s the real issue in sharpening.

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 3851 days

#8 posted 09-09-2014 02:52 AM

Oil stones were used in N. America and in Europe
I suppose. Strops and polishing compounds have
been around for awhile too. Fine abrasives were
made in the enlightenment period for th grinding
of lenses. I am sure pre-victorian surgeons had
some means of getting knives very very sharp,
perhaps oil stones.

In Japan and perhaps other areas water stones were used.
They do occur naturally worldwide and of course those
large foot-powered round stones traditionally used
by blacksmiths for sharpening would run in a trough
of water. Limestone or something like that.

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