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A Dedicated Sharpening Bench
How sharp…

June 10, 2013

During my classes over the last couple of months, I repeatedly get asked questions like; “How sharp is it?” or, ” How sharp does it have to be?“- “Are these stones really worth the extra price?” or ” What stones are best for the sharpest edge?” and so on…

Ahh, the sweet mystery of sharp and the ongoing story on how to get there.

I know damn well how high that hurdle can seem when you first get into hand tools. With all of the stones, jigs and techniques out there to wallow (and eventually drown) in, it can be a constant battle with less than ideal results. I went through it, and you’ll go through it, but once you do get through it, the fog starts to lift and eventually you’ll begin to see that all of the information and products are really not that important after all.

The island of Sharp can be reached by many roads- sand paper on glass, oil or water stones; ceramic stones and diamond. An offcut of flattened hardwood with some of that ‘magical-green-paste‘ you rub on it. Even an old piece of leather, after you’ve danced with the whet-stone awhile, like your fathers father did all those years ago. Yes indeed, they can all get you there.

Now,  jig or no jig?

And yes,  freehand does sound romantic and liberating but is it repeatable? Perhaps a better question is- is it repeatable in your hands? Give it a fair shake and see where you end up. I don’t, but I know many that do.

Grinder? ( I barely know ‘er! )

Slow speed or water? Bench top or floor model?

Hand crank or other?

Maybe you’ll dish out some hard earned cash for a vintage hand crank model on Ebay because you saw someone on line do that.  After a few weeks it arrives in the mail, and reality starts to set in. You spent a few dollars on a crooked old cast piece of rusted metal that you tell yourself you’ll tune up one day but, until that day comes the struggle to sharp continues. The frustration creeps in and you find yourself sitting behind the computer far more often than you stand behind your work bench. Joining the league of virtual wood workers who burn the hours watching others making shavings. Funny, those are usually the first who complain or feel the world needs to hear their opinions about how it’s done in the wood shop!

If I could answer all of the questions I’d start by saying, keep it simple stupid!

Really.

Such a cliche but it’s true.

I don’t use a grinder. I had a slow speed model a few years ago but it never really worked all that well for me.

( maybe it was the plug? ; )

I’d probably use a decent hand crank model if I had one-  hollow grinding would speed things up a little but until then….I have three water stones and I keep them flat and maintain them. I have an inexpensive, side-clamping honing guide for 90% of my cutting tools and a Veritas Mk. II, I purchased a long time ago when I thought I needed something that fancy. Turns out I only use it for high angle irons, skewed irons and really thin tools.

I use a 220 grit stone for re-shaping the manufacturers bevel every couple of weeks or so, (whenever it’s needed) and a 1000 grit for the day to day shaping with an 8000 for polish. I’ve been using those same stones and honing guides for years and never found a problem with them. ( and yes, I do the ‘ruler trick’ )

This method worked for me and I stuck with it, fine tuned it, built the muscle memory and eventually mastered my own version/method of sharpening. It isn’t new or unique but it works for me and the work I do. You’ll do the same but only with some practice.

Once you choose a road, give it a chance and stay on it for awhile. That’s the only way you’ll get there. It isn’t difficult but it can take some time.

A student brought along a set of Shapton stones that went through every grit all the way up to 30000. Very impressive and no doubt a small fortune! I tried them and you know what? My plane iron was sharp. It was really, really sharp. But once you get to sharp that’s kind of the end of the ride.

Are there levels or degrees of sharp?

Sure there are.

Do they matter or make much of a difference?

Not really. Not that I could tell. The 30000 grit seemed ‘sharp-er‘ but how much I couldn’t say.

For the cabinetmaker’s wood shop where rough lumber is shaped into fine furniture with hand tools….I’m not so sure it makes a difference. Perhaps in a test lab, where cutting edges are placed under microscopes and the finest shavings are curled off of a rainbow of wood species- maybe under those circumstances would you find a noticeable difference. But for me, on my 8000 grit water stone, I’m able to achieve my destination and work the wood that I bring into my shop.

Follow your own road and remember, the journey is the destination.

Cheers!

PS.

As I finished writing this post, I received an email. I just opened it to find that Lee Valley is having an In-Store Sharpening Event from Thursday, June 13th to Saturday, June 15th 2013.  The news letter says- Try, Learn, Ask…

That may be a good idea if you’re in the neighborhood.

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