Shut Up And Sharpen This!

A quiet Wednesday morning at home with just the dogs and I stirring about the house. My usual chair in the living room, fresh coffee in the cup and my iPad in my lap reading another section of the eye opening digital copy of David Savage's new book "The Intelligent Hand," (I cannot wait until I have the printed version in my hands) The book has changed the paradigm of woodworking books for me in the same way The Anarchist Tool Chest did. As a man who has spent a long time feeling like I'm holding pressure on a "bleeding neck" there is writing and themes and hope that affect me very deeply.

All in all this is a nearly perfect morning . . . until I come to the inevitable section. Sharpening. I have always disliked reading what others have to say about sharpening because it's all belly buttons and assholes and almost none of it matters. Oh, my sharpening routine matters to me, but I don't care how you go about it or what results you get. Every woodworker of experience eventually feels the pull to write about their own ritualized behavior gathered from preconceived voodoo, high magnification photographs, and the misplaced merits of metallurgy. And though I considered skipping the section I decided skimming through it wouldn't hurt me so bad. After all I was already there and the coffee was hot.

Sure enough, every trope that chaps my ass was there. But there was also a silver line of truth weaving the tapestry together. Savage managed to tip into the actual lesson of sharpening. The reasons WHY it's so important.

If you'd like to avoid my navel gazing skip the section bracketed by the asterisks.


I manage to sneak in several woodworking demos a year at various events. It's a lot of fun for me to show off how I work, open some folks minds to new ways (old ways) of doing things, and talk shop with folks I might not cross paths with otherwise. I even made a personal visit to a fairly new hand tool woodworker's shop to assure him the workbench he built was just fine and he should stop worrying it to death and use it to make things.

There was a recurring theme in my conversations this year. Again and again I was asked about sharpening. Here is my BS spiel:

First - It doesn't matter to me what medium you use to sharpen. What you have to buy into is Chris Schwarz's theory of Material Monogamy. Pick a system and live with it for a long time, until your results are consistent and good. These are the tough words to hear for most, there are a thousand advertisements and products promising you a golden shortcut that will be closer to a golden shower. ultimately you will have to figure it out for yourself. There are good books and sources that will give you a start. David Savage's instructions included. But only the application of tool to stone will accomplish anything. The same way reading about hand planing a board flat doesn't teach you nearly as much as totally screwing the pooch on your first few attempts. The intelligent hand is a ridiculously apt term and you have to give your hands the time to learn what they need to know.

Second - The real secret to sharpening happiness and a bell I don't believe gets rung nearly often enough, is a dedicated sharpening station/place/bench/hobbit hole. Nothing improved my sharpening all around than making it stupid easy to do. I know space is a premium in workshops but this is MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANY OTHER SINGLE OPERATION YOU DO.

Stopping to sharpen isn't getting in your way, IT IS THE WAY to good work more than any other single skill. Sharpening is the foundation.

Third - My choices and routine (though you shouldn't give a shit) I started dry sharpening using auto-body sandpaper. I used this system for nearly a decade. I'd work through six sheets starting at 320 grit and stopping at 2000. Eventually I got tired of running out of one grit or another and always thinking about having to buy more, or using sheets longer than they were really effective because scrapping up and gluing down a new sheet was a pain in the ass. Once I made the decision to move on the paralyzation through analyzation began.

So many systems and such an investment for each, but I knew somethings about myself. I wanted to make the investment once and hopefully never again in my life. That's the kind of monogamy I believe in. A decade was a dalliance and I was ready to settle down. Well taken care of water stones still wear out after a few decades and in 20 years could I be sure I could buy the same thing I liked? At what price then? Diamond stones were the same. In addition there was the water mess which you can never get away from completely in the shop, but I didn't want to deal with it.

I thought about what my grandpa would have chosen, what he used. Oil stones. I thought about what you find in antique stores and used tool sales. Oil stones. Often dished and well worn but clearly used effectively and still, with some resurfacing, useable. I bought one smaller oil stone in a box for $5 and an area thrift store and the previous owner had marked inside box with his name and the date 1920. That's sustainability I can get behind. So my answer was oil stones.

Here's the list: 
1. I keep everything I need set up at the station. I keep covers on the oil stones and honing block so they don't get dusty. I keep screwdrivers for cap irons in a holder next to the set up, I keep rags to wipe up the oil nearby. All the paraphernalia is in a cabinet drawer beneath the setup.

2. I coat my stones in sewing machine oil for use. It's a well refined light oil that is cheap and available in many many places in reasonably sized bottles. But I will use any variety of light oil. The job of lubrication and suspence of the slurry isn't so complicated it has to be one magical substance derived from crushed unicorn horn and wookie knuckles. Just wipe the stuff up when you're done!

3. I own two main stones I purchased new from Dan's Whetstones, a medium grade and a fine grade, I follow those up with a thick leather strop glued down to a block of pine which I've repeatedly charged with Green buffing compound, White compound might be a better choice, but green was all I could find when buying. it works fine and I will use it until the stick is gone, that might be a couple decades.

4. I use an Eclipse style guide as often as possible. I like the look of the newer Lie Nielsen guide but I hate the price point. I have a couple of wooden blocks I measured and made to help me set the guide perfectly repeatable everytime. I sharpen most of my my plane blades around 30 degrees and my block plane and chisels around 25 degrees. I get good results with these.

5. I sharpen the whole bevel. I don't like the complication of hollow grinding, I avoid grinding at nearly all costs. I set the blade in the guide. Darken the bevel with a sharpie, run it across the stone a few times and check to see if I like where the sharpie has been removed. Then bear down and do the work.

6. I flatten the back each time but lift my hand slightly for the last few strokes, adding a slight back bevel, similar to David Charlesworth's ruler trick, but less scientific. I also like the eclipse guide because it allows me to slightly rock the blade to add camber to my jack plane and to a lesser degree my smoothing plane blades. You can read a description of the technique HERE.

7. I am not afraid to free hand sharpen when needed. All my joinery plane blades, carving chisels, turning tools and knives get free handed. It's no big deal you just have to do it. The sharpie trick helps me assess how I'm doing. If the blade is small, like my marking gauge I will use a small machinist clamp to help hold it. I have a commercial honing block with various shapes to final hone my carving gouges.

8. I have a wooden block I've built up from 3 thicknesses of 2x4. It has a small lip that holds the oil stones shape. When sharpening something like a draw knife or a router plane blade where I need more clearance off the edge of the stone I will place this block on a no slip mat on the bench. Apply the stones and get to work.

The most important thing is that I don't hold off on sharpening. I'm not a "sharpen all the tools before I close up shop for the night," guy. I'm a pull the tool out of the tool chest, sharpen it and use it guy. Takes around 2 minutes most of the time. Again sharpening isn't "in my way" IT IS THE WAY. It's like saying you have to open the door to step out of your house.

(Now someone will comment they prefer to climb out the window, You know who you are and there isn't enough medication in the world for the rest of us who have to put up with you)


There's my how. I hope you skimmed or better yet skipped it. You don't need it, you can figure it out for yourself. But the WHY you might need to hear.

Savage is absolutely right when he writes about the amount of information a sharp edge translates to your own intelligent hand and as the blade becomes dull so does the fluency of the translation. I think that's the part that I've missed, or has always bothered me about sharpening instruction. You have to reach a certain level of competence before you actually understand how important sharp is, and without sharp, it is difficult to achieve those levels of competence. A difficult gambit.

No amount of ink spilled on a page can give you any of this.Words and video can shed some light, show you the doors. Obviously I cribbed a lot of technique from Charlesworth and Schwarz with help from Ron Hock and Leonard Lee. But I had to find my own way to get there, and once you see it, feel it, "hear" the information through your hands, you peak over that back yard fence and begin to see the wide world around. You begin to be conversant in a foreign language by the immersion technique. Learning the dialects of oak and pine.

I understand why the "sharpening sections" exist, though I hate most of what they say and hate reading them more. Sharp is important, maybe the most important. The issue is the only ones who can really understand are those who already know. I'm afraid you have to walk the path to there by yourself and it will take time and effort. That's the good and bad of it.

I want to be
One of the 863

P.S. To the many emails and messages I received after my last post, I appreciate all the well wishes and kind words. I hope this salvo diminishes your fears. It is the nature of the one sided conversation that is writing a blog that many, maybe most, are bound to miss read, or at least read things through their own filter. The fault lies on me for lack of clarity, and you for less than careful reading. 

I never stated this blog was dead, I understand how my words translated into a good-bye. It is kind of how I felt that day. What I was doing was giving myself permission to NOT write unless I felt I had something to say, and only as often as I wanted to. Realizing I do not have a sustainably prolific nature like Chris Schwarz or Don Williams has been one of those life lessons. 

And to come back from dead with a post about sharpening of all things.  yuck

But there it is. 



  1. OW

    I was delighted to see this up this morning, as I was one of those who read that you were mothballing your blog. Especially delighted that the fault was with my reading comprehension. As for this post, while I believe sharpening is THE gateway skill to almost everything else at the bench, I too get exasperated at the sharpening fundamentalists who say there is one and only one way to get to sharp. I remember Toshio Odate once saying,, "There is no such things as 'this sharp or that sharp'. There is only sharp and not sharp." My own method evolved through long thinking about the geometry of cutting, and it is now a short interlude for my work, mostly freehand sidewinding. That said, the LNT gauge is the bomb.


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