Sharpening chisels—forget weaker micro bevels

Sharpening chisels—forget weaker micro bevels

Controversial though it may seem, and though adopting micro-bevel methods for sharpening chisels may seem to make sense, a freehand convex bevel actually gives exactly the same sharpness as any micro-bevel method, but takes only a fraction of the time to develop. A convex bevel keeps its edge longer, is stronger than most other bevels and needs no special equipment beyond a pair of hands. Establishing the skill to sharpen the convex camber on the bevel of a chisel is amazingly fast and when you do, you have that skill for life. On the other hand, why take ten times longer using machine methods when simple non-electric methods prove ten times faster and produce pristine results in seconds every time?

While I was teaching this in this week’s foundational workshop I though it might be helpful if you saw the sharpening  technique we use and have been used for centuries in action.  Stones do not have to be flat to use this method, so there is no flattening of stones as with conventional water- and oil-stone methods. This is explained more in depth in two earlier blogs 13 December 2011 Sharpening on Hollow Stones and  11 December 2011 Going against the gods – myth busting.

 

Sharpening plane irons

We covered sharpening the cutting irons of bench planes too and so I have yet another video we made during lunchtime of Saturday’s class that will help you to do the same with your bench planes. That will be up in a couple of days.

49 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I see you are using glass cleaner for lubrication on the diamond plates. I can understand not wanting to use water
    because of rust on tools and diamond plates, but what made you choose glass cleaner?Ric

    • Hello Ric,
      I have used all manner of fluids for this but I wanted something that didn’t enter my body through the skin that was harmful. Many chemical-based products are. I tried glass cleaner one year, one that was harmless, and it kept the plates clean and free from clogging so I carried on with it. I actually don’t use fluid every time, perhaps one in five, but when I have ten sets of chisels and planes to sharpen I use liquid because doing so many inevitably clogs the plates, especially the finer plates. being as the makers recommend soap and water for cleanup I figured something similar might work well for sharpening too.

      Best regards,

      Paul

  2. Ralph J Boumenot says:

    Finally, someone who debunks the micro bevel buzz that I don’t buy. My thinking is that a micro bevel is weak and can’t possibly hold an edge for any length of time. Secondly, I have never read anything from the old guys about micro or secondary bevels. Why are we trying to re-invent the wheel?
    ralph

    • Well, actually, whereas micro-bevels work they are different than secondary bevels, but no one states clearly the difference. A micro bevel is a very fine secondary bevel so called because of its super narrow width. Without this refined addition, a 25-degree bevel fractures significantly more easily. So, if you grind as the text books sat f, first at 25-degrees, and you want to use a mallet and hit more than you would use hand pressure, you must strengthen the weaker incline by adding a second bevel. Why not simply grind with one bevel all together and maintain the steeper bevel? It actually takes the same time because if you don’t, at some point you have a lot of grinding to do because you created a ‘thick’ edge.

      • Kees van der Heiden says:

        The bottleneck I see in your method is finding the edge. It would be easy to spend all your time rubbing the chisel back and forth without ever hitting the edge, because you keep the angle too low.

        Using a microbevel seems easier. The trick is to keep that microbevel small. Just like you do, you put two stones on the table, a coarse and a fine one. You feel for the primary angle and rub it back and forth a couple of times, maintaining that angle. This doesn’t sharpen the edge, but keeps the microbevel small. Then you go to the fine stone. Feel for the primary again, then lift up the chisel a little bit and polish the micro bevel. Because the  microbevel is so small, a little deviation from the existing angle won’t matter and even on a fine stone you can raise a burr.

        I don’t see where your method is faster then the one I describe here, but I see more frustration in learning.

        • There is no bottleneck so why introduce something that isn’t an issue. Its as easy to find the edge as falling off a log so let’s dismiss that one too. The video shows how quick it is to complete the task and you don’t need any more proof there. It actually takes about one minute for the whole process so that’s fast and efficient use of time. No complaints there either. The point about the micro-bevel in theory, as I point out in the blog, is that if it is small it is weak because of course the edge fractures and isn’t actually wearing so much.
          It isn’t at all frustrating to over 4000 students that now use this method and many more thousands besides. It’s simply a method that held good for hundreds of years that still works as well as micro-bevel sharpening systems but gives a stronger more resilient edge.

          • You will love this method. Man, it really moves and gets you working wood so fast you get caught in the whirlwind of your buddies just ahead of you.
            Seriously, I hope it brings a new freedom to you. I am not in the business of selling anything. I want to heklp my friends in woodworking ads much as I possibly can so if you don’t like ti switch back. Having relied on stabilisers (training wheels) for some time, you may feel a bit woobly at first, but persevere and you will master real skill.

          • Mrnanowire says:

            I like the analogy with training wheels for a bike. Really, who would like to ride with such all their life?

          • Kees van der Heiden says:

            Well, I have dropped the jig for a while now. So I don’t see an advantage in speed. Sharpening freehand with a microbevel is very fast too and indeed liberating.

            I am always most concerned with the long term effects. Will I be able to resharpen easily many times? Won’t the angle of the edge increase over time? Like I said only testing for myself will answer this for me.

          • I think these worries are really unfounded. Once you master any method it remains with you until you find something better. if you don;t like at after giving it a fair trial, simply revert back to what you thought was better. I recall a man once offering to show me a method of sharpening carving tools. I was too proud to accept because he was an amateur and I was a professional. It was ten years later before I learned his methods. It changed my life, but ten years late.

    • Craftsmen have used elongated oval cambers for at least four decades because many of them never had access to angle jigs and circular grindstones, hand cranked or electric. What they did have was hollowed out stones and it was on these that they honed the bevel of their chisels only and not the flat face, which they kept the other side of their whetstones completely flat for.

  3. Norbert says:

    I think Paul’s method is the instinctive, natural way of sharpening. Grab a chisel and try to make it sharp wihout jigs or a grinding wheel.That’s how one is gonna do it. Of course the amount of convexity will differ from person to person, even getting close to straight bevels, like the Japanese do, but this requires the least equipment, fast and reliable, and easy to learn. I tried most if not all systems, burnt edges on the wheel etc. I find it a very practical method and would advise anybody to give it a try.
    Norbert

    • I also thought it worth mentioning that I never grind any of my edge tools on any mechanical grinder because its too slow, I always grind of more steel than I need too and its unnecessary unless of course I drop it on concrete or hit a nail. Then I grind by machine for mass removal.

  4. Edge retention is the key thing and after zillions of woodworkers have adopted this other method it’s hard to get them to change. This method does it all and it’s fast and efficient so you get to working wood which is what you really want. I never had the luxury if spending an hour sharpening a chisel. My boss as an apprentice didn’t even let me whistle when I worked. He always said, “I don’t pay you to whistle, get in with it.” The good ol’ days!

  5. Krunkthemadman says:

     Paul this method works better if you let a velociraptor do it for you using a snapping turtle as a whetstone…..

    All joking aside, this method is GREAT

  6. Lucas Crenshaw says:

     Paul this method works better if you let a velociraptor do it for you using a snapping turtle as a whetstone…..

    All joking aside, this method is GREAT

  7. Eric says:

    Thanks Paul, I’ve successfully sharpened all my chisels with this method now and am very very happy with the sharpness and the speed!  This method was so fast.  One thing I noticed with this method vs. my previous hollow grind and freehand hone method is that stropping is much easier and more effective with the large convex bevel riding on the strop.  I’m not so worried about distorting the small microbevel that exists in front of the hollow grind.  Thanks again, I’m looking forward to trying this with my plane irons soon and I can’t wait to purchase and work my way through the Artisan Course. 

    • I am glad you’ve found success. All that need happen now is that it will be so natural a move that in seconds you will go from dull to sharp and be back to the work in hand with only a blink of an eye in between. You no longer need concern yourself with little bevels yet you have the exact same results without guides. Correction for squareness will soon become intuitive and your chisels will always be sharp.

  8. Will I hollow my new and flat water stones? And should I care: As in, will I still be able to achieve sharpness I can work as well with in five years as I achieve today, using the same stones, even when sharpening small chisels, large plane blades, *and* carving tools and turning chisels over time?

    If so, I’m sold. If not, tell me what I need and I’ll get it. Your method is fast and un-fussy.

    • If you use the presently flat stones without reflattening them they will of course develop into a long and graceful hollow. This then will put a convex bevel onto the bevel of the tool being sharpened. As long as you start somewhere around 30-degrees, and drop your hand as you push forward, the cutting edge will result in an edge that matches any other method that endorses a 30-degree bevel regardless of whether it is a primary, secondary or micro bevel. Because I advocate lapping and flattening the flat face at the outset, and then polishing that face to a near mirror finish, I no longer have need of a flat surface on my stone although obviously there are other tools I need a flat face for. I recommend either a second stone (for those who prefer surface fracturing stones like water stones) kept for flattening wide surfaces like plane irons or wider chisels or a flippable stone with one hollowed and one flat face. It’s inevitable that friable stones will hollow and erode through use, that’s their main advantage is that the create new cutting surface throughout the sharpening process.
      I happen to like the flatness of the diamond plates because I can flatten plane soles and lap plane irons which I do a lot with having students come with their planes and chisels and also in demonstrating how to fettle the bench plane in restoration.

  9. Dear Mr. Sellers,

       I noticed you use (and I assume prefer) the continuous (no holes) diamond stones for sharpening. Do you choose them for any real benefit over the interrupted diamond plates?

    • Yes, I like continuous with NO holes. Although the holed ones work fine on wide edge tools the 1/8″ and 1/4″ chisels can hook the corners of these narrower widths so I avoid them in general.

  10. Dave G says:

    Hi Paul
    Although I have been using the abrasive paper and the float glass method of sharpening for a while now with quite good results after watching your youtube video on using diamond stones I have splashed out on the three grades of diamond lap pltes you suggested I went for the 8″ x 3″ DMT plates If any body else is looking for these diamond plates they should  have a look at http://www.toollineuk.com a company that I have not used before but would recommend they were extremely helpfull over the phone and with a quick delivery and  a price delivered if you buy the 3 stones of £55.42 each 
    Paul that is 1 out of three , now on diamond plates just have to give up the honing guage and the micro bevel   
    Regards
    David
     

  11. Aaron Rappaport says:

    Hi Paul,
    You mentioned that you don’t use a mechanical grinder on your edges, but what do you do if you get a large nick in one of them?
    Thanks, Aaron

  12. Sergey Zolotaryov says:

    A question to Paul.

    After adopting your style of sharpening and getting positive results as compared to microbevels I have posted on a Russian woodworking forum about the diamond findings. I have got a flood of negative responses. The essence is: you are a newbie, don’t disturb us, japanese waterstones are the best, etc. The main reasoning for using waterstones was: if you sharpen with japanese waterstones you somehow get a smoother finish on the cutting edge which makes it last longer – 1 hour was the number. And if you sharpen with diamonds you will have a coarser cutting edge, which you have to resharpen in 3 minutes. (No one even bothered with the fact that you hone on chromium oxide, which removes all the serrations on the cutting edge).

    What in your experience is the typical longevity of the cutting edge? In minutes or hours or number of strokes.

    • I like this question and I like the fact that they counter with their thoughts on water stones. O f course they are now caught up in the art of sharpening and not working wood. This a school that wants to have sharp tools and not work wood. I accept this as a group. Bit like people who own boats and spend 50 weeks a year repairing and maintaining boats in and out of the water and then sail for af few hours before starting over for another year of repaints and patches on patches on patches on repaints. That’s a group that likes maintenance and not sailing. They love to own boats but not the sailing. With some woodworkers, they like to take long wide shavings from one end of an 18″ piece of maple to the other one-thousandth of an inch thick. They are not usually making pieces of furniture for a living and have unlimited time to spend sharpening up. I like two seconds on the stone then two hours on the wood in that proportion. My chisels are as sharp as anyone’s and they stay sharp as long as anyone else’s. I don’t worry any more about proving it, I just do it.

      Oh, by the way, abrasive is abrasive is abrasive. Some cut fast and some last long,. Sometimes there is a compromise between fast cutting and sharpness.
      A lady once sang a song called, “Diamonds are for ever.” and another woman sang, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. I like diamonds by the million electroplated to sheets of dead-flat steel. They stay flat. In my case, Diamonds are a man’s best friend.

  13. marcforte says:

    Hi Paul,

    I can see some advantages to your method and also some disadvantages.

    It’s not true that convex bevel sharpening takes ten times as long as sharpening concave bevels. In fact most of the times when I sharpen (concave) I am at the stone for a shorter time than you are in this video. I usually only need to use a single stone (1200 grit), because there is less material to remove. No need to work up through the grits. I don’t use any kind of honing guide, I just maintain a steady angle, which is easy enough with a bit of practice. If I’m not done in less than 20 seconds then I’m taking too long.

    I do have a powered grinder, and now and again regrind a primary bevel, but even that is a very quick process, and `I would have a grinder anyway for rough re-shaping, so it’s not problem. And like you I use diamond stones so never any problem with needing to flatten them. Before I had diamonds I used india stones and never needed to flatten those either!

    One slight disadvantage of a convex bevel on chisels is that it makes the edge thicker, so that it displaces more material when paring. It make a somewhat less subtle blade which is more liable to be pushed into the ‘good’ part of the work through pressure from the waste side. Perfectly avoidable with care of course, but still a consideration.

    In my experience it is easier and quicker to precisely shape the camber of wide blades like plane irons if they are ground concave, which is desirable in certain situations.

    I’m not saying your method is inferior — as I can see several advantages to it and it is a perfectly serviceable no nonsense approach. While I share your lack of enthusiasm for unnecessary jigs and such I do think that you are unnecessarily dismissive of others in some of your comments.

    • I think all too often we do dismiss the advantage of a convex bevel for much of our work. It was interesting that the convex bevel referred to in Lost Art Press recently when research on the Seaton Tool chest revealed convex bevels on the tools inside. It has been my finding for decades now that most craftsmen used convex bevels.
      I used to use Norton India carborundum stones and had to flatten them once a year. The , one year, I realised it didn’t matter if the stone remained concave as once the flat face is flattened and polished you didn’t need to do it again.

  14. Luke says:

    Hi Paul,
    I’ve been trying your freehand sharpening method with what I had thought was success, until I tried following your instructional video on cutting a mortise, at which point I found that my chisels don’t cut through the wood anywhere near as easily as yours do. I reassessed my chisels and found that they still reflect a very thin line of light along the cutting edge, so I’m assuming they are still not properly sharp. What might I be doing wrong? (The chisels cut through paper easily, like yours do in this video, and I have a nice mirror finish on the bevel as well)

    • follow the video meticulously and you will have the technique down. Sharpening will come. Some times I find the ccommon problem is lifting the chisel and flicking at the end of the stroke. This tends to round over the end and so it looks polished but has been dulled to a bluntness. Keep the chisel at the correct angle and you will have it.

  15. Gary says:

    Paul,

    Sorry if this is obvious, but I’m a rank amateur and have to ask. What do you have the stones mounted to and how are they mounted to it?

    • I recess them 1/8″ deep into a board, which can be solid wood or plywood. I use clear silicone sealant to secure them and cushion them. That way I can also remove them if I ever need to.

  16. Get into the habit of spending more time on the heel of the bevel than the cutting edge. everyone wants to get the cutting edge more than the heel. Once you work the heel with a few more strokes each time, you will get that out of the way and get tp the edge much quicker.

  17. Jonathan says:

    Well, I read this atricle several days since, and decided I would give it a go. I dug out a set of cheap stanley yellow chisels that I use for general DIY I also had a rummage and dug out an old norton combi stone (cant afford diamonds at the moment) which has been unused for 6 years or so. I tried the rounded bevel honing-and to my surprise and delight, took to it straight away. Evidently with this method you arent worrying about trying to perfect your grip and stance etc etc to develop and maintainn a human version of a honing guide with a perfect constant angle. If I am understanding it correctly, it works naturally and intuitively with the chisel or iron in the positions they naturally want to be in..raised a little at the back of the stone and dropped a little at the front of the stone. Anyway no word of a lie, those chisels WERE slightly rough-Not chipped or dinged-but not slicing or paring sharp either. It literally took me 3 or 4 minutes to restore all 5 to shaving sharp. I used solvol autosol aluminum polish on leather as a final strop. LOL my mind went sort of into a warped overdrive (with sustain)-I really dont NEED the tormek any more, I dont NEED that set of waterstones any more….Seriously, I am looking at selling the entire lot, and buy some douglas fir and redwood boards instead LOL…..Next thing I was rummaging and found some blue marples chisels I got at a car boot 8 or 9 years ago. Same thing, shaving sharp in less than a minute, it sseems too good to be true-but it works AND the chisels look sensational when they have been done this way. Then I did a plane iron…..I had forgotten what it was like to hone on a hard resilient surface after using waterstones for quite a while. I simply dont think that system is right for me, too faffy and messy, stones too fragile. One thing I did always like about the norton, you can take it on site, any where, no need to carry a mobile pond along with it. I made a box for it from a piece of pitch pine joist and a piece of teak chopping board for the lid, I used white spirit as lube today, but I will get a small bottle with a diluted oil mix. I always like to use a simplle kit, this rounded bevel honing is “champion” (as we say in Yorkshire) And of course being a tight wad tyke, the fact that I can sharpen effectively with just 1 combi stone appeals on the financial front as well..

    Thanks for sharing this brilliant method Paul!

    Cheers Jonathan

    • Damien King says:

      Jonathan,

      I can hear in your writing the same excitement and enthusiasm as I had when I experienced this revelation. It truly is an amazing feeling when you crack the code on sharpening to a level of surgical sharpness using Paul’s ancient method. The next best thing is that you realize that you will never need another method for the rest of your life and that you don’t need any special equipment which also means speed, repeatability, and greatly reduced costs. Congrats on achieving this wonderful milestone and since its been a number of months since your discovery I would bet you have seen an exponential improvement in your woodworking results that have come from using truly sharp tools. I love that something so simple can literally cause a paradigm shift that changes your definition of what you think of as sharp.

      Cheers from America

  18. Jonathan says:

    LOL I just remembered, I bought a framing chisel a while ago, it was strong and heavy-and it was honed with what I now realise was an exquisite rounded bevel. In my “misinformed arrogance” I dismissed it as the work of an amateur-and promptly ground it away….

  19. Ed says:

    I’ve used Paul’s method exclusively for some time now and am satisfied. There is one issue I’ve had, though, which perhaps others have experienced. The symptom is that sharpening will, on occasion, give a sharp chisel but when I use it to pare end grain in oak, like a tenon shoulder, after a cut or two, it will seem dull. I’ve discovered that, when this happens, if I feel the back of the chisel, there is a heavy burr. That burr was not there after sharpening (or did not appear to be there). If I remove it, the chisel is razor sharp.

    There’s some error in my technique. Perhaps I’m making too heavy a burr and not really getting it off on the superfine and strop after all. Perhaps not enough time on the fine and super fine? Here is something that may help you, if you experience this. After sharpening, put the chisel onto scrap oak across the grain (as if chopping a mortise) and rap it with a mallet. Now feel the back for a burr. If you feel it, then you’ve got my problem. Just give another pull on the super fine and rap again. On occasion, it will take even 5 tries to get rid of that burr. When gone, strop.

    Again- Not an issue with Paul’s method and you shouldn’t need to do this, but it is something others may experience when they are learning and a crutch that might help until you get past it. I’d say, if you think you’re getting sharp now, give this test a try and see if it raises a burr. If so, you could be sharper still. This happens mostly on wide chisels for me, especially 1″. It did not happen to half a dozen other people I know who also use Paul’s method.

  20. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for your input Ed.

    Dont get me wrong, I did get decent sharp edges with waterstones, BUT at the cost of fiddly, messy procedures with delicate easily damaged stones-and a questionable level of consistency. I have come to the conclusion it isnt right for me…
    I just used the fine side of a bog standard Norton stone (probably 1200 grit?) to try Pauls method. What astonished me was that despite it being my first try out, the first chisle came out SHARP, then the second, then the third, all 5 one after the other, the wire edge just spiralling off like a strand of wire wool, paring slicing sharp in just a few short minutes….awesome!

    Just a thought are you stropping enough times, I recall a recommended 30 passes? And pressing down firm enough but without rounding the edge back over?
    I havent tried chromiun oxide yet. I used metal polish which has aluminium oxide in it, My (carving knife) strop is a board around16 inches long and 3 inches wide, 3/4 inch thick covered with 3 mm stiff leather-which is rough but not so much as in Pauls videos. What strop system do you have?
    cheers Jonathan

    • Ed says:

      Sorry for the confusion- I was just adding to the general discussion rather than replying to any particular posting. On the strop, yes, lots of pressure and many strokes. On a 1″ chisel, I feel the chisel being warmed considerably by the strop and see the wax on the strop soften and glisten. My strop is leather from a craft store cemented to a block of MDF equal in size to my EZ lap stones (roughly 8×3). That way I can just pop it into my stone holder (although that is less useful than I hoped when I first built it). My stone holder is just two battens rather than mortises because I like to be able to move any stone to either edge. The issue’s not the strop, I’m sure.

  21. Shawn says:

    I would like to know how you maintain consistency in the edge from one sharpening to another. Also, many times I use a chisel bevel down for flat cuts. Can’t make a flat cut with a rounded bevel.

    • Some call it muscle memory, I call it training. Training your body does bring consistency to the sharpening to where it always comes out the same. But, if you never take the training wheels off you never know the freedom of riding a two-wheeler. You have to start somewhere at sometime to establish skill that stays with you and gives consistent results. Many people I have taught thought they could never get good results, but that’s not at all true. I never ever saw a craftsman use a honing guide in the everyday of their work. They just did not use them because they were unnecessary. They never told me to use them either, not even as a trainer. That doesn’t at all mean I never ever would use them. I do from time to time for different reasons. I just don’t use them very often and I certainly don;t think that people shouldn;t use them if they like them a=or feel they get better results with them than freehanding.
      I am not sure where or when I would ever use the bevel down for cutting a truly flat surface. Are you talking about in recesses or dadoes? If so, I use the bevel up and if the chisel is not long enough on say a wider board I would use a paring chisel. If it’s still not wide enough I would then use the chisel bevel down and get the same results you would get with a flat bevel no problem. Mostly this is about getting used to the idea that flat bevels and hollow grinds were not generally practiced by craftsmen of old even if the ground on a wheel. You can still create a convex bevel on a circular grinding wheel. First you grind the angle you want and then, when the grinding is where you want it, you push the bevel up the grinding wheel with the bevel in place and create a perfect convex bevel.

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