Some time ago I decided to go against my better judgment and counter some of the status quo currency by which people create an impressive and imposing posture. That’s not an altogether a wise thing to do and the giants in the world of woodworking are no different than in any other business in that they all have their false gurus (self-professed or otherwise) to try to present fashion and the essentiality of owning information others want and feeding tiny portions of it so that people keep coming back for more. My goal is to give recognition to the past and evaluate whether we need to purely accept what the media in woodworking says, or be prepared to counter it if the information is presented in such a way as to sensationalize in order to sell. Of course that is going to be the case in most cases so it has become increasingly more important to conservationists like myself to recognize a standard of historical and traditional commonsense in the face of the erroneous or flawed contemporaneous information. That’s where I stand and that’s why I do what I do. In no way do I look at issues purely for the sake of argument or to create contention.
Every six months or so I read articles extolling the virtues of using guides to establish primary and secondary bevels to chisels and plane and spokeshave irons. The articles all contain the same information, reason and purpose and is always based on two perspectives. Asa Christiana of Fine Woodworking recently promoted the use of honing guides for “hobbyist” woodworkers because he felt that hobbyists couldn’t establish what professional woodworkers could establish because they spend significantly less time in the woodshop than the professionals did. In reality, I find that most woodworkers in this group can actually spend more of their creative time establishing freehand sharpening and achieve perfect results in a matter of a few hours. It makes no sense to say that hobbyists are less capable of establishing sharpening skills or any other skills because of limited time. Again, in actuality, I find that those I have trained can capably sharpen all of their chisels and planes and get on with their work as they establish these skills. Minor correction is needed occasionally, but this is all part of their learning curve to establish skill and avoid substitutes that appear to make sense. Soon they go to the stones confidently and get back to joint making, planing and sawing as a matter of work. In my book, using the term hobbyist somehow sets a tone. It frames the issue people might find themselves identifying with when actually, I have find that amateurs capably surpass much of the standard many so-called professionals abandoned long ago for the faster and the better and most professionals I come in contact with cannot move without some jig at their elbow all of the time. I do want to emphasise though that, whereas it is true that every so often I come across someone who just cannot get sharpening using the freehand methods out there, that’s only about one half of a percent and in such cases I recommend that they use a simple honing guide as an aid towards establishing freehand skills. I encourage them to use this as a steppingstone and to persevere until they establish the skill and the freedom to take off the “training wheels”. That said, when I was a boy apprentice of 15 years old, I was shown how to sharpen only once. I never thought of myself as an amatuer or hobbyist, even though I had never done this before. I simply took the task and made it mine. I still do it now and have never found anything that surpassed it in speed or quality at the bench.
Another issue for me is the pure assumption nowadays that micro-bevel sharpening is the unflawed standard for all woodworkers and that that is the only method and goal for today’s woodworker. I have never prescribed to this method and have many good reasons that support my stance. But the point is with today’s woodworking no one discusses the possibility of an alternative and no one thinks that they should alter the bevel for other reasons. For instance, I have found that many of the highly touted hard-steel chisels edge-fracture along their length rather than wear. That they have no edge strength or durability that gives them sustained edge retention, which I have discussed in greater detail in an earlier blog. These chisels result in breakage in part or whole along the chisel edge and these can indeed be high-dollar chisels. I found this to be the case with all the Robert Sorby bevel-edged chisels produced after the 1980s at one time. Did I throw the chisels out with their lovely boxwood London Pattern handles and all? Certainly not. I was briefly disappointed, yes, but there had to be a reason and there had to be an answer. First I looked at the wood I was working, old growth long-leaf pine, and then the nature of the work in hand. I felt that the annual rings were too hard and inconsistent for the chisel’s bevel shape as it came from the manufacturer. I was chopping and not paring, two very different tasks with different demands. I found that when chopping I needed to increase my bevel-angle by about 5-degrees, changing it from 30- to 35-degrees. This totally resolved the issue of edge fracture and one of my sons still uses the chisels. The chisel still cut as well 35-degrees when I was paring too, but the resolution in shaping and reshaping the bevel takes only minimal time, one minute or less task, even for getting back to the paring bevel of 25-30 degrees. This is the advantage I find in freehand speed sharpening.