On Strops and more

Why strops? You ask. Why not stones to 25-30,000 grit?

I think that sometimes we must look beyond what magazine articles say and certainly what the catalog companies project on their pages too. Within our present age of mass-information, there exists an undercurrent that usually goes undetected yet this undercurrent carries within its sway the ability to create not clarity and singleness but mystery and confusion. I think too that we all realize that amidst the age of mass information there exists in equal measure an age of misinformation. Combining the real with the unreal or the true information with the untrue creates a severe deficit of exactly what it takes to assimilate any information at all and that is attention. We are incapable of processing all of the information that invades our woodworking turf. One thing that I know is that we are subjected to ever greater confusion the more magazines and catalogues we read. Rarely do they dispel ambiguity but create it.

Sharpening tools has become increasingly more complex. Mostly because of set ups. People are set up and here is the reason why. It doesn’t really matter what abrasion you use to create a slurry of abrasive material to cut through steel. I have used them all; from Norton India stones back in the 60-80s to Japanese water stones of every type imaginable, man-made or naturally quarried. I have used ceramic stones, diamond stones, abrasive wet-and-dry and a whole range of natural stones. Some cut fast and some cut slow. Some fracture faster than others and hollow out fast whilst others resist hollowing by any discernible amount. I cannot imagine for the life of me trying to make a decision from reading a product catalog alone and I certainly could not afford the time and money it would take to try every type. ot that mix that fact that there are a zillion unsubstantiated opinions via the internet and the whole becomes too massive a haystack to find the point in.

More and more I come across hybridized systems where people are more intent on making a name for themselves than helping dispel the confusion. In their ambition to create their own ultimate system they not only lose the simplicity of sharpening but add ever further confusion that so destroys the joy of working wood. These are the most confused methods and comprise everything from diamond paste and oil to lapping plates and wet-n-dry in twenty grades and grits. Add into that two water stones, two diamond plates and two natural stones and there will be no change fro $500. The process itself then foisted on the unknowing ones is often a two-day event to flatten, hone and polish something as simple as a chisel or plane iron. Whoa! What happened to simply sharpening a chisel.

I write my blog for one reason these days. Most of what I write is to help dispel the confusion created by magazines, but at the same time most of what I write is not the stuff of magazine articles.

The men who trained me took two minutes to sharpen and hone a chisel edge. They never used a honing guide, they got on that two wheeled bike and rode it until they found the incredible value of balance. Before long they were riding that bike like an eagle and they never came off it again. So it is with sharpening. Some take a little longer and some get t right away, but the fact is that within an hour they can do it guide-free and they too sharpen their chisel and get on with working wood.

I just want to cut through the confusion and I will not argue with anyone who wants to spend two days sharpening the perfect edge with any method they choose if that’ what their desire is. In my book, it’s best to use three abrasive plates that stay flat, cut fast and last long. A stop and a block of wood with abrasive compound creates the mirror finish I like and I am done. Most magazines come out with an article on any same subject about every six  months or so. One of my editors once told me he could repeat an article on sharpening every six months without anyone noticing. He pointed out that all he needed was a different abrasive. Catalog company buyers go to the World Trade Centres in search of new wallpaper. It’s  the freedom of misinformation that causes the greater confusion.

So, to answer the question, “Why strops?”

Strops are simply the most effective way of discharging fine abrasive to the bevel of any edge tool. The leather has no other equal to both discharge and cushion the cutting edge during the abrasive process at this level of fineness. The leather absorbs the abrasive into its body and at the same time absorbs all shock. There is no mess at all. Strops are safe to use, simple to make, last a long time and can be made from just scraps of thin leather and a block of any kind of wood or plywood.

Which side of the leather?

I usually use the rougher textured side for general strop work, but for ultra fine stropping of say 25,000 I use the smooth side. If the finish is too hard or smooth, I use abrasive paper to give a little ’tooth’ to the surface. I generally use buffing compound available from Lee Valley Veritas and here is the link. My strops are always 3” wide, 3/4” thick and 10” long. I used to use rubber cement or plastic laminate cement and this works well, but I found that double-sided mounting tape works just as well and double-sided carpet tape all the better.

22 comments on “On Strops and more

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write. This does indeed show different perspectives on getting the same end results. One is laboursome and complex whilst for those of us who don’t have the luxury of spare time must get to the task we sharpened for.

  2. I learned sharpening from Youtube. I watched the video and then bought 3 cheapo diamond stones and a block of green polishing wax. Soon I was sharp!
    It went so well and was so enjoyable that I wanted to experience the mystical land of ‘super sharp’ you read so much about. So I purchased real diamond stones (big ones), a honing guide and super fine waterstones. Well, the results are the same! The new process, however, takes longer and cost more money and is a whole lot muddier and unpleasant than the old one.
    But you live and learn.

    • Thanks for the confirmation! The affirmation too. Many set themselves up as gurus with no working background and certainly no real knowledge. They create a confusion that creates even more mystery.

  3. There are many perfectly fine ways to get a sharp edge. You like diamond stones. I don’t. Scratchy feeling rides up my spine. And I don’t find them to be very longlived at all. I like waterstones, which are not so teribly expensive as you think. I do understand people who don’t like the muddy mess. Others like oilstones, which is fine too if you can find a nice fine one.
    You like stropping, I don’t. I don’t like the idea of reducing the clearance angle of my plane irons with a convexity near the edge. My 8000 stone gives me an edge plenty sharp enough for woodworking.
    You like convex edges. I don’t. Using a hollow grind and a small secondary honing angle is faster and a lot easier for me.
    But at the end, you know, it doesn’t matter at all! We reach sharp in a reasonable amount of time with all kinds of methods. I don’t think it is neccessary to rediculous other methods with strawman arguments. Nobody takes two days to sharpen an edge.

    • Kees, I agree there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat and I think many methods are likely valid. I would suspect that the number of hours you and I combined have spent sharpening would pale in comparison to Paul’s experience. Having said that (and I am not trying to be argumentative here), this is Paul’s blog and I think he has a right to an opinion especially as a professional craftsman with half a century of experience. The straw man example you cite is merely hyperbole for effect. You are clearly intelligent enough to recognize the former so u suspect you are surely able to recognize the latter. His point is well taken nonetheless. Many woodworkers I know use jigs, fixtures, and gadgets to sharpen that take exponentially more time to use than freehand methods. Using a freehand sharpening method I am able to sharpen a full set of 7 chisels in the same time it takes my friends to hone one or two. There is much to be said for simplicity and for viewing sharpening as a means to an end rather than the goal itself like so many seem to do. You yourself say that you only sharpen to a certain grit rather than wasting time past the point of diminishing returns to get an ultimate sharpness that, as Paul has stated elsewhere, is undone with the first touch of edge to wood. All methods at valid to a point, and some people enjoy the act of sharpening and trying gadgets, but I suspect most of us come here to benefit from Paul’s philosophy and experience to find a way to better word wood not to sharpen as the end goal. I say let him give his opinion. Thanks for contributing an opposing viewpoint. It’s always good to have multiple perspectives on a issue.

  4. You say your strops are 3/4″ thick. Are you building up multiple layers of thinner leather to achieve this thickness? And if so, how do you bind the layers together? Thank you!

  5. I use oiled chap leather for the strop and find that it wears really well and like the idea that its oiled as it has a built in protective lubricant. I picked some up from the local Tandy Leather outlet.

  6. Has anyone tried StropMan compounds? I have read many good reviews of his products, and am interested in trying them. The problem is I do not know enough to be able to compare the 4 types of compounds offered by StropMan to the Veritas compound you mention here, Paul. So, is there any way of placing the Veritas compound on a scale like used on StropMan.com? More to the point, I guess, when stropping my chisels and plane irons, am I looking for mostly polish or further refinement of the edge as well as polish?

    • Good question, Justin. Strops are just too easy to make to buy. You should be able to pick up leather for a strop for under a dollar or a £1 and almost any leather will do as long as it is not too stretchy. Pick up an old leather cushion or handbag from a fleamarket and it will undoubtedly work. A piece of just about any scrap wood 1″x 3″ by 10″ will do to glue the leather to and will strop all chisels, planes, spokeshave and knives and one strop should last an individual about 5-10 years. Buffing compound is very inexpensive too, Justin. I have bought Veritas, but I have also bought online and at woodworking shows. You need only one buffing compound in general, not two or three, and the most practical for me has been for hard metals such as steel or stainless steel. This will buff all other metals too. I have bought every type to test out over the years and they all seem to have worked about the same. Sometimes, not necessary for 99% of woodworking needs, you might need to go beyond 15,000, but in most cases woodworkers are obsessing more and more and I think seem to be complicating the simple task of sharpening. Tools sharpened to 1200 works very well. It’s nice to go further because there is somewhat less resistance, but most beyond 1200 is just a waste of energy and time I think.

  7. Just wanted to note that if you have a tack shop (horse saddles & related supplies) in your area, you can get a scrap piece of leather from them for a dollar or two, depending on size.

    I got a 3 & 1/2″ x 18″ piece for $2. Rough on one side and smooth on the other. Smells wonderful! The saddle repairman laughed when I asked about a piece of horse butt. Evidently this shop didn’t deal in that type of leather, so I had to settle for a regular piece.

  8. If you any where close to a furniture factory that makes seating they are normally awash with leather scraps. We sell our leather scraps for $.50/ pound. I made 10 of Paul’s strop blocks for $.50.

  9. I just bought about 2-3 square feet of flat granite at a roadside table outside a granite quarry outlet, attracted by a sign that said “remnants available”. I’m in the State of Maine right now, and here in the state “where life is as it should be”, that’s how they sell off excess blackberries, oil changes for your car, and lobsters. At any rate its “buffed”, not polished, and not a certificate in sight. My straight edge is 600 miles away.
    (1) I figured that buffed is as good as polished as I won’t use it as substrate for 3M micro film.
    (2) Wet-dry paper is my goal, and there are no such things as “remnant” float glass any more — the stuff is hideously expensive. (I know you found yours in a dumpster — probably no certificate), and
    (3) I just might stop by for a smaller piece as a more permanent stropping base.

    Now, the thing is, if I use it for stropping, pretty much as I would use a nice looking scrap of board, I know it’s not not flat. And, the stropping is the final stage in the process. Not flat, never will be, and the price is great.

    What’s the difference with a buffed piece we wiped the dust off of when I’m going to flatten with a mounted diamond 3×8 inch stone, and the stropping will be done on cowhide? Where does that certified flat expensive piece of granite (just thinking shiping charges make my head hurt) come in?

    “Louis The Lout” at Williamsburg Virginia probably didn’t have a certified granite slab. And if I find something notable with the straightedge, there’s always the angle grinder. Somehow I can’t bridge the gap in my mind between the certified flat substrate and the cowhide on a stick.

    Mr. Sellers, with all due respect, I read your comments carefully, and just eread my own. I do believe you’ve made the argument both ways over time,

    The next roadside stand down the … road also offered, clams, mussels, berries and carefully aged muskrat meat. I love Maine at this time of year! You, sir, I believe would love it also.

    • You are right. My conclusion is dead flat matters less than the obsessors say but close as possible is nice for some things and not necessary for most. I have a certified block because I didn’t have a roadside quarry but I did pick up some slate some time back and it is very fine and it does put a finer edge on my chisels than any stone I have ever used. Is it flat? No, but then it it doesn’t altogether matter. BUT, like everything in life, there are standards we try to shoot for and if we shoot for dead flat we might be closer than if we have no standards at all.

      • Paul,
        Point well made and spot on. You have a standard of excellence that you strive for and unlike most others on the web you sincerely come close. My goal is to build my technique to the point that I can feel I am close to your own. That is a mountain well worth climbing.
        I do have two questions, 1) the board you use for stropping, did you flatten it before you glued the strop to it? 2) what glue/adhesive did you use, or feel would be the best to use.
        Sincerely, Chris

  10. What you wrote express exactly my feelings about too much information on the web. It only causes confusion and misunderstood. Keep it simple should be the leaned lesson. Thanks for all your time in these matters.

  11. I was wondering what mounting tape you use when attaching the leather to the board? I’ve got ‘Hard as Nails’ in my online basket but I’m not sure it isn’t the padded type.

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