Debunking Myths and Mysteries – Scary-sharp Methods

I was little surprised to see the article by Michael Forster entitled Scary Sharpening in the current issue of the woodworker. I know that many will not have heard the title perhaps, but it’s been around for about two decades to my knowledge. No one seems ever to give credit to any originator of the method and I have heard different stories over the years and so I too can add no light to give credit.

In many ways I think the novelty of titles seems more to pique the interest of readers and now viewing parties rather than a serious improvement on what has pretty much existed for centuries. The suggestion I think is more that the scary sharp method is a quick, effective and a cheap alternative to more practiced methods and in one way only this might be the case. More in a minute. I think there is almost always a suggestion that there is also an improvement on edges produced using the measure. That could be possible too. Whether we craftsmen and women really strive for the levels early craftsmen achieved remains to be seen though. Examine any violin made in Cremona and it’s very likely that you’ll discover those early craftsmen produced scary-sharp instruments with which to chisel, gouge and refine the internal surfaces so critical to the sounds their instruments produced. Sanded surfaces absorb sound; chiselled, planed and scraped surfaces release the vibrant, clear notes so essential to the likes of Amati (mid 1500”s), and subsequently Guarneri and Stradivari in the following century? This is true of other fine woodworking craftsmen too.

Let’s look at some of the real costs incurred to establish a cutting edge using abrasive paper such as wet-and-dry compared to say using diamond plates, traditional whetstones, ceramic stones and of course the now commonly used water stones. I think that it’s here we find some of the attraction toward a more modern alternative.

Abrasive papers such as wet-and-dry are not too expensive in and off themselves. The average price regardless of grit size is around 30 pence or cents a sheet. That’s the cheapest I could find without buying in bulk. If you were a new woodworker and unsure about your future in woodworking, this is a great alternative to spending £150 pounds and more. I think that this makes great sense, so what’s wrong with using the method ad infinitum? Well, the problem comes when you keep going along with the method assuming it really is an inexpensive alternative to buying quite expensive stones or sharpening plates. As I say, in the early stages of developing your interest, this method is fine.

As with all our woodworking magazines, new news of any real value is hard to come up with. A periodic regurgitation is therefore inevitable and that’s what I meant when I said I was surprised to see the term Scary linked yet again with sharpening or sharp. I reads the article through several times and found many important elements missing. It wasn’t so much an article about sharpening then,I thought to myself. So then I read it for a fifth time to see why it made the pages of the magazine only to find that throughout the article it made no mention of polishing the large flat face of the tool at all. As a result of reading this I can only think that the purpose of the article is to tell us what we already know. And promote a method that is not cheap but very expensive. Now let’s take a look at the points made in the article. It’s here that we should really start the search for truth and bust the myths and mysteries. Let’s consider things carefully.

Here is the list of my concerns with my answers:

1) The author suggests that the non-scary-sharp method is faster than more standard or traditional methods.

Debunk 1:

The two are about identical. My research has shown that both traditional and more modern methods are often equal in both the time it takes to sharpen an edge and also the end result of sharpness depending on the particle size used as the abrasive.

2) The author states that the main advantage “is that you can get them in a huge variety of grits.”

Debunk 2:

In general you need only three grits to take you from 250 to say 1200. I have found that 250, 600and 1200 works well. From here you can make the jump to 15,000 and be fully polished to mirror finish in 30-40 strokes. Some abrasives do cut steel more rapidly than others. Usually it’s those that surface-fracture more readily and hence the reality that water stones, which surface fracture easily, wear relatively quickly.

3) “The obvious issue with them (abrasive sheets) is flatness.”

Debunk 3:

How often I find this theory for flatness impractical to woodworkers using stones. has no one realised that craftsmen used hollowed stones for decades without ever flattening them. If or should I say when a stone hollows out it makes no difference to you attaining an good and viable cutting edge. It just means that the bevel is sightly convex that’s all. It still cuts and cuts as well as a flat bevel or a concave bevel. Just accept that a convex bevel works as well if not better than a flat one and certainly better than a micro-bevel. Did you know that you don’t have to keep a sharpening stone dead flat? Once you flatten the back face of a chisel or plane iron, ideally done with wet and dry or film abrasive like the 3m product, and polish it out on a flat block of wood charged with buffing compound, you are done and very often you are done for life. You need never do it again.

4) The author made out that spray adhesive on the back of wet and dry was problematic for him.

Debunk 4:

I doubt whether it would be a problem for most adults.

5) “A great benefit from using abrasive sheets is that you can have an enormous range of sharpening and polishing grit grades available for very little outlay.”

Debunk 5:

Initially this is true. Let’s say for a dozen sharpening sessions as you learn and sharpen your first four chisels just to get you going on the wood, but long term, even wet and dry is the most expensive sharpening abrasive you can use. Using 3M will prove to be even more expensive by about fourteen-fold. As to the “enormous range of sharpening grit grades”. This feeds the illusion of pluralism implying that the massive range gives us unconstrained choice. We just need a couple of grades as steps.

6) The author makes further suggestion that somehow this method is simpler, quicker and cleaner than using the water stones he formerly used.

Debunk 6:

The complexities surrounding repeated reapplication of film to plate glass cannot be disregarded glibly. These films and wet and dry cut and snag into a tear very easily and rarely can you hone a chisel without gouging through the surface. This then must be considered in the equation.

7) “Of course the disposable concept may not appeal to some, but it’s worth remembering that water stones work on a throwaway principle too.”

Debunk 7:

This then becomes silly. Comparing a few strokes on paper or fill and throwing it away cannot be compared to months and years of wear use using water stones. It seems we should consider not just the throwaway waste of film and sheet abrasive but perhaps even throwing out the method altogether. Even the author is admitting it is waste whichever of these two methods you use. Let’s then not be wasteful.

8) “We’re now getting close to my perfect ‘sharpen and go’ system, now.”

Debunk 8:

Well, it’s not really his system, but one that’s now been around for about two decades. Regurgitating the same old stuff in magazines is of course common to most if not all woodworking magazines and that’s why people stop reading them after a couple of years. This method is not the ideal, but it does get you out of a high-cost startup to get you sharp tools as you start out. It’s also ideal for flattening the backs of edge tools as I said earlier.

9) “3m, the clever people that developed the Post-note, have developed a range of products known as abrasive lapping films. These work in a very similar way to wet and dry paper, but the sheets are self-adhesive, which in my case makes a difference that’s worth paying a little more to get.”

Debunk 9:

Paying 13.333 times more is not just a “little bit more.” The film from 3M may well be worth it for some things and I can see that when flattening and polishing the flat faces of edge tools, but most wet and dry sheets can be had for 30 pence. 3M is around £4 as sheet.

10) “The downside of this is that the film is more delicate than standard wet-and-dry, and can easily be torn by careless use. Always use pull strokes on the honing guide, never push.”

Debunk 10:

It is really good and effective practice to push and pull and if you can’t do that with film paper then try using more resistant and practical abrasion. Diamonds, ceramics, Norton water stones and even natural stones like Arkansas stones all work well and that with the longevity we need. I cannot imagine pull strokes only.

11) “Lastly, be careful when honing a radius end blade not to over rotate it and nick the film with the corner.”

Debunk 11:

These films do very poorly with and shaped cutting edges. This can be expensive at £4 a pop.

12) “For me the abrasive-on-glass method works and I like the self-adhesive backing on 3M film as it means I can just stick it down and forget it until it wears out.”

Debunk 12:

This statement suggests that the method is carefree and as a conclusion you might think way-to-go. Not so.

Conclusion:

I think this would be a good start if you are at all uncertain about your future sharpening edge tools. One particle of grit between the film and the plate will definitely result in a ripped and torn sheet. This then disrupts the procedure and you must usually replace the sheet. This is also true if an undetected air bubble occurs to raise an area of the film.

This method is not cheap. As I said, I doubt that you will find any other method of sharpening more expensive if you plan on using the method permanently. Even wet-and-dry becomes an expensive way of sharpening at 30 pence a sheet. As a stop-gap it’s fine though. If you buy four sheets of 3M abrasive film and a piece of plate glass with polished edges you can be looking at £20 and that’s to sharpen a dozen or so tool edges.

For centuries craftsmen have sharpened their tools very effectively and of course they achieved the same results without the fuss we give to do it today. That said, in the demise of training many turn to magazines and books for good insight and honest open dialogue about their chosen craft. In this case I feel that the article could be misleading to new woodworkers or those who struggle to get a keen edge. Whatever you do on 3M film and wet n dry you can do on more permanent sharpening plates and stones. I think the article lacked editorial insight and oversight and so I think it’s important to point out some of the concerns and imbalances.

29 thoughts on “Debunking Myths and Mysteries – Scary-sharp Methods”

  1. The sandpaper is good when you get started until you can get some good stones, but like Paul said in the long run you will pay a lot more if you stick with paper.

  2. I started with paper on glass, and it does work. But it was slow and inconvenient. I used a jig to keep my angle constant which takes extra time and expense. Plus there was a constant anxiety about tearing the paper which forced me to go very slow. Since buying diamond stones per Paul’s recommendation, I have a smile on my face every time I sharpen. It’s really very liberating to ditch the jig and put a good “old fashioned” edge on your tools in a minute or two. Plus there is zero worry about damaging the diamond stone so you can have at it and get it done quick–and yes, Paul’s method produces an edge that is plenty “scary” sharp 🙂

  3. Paul, I’d be curious to see the differences in technique required to sharpen on oilstones as opposed to diamond stones. I know you prefer diamond stones and your method of sharpening on them definitely looks best, but for those of us who have old-school oilstones and don’t want to shell out for yet another set of stones, it could be helpful.

    1. Actually. sharpening on a two-sided India oilstone will give you a cutting edge that will work fine for joinery and plane work. We have become obsessive as a result of articles. I don’t always polish out my bevel. Sometimes, often, I only go to 1200 on the stones and don’t strop at all. People don’t realise that shavings still come quite easily for general work when you sharpen at 600 grit. That’s plenty fine for most woods and especially adequate for fitting a house door or planing trim and such.

    2. The technique is identical to the one I use using the diamond plates and water stones. One difference; is that I allow the stone to hollow as I would not use the stones to remove the burr but the strop alone. Once you have flattened tha flt face of any tool you need never do it again because this face doesn’t wear away. So the technique is grind and hone the bevel only using the coarse and medium surfaces and then go to the strop to polish out the two faces that form the bevel.

  4. In most cases magazines and tool dealers have somehow become the modern-day ‘experts” and that’s fine. Both parties are sales people selling their wares. It’s free enterprise in a democracy. The problem is finding out what’s actually true when you are dealing with them. At the end of the day it’s the bottom line that counts. On the other hand, when someone starting out is looking for ways to sharpen his or her tools, and all you hear is Scary-sharp or diamond paste and oil or special honing fluids at exorbitant prices, it’s time to make a stand.
    I didn’t even get into the atrocious standards of photography. Surely in an age when good digital photography is so inexpensive we could get decent images at least. Cell phone pictures don’t quite cut it. As I said, the article should have had editorial input and some work on the magazines part if it even warranted an article.

  5. i use a fixed angle diamond sharpening system which does work well for plane irons and bevel edge chisels, as long as they meet the pre-set angles that is, but at half the price of a set of three diamond plates (as per Pauls advice) they don’t even do half the job there is no way of sharpening convex tools ,no way of flattening/polishing the backs of tools not to mention anything like an axe , i’m just gutted i listened to a salesman and not a woodworker when it came to looking for advice about sharpening woodworking tools ,oh well we live and learn (unfortunatley at cost)

  6. I spoiled some of chisels with the paper on glass method when flattening the backs. My theory is that, since I was using water tension to hold the paper down rather than spray adhesive, the paper would rise up just a hair as the blade moved. The result was a turned edge on the back of the iron or chisel. The method was useful when just starting out but if you are going to use it, spray adhesive is a good idea. I still use paper on granite for initial flattening of a new blade. Also, it has always seemed necessary to clean the surface every now and then with lacquer thinner to keep the spray adhesive from building up even though only a light dusting is applied.

    1. Actually, I wonder if it raised up. My experience with some sandpaper is the grit wears so quickly if you move the chisel forward and back and at the same time move it left to right, the right side of the chisel would be getting the fresh grit that cuts faster. After a few passes that freshness is gone and it moves to the middle of the tool. So either the left or right side of the chisel get ground away at a quicker rate than the center. To my way of thinking that is probably the root cause of rounded edges on the backs of chisels.

  7. I think both Paul and the Mr. Forster went a bit far afield to make their points but Mr. Forster seems to have (I did not read his article) dabbled in a few other rhetorical follies as well.

    When I first read of the “scary sharp” method there was no mention of 3M films or other specialized supplies. It was about sand paper, something flat, and getting sharpening done well, quick, and cheap. And on that basis I liked what I read. It open my eyes to what sharpening was about minus the hype, lore, and mythology of exactly what kind of stone, lubricant, or steel was “required”. It was hard to pretend you needed a freshly dressed black Arkansas stone and extra virgin Unicorn oil to complete your set when some other guy was getting the job done with SANDPAPER!

    Since then the sharpening fetishists have taken it over and really gone off the deep end from my perspective.

    I have a couple of 14″ square tiles and some sheets of sandpaper down to 60 grit I use occasionally. When I need to remove enough of a bevel to get past a nick in the blade or reshape an angle I’m glad I have access to it. Also works niftily for fettling planes and flattening chisels and plane irons. I’m glad I can use and toss out a sheet of sandpaper or two instead of grinding away on my diamond stones. A useful tool and technique in my repertoire.

    That said, at the end of the day when I’ve got the chisels and planes lined up to be put away out come my three diamond stones and the strop a la Paul Sellers. A minute or two per edge and I’m off to the house with a smug grin leaving a trail of arm hairs drifting to the ground behind me.

  8. In my mind, Mr. Seller’s diamond plate and strop sequence creates what I think of as a “worker’s edge.” 🙂 It’s relatively fast and no-nonsense and is meant to get you back to work. I tried Japanese waterstones but the clay slurry made my hands itch! Plus the mess and the flattening, forget it. I’ll admit that the scary sharp method gave the keenest razor-edge I ever created, but I did go to 2500-grit that time, which is impractical considering I started at 180. I also realized for myself that such an edge is largely a novelty; I feel pretty certain that it is not needed for the woodworking I imagine myself doing.

  9. I tried the paper on glass method for a while. It worked OK, but it was a hassle. First, I had this piece of glass hanging out in my workshop. I got nervous every time I walked near that shelf while carrying something heavy. Second, even for the limited amount I did it started seeming pricy. I will say, though, that I don’t recall ever having torn a sheet of paper with a chisel or plane iron. Then again, I was using one of those honing guides then, so there was very little opportunity to dig the edge in.

    Eventually I found my old oilstone — an artificial one made by Brookstone, long enough ago that they were still making good tools! — and started using that. It was pretty good, but old enough that the surfaces are fairly thoroughly glazed. I’ve now replaced that with diamond plates. Three plates from DMT in a wooden case, for under $100, shipped. I added a strop made of some scrap leather I had and a piece of MDF, and I’m done. It’ll take me years — decades? — to wear out those stones.

  10. Another problem with paper-on-glass: when you want to taper the corners of a plane iron, that is, hone the far left and right corners to create a very slightly convcave cutting edge so that the plane doesn’t leave a gouge at the edge of its cutting path–you need to lift the iron slightly to concentrate the abrasive action right at the corner. With paper, you’ll tear through. Diamond plates handle this operation, no trouble.

  11. I’m just curious to know how it might be that using the abrasive paper, wet and dry, or 3M, is ideal as you say for flattening the flat face of chisels, plane irons, and soles. You laid out a good case for getting the diamond stones for abrading, as well as honing and polishing, due to the fact that they remove steel quickly, are flat, and last a lifetime. This is what I did, and felt I saved money in the long run by avoiding the wet and dry or any abrasive, disposable papers. Would you explain how they may be ideal for lapping the flat faces?

    From what I can tell, the only advantage the papers have is that they are inexpensive when you are just getting started and the large, surface area perhaps make them more convenient in the lapping action as the diamonds are only 3″ x 8″.

    Carlos

    1. The larger surface makes a big difference as you have around four times the surface and that means four times the particulate. Abrasives like wet-and-dry cut steel fast and changing out the paper means I have fresh cutting surface. As I said, this is practical for lapping. Yes, the diamond plates work great. I have an 8×8 inch coarse plate for lapping. That was expensive and I cannot justify telling others to buy this, especially when starting out. We used the plate at one of the school for lapping plane soles.

  12. Paul, just for historical interest: I’m sure Steve LaMantia was not the first person to sharpen an edge with sandpaper, but the system that’s now called scary sharp has its origins with a post he wrote on rec.woodworking in 1995. You can find it here
    http://web.archive.org/web/20070702113741/http://www.shavings.net/SCARY.HTM
    Or if that link doesn’t work just google him.

    I was getting a decent edge going up to 2000 grit wet or dry on a travertine wall tile (not the best surface, but it’s what I had), but I’m now training myself on diamond stones, for most of the reasons you elaborate above.

  13. Paul, I have a good double sided India stone (I think) that I currently use for sharpening, and a very fine black stone of unknown vintage/origin, that gives me a polish. However, the black one had a bad glaze on it when I acquired it, and this I removed by rubbing on the coarse India stone until it became usable. The black stone looks like a natural stone of some kind, as it has pale wandering stripes through it.
    Three questions:

    1. Should the ‘natural’ stone actually be used with oil, or is water more likely to keep it in good fettle?
    2. Do you know of a good way for de-glazing old oil stones? I suspect others here may like to know that as well.
    3. Is a ‘slip stone’ good enough for inside curved edges where flat stones can’t be used, like gouges, hook knife or a scythe, or go the expensive diamond rod way? Currently I’m using abrasive paper round a hardwood rod.

    Thanks!

    1. The harder stone sound as though it could be an Arkansas stone, which is a wonderful stone. Clogging is usually caused by sharpening and honing without oil to float of the swarf. The swarf is pressed into the grit of the stone and creates a ‘glazed’ surface and no more abrading takes place. I use diamond plates today, but I still own oilstones. In Britain I leave them in the sun as long as it’s not too hot, which could crack the stone. The impregnated oil inside the stones swells and the surface releases and forces out the surface particulate causing the clogging. That’s the way the old joiner’s did when I was a boy.

  14. Keith Peters

    I’m using sandpaper and it’s working fairly well, but I wholeheartedly agree that this is not going to be my long term solution. I’ll be springing for those DMT diamond stones some time before my current stash of high grit paper runs out. But first I have to let my wife get over my recent purchase of a Record 044 Plough Plane. 🙂

  15. I agree that diamond stones are the way to go, but I use micro bevels and 3M film to polish the final edge, front and back. I cannot get an edge anywhere as sharp and durable by hand as with a simple jig. While I agree a usable edge can be had with Paul’s techniques, but my experience is that I get a superior edge that lasts significantly longer vs Paul’s method. Just as he relies on his experience vs what is said and read, so do I.

  16. When I first started woodworking 15 years or so ago I didn’t have access to any stone or even a grinder, so I used the Scary Sharp sandpaper system. For this purpose I even built my own honing jig. I was amazed, for the first time in my life I honed a bevel on my plane iron and my chisels which easily shaved the hairs off my arm. So the Scary Sharp system does work.

    Soon, however it became more and more a hassle to use. I had to have that pretty large glass plate around in my shop with 3 different grades of sandpaper glued to it. When the sandpaper was worn out, I have to remove it, dry everything carefully and glue new paper. Often, very often I have dents in my chisels. It took ages to grind past those on sandpaper.

    A few years ago I purchased a Scheppach wet grinder and a simple Japanese water stone, I think it is #2000. Grinding is a matter of a few minutes, and honing from the hand, not using a jig, is even faster. No, I don’t obtain a high gloss as with #1500 sandpaper. But I still shave my hair easily, and I suspect the extreme sharpness disappears after the first 2 mallet blows anyway.

    It looks like if this Scary Sharp system has been come up with because the ordinary was not special enough. Just like with high-end audio or expensive restaurant food. Everything which is not out of the ordinary is too normal.

    At the time I didn’t know, because like I said, never in my life I have been able to sharpen a plane iron at all. But now I have learned that the old fashioned way of water stone grinding followed by a quick honing is exactly as good for cutting. But not good enough to write interesting articles about.

  17. always refreshing to hear the voice of reason in a trade/hobby that is being consumed by consumerism. Thanks.

  18. Claudio Romero

    First of all, I want to thank Mr. Sellers for everything, I’ve learned a lot from his on-line courses and it’s great to hear the reason why he does things the way he does.

    I’d like to say that one of the inconveniences of sand paper sharpening (besides long term cost) it’s that it’s a little time consuming in the way that most people present it. Cleaning the glass from glue or double sided tape it’s a step that I just find unnecesary. I bought a few pieces of glass that have the same measurement that sand papel sheets, use some strong binder clips in the top and bottom part and just spray some of the liquid I use in the sand paper to the glass (glass cleaner). I can use enough strenght to sharpen relatively quick my chisels and plane irons, most of the times without torning the paper. I do have to be carefull and use very little strenght when working on the corners of plane irons, in that case I apply little pressure and spend more time, but if I’m not doing that I can use without too much care a lot of my upper body weight doing push and pull strokes.

    My point is that this method can be fast and efective. Also, with practice, torning should not be a common issue (it can happen time to time anyway) and you can use push and pull strokes with confidence. Besides, you don’t have to go trough all grit numbers with sand paper.

  19. One thing to consider is “Time is Money” when your working at the bench in a shop/factory and your planeing or chiselling away at some hardwood and you realise your blade is not as sharp as it needs to be for the job then you have to sharpen it. you start getting your sandpaper out (with a few odd looks from your work colleges) you then proceed to sharpen your blade and oops the sandpaper rips. right better clean the old sandpaper and glue off your glass/marble/mdf slab and start spray gluing new piece of sandpaper on to start the whole process again. how long has this taken? how much hassle was it? ive been there and realised this the hard way, and now I’ve come to the conclusion that if i had a set of 3 diamond plates or even a double sided diamond stone at the ready then sharpening would be done in no time and i can get back to the job.

    1. I think that we are ahead of the curve here as we achieve great results without using a grinder for buffing out burrs and polishing. The strop does the same and it’s much safer too.

  20. How very refreshing! Decent debate from grownups instead of the usual online drivel spouted by spotty teenagers claiming to know everything! Thank you all for enabling the sharing of experience and pros + cons of various methods!

  21. I’ve been playing around with different ways of sharpening on the cheap. I even got a microscope off of Craigslist for $10 to supplement my understanding of what’s going on beyond the arm hairs I’m shaving off. It’s fun to compare my chisel edges to double-edged razors under the microscope. I’d love to see what a chisel edge sharpened by a master would look like under the microscope – maybe that’s a future video idea for you, if you don’t find it completely ridiculous.

    I’ve found that all I need to get what both you and the “scary sharp” guy consider a good everyday edge is finishing up with a few seconds of very lightweight freehand microbevelling on a 1″x2″ rectangle of 2000 grit 3M WetOrDry sandpaper. I use window cleaner for lubricant, as you suggested in one of your videos. I don’t bother gluing it down; I just put the wet sandpaper on a reasonably flat piece of wood. I don’t bother with a honing guide, either. I’m getting a minimum of 3 or 4 sharpenings per little rectangle. At ~$1 per 9″x11″ sheet, that works out to less than 1 cent per sharpening.

    If I change my handle angle each time – 6 o’clock , 4 o’clock, 8 o’clock – I can quickly see under the microscope whether my microbevel is getting right to the edge, whether I’ve missed any nicks, and whether a burr has developed.

    It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and it won’t get a blade up to paring sharpness, but the fact that a small amount of pressure on a tiny piece of sandpaper can give a reasonable edge should address some of the concerns about the cost of sandpaper sharpening.

    FWIW, my microscope (max 900x in theory, 450x in practise) can’t see the scratches on the edge of a new double-edged razor, but it can clearly see the 2000 grit scratches on my chisels. So even though the arm hairs are coming off, I’ve still got a ways to go before I can start shaving my face with my chisels.

  22. Paul, I carve wood and need a very fine edge. About the only time I use sandpaper is putting an inside bevel on a gouge that I don’t have a slipstone to fit adequatly. It can be nice and fast for that. You are correct, the expense and inconvenience of changing out papers makes it not appealing over my standard combination of diamond and Arkansas stones.

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