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