Sharpening Is Mostly An Abrasive Issue

The title of this post seems almost a contradiction of terms. Sharpness and abrasion; how does that work?

Sharpening most cutting tools and cutting blade edges is not particularly complex but it will take practice to establish patterns of guaranteed success for the freehand sharpening methods that make you expertly fast and effective. Oftentimes we start out sharpening using a honing guide and that does work to get to the cutting edge we need. Eventually though, you will want more, you will want to get the edge faster so you can get on with the real work you love to do. DSC_0009As I said, sharpening cutting tools and cutting blades is not really complex, but it can be made more difficult when you move into harder steel types like high-speed steel and hard steel alloys or cutting edges made with superimposed tips and edges like tungsten carbide. That’s when you must cross a line to use more industrial methods. Then commercial abrasives and diamond cutters combine with power and speed and take over to project you into the less pleasant world of industrial abrading and metal cutting. So, it’s here that I’ve decided to take some time out, to present thoughts and feelings as concisely as possible. Opinion is one thing and there’s always lots of that, experience another, so let’s see what happens in the reality of daily, at-the-bench working. 

Experiencing makes a difference

What I’ve seen over my five decades of daily sharpening and of course teaching others to sharpen by the thousands is mostly confusion. Yes, there’s lots of head knowledge, but that seems not to have really helped because it’s relational knowledge that dispels confusion. What I have experienced as normal is just how confused people seem to be when it comes to what was once simply a simple sharpening process. My quest then is to see if we shouldn’t look at what it takes to get to the cutting edge and circumvent the confusion by myth-busting some of the mystery. In the age of information overload I found it quite challenging penetrating the excesses of information purporting to be technical advice. What the information doesn’t give you is experiencing the stones and the abrasives and the compounds, so what I want to try to do is use 50 years of sharpening at the bench to bridge the gap and give advice I hope will make sense. I think I can cut to the quick and we can return to the simplicity we all need.

Information overload

I’m sure I’ll be ranked amongst the information overloaders by the time this post is read, sorry for that, but it has to be said. A student this week asked me about sharpening equipment and I pulled out a popular catalog of tools to help her understand which systems or stones would work best for her. To compare what was offered and guide her into making educated decisions. Try as I might, here was no way that that was even possible.

The lady’s budget was around £30 max. Thumbing through the pages it didn’t take long to see that £30 doesn’t go very far if you read what the salespeople and manufacturers have to say on the matter. Fact was, if you listened to them at all, you’d spend hundreds more than you really need to and end up with many times more than you need into the bargain. A little more thumbing through the pages and she stopped me and asked, “How much of this do I need? With so many pages on just sharpening she asked how would it ever be possible to understand so complex an issue with so much equipment necessary to sharpen a chisel and a plane. It was at this point that I stopped her and counted the 21 packed pages and I realised the confusion was the array of unnecessary stuff available and were I a beginner I too would be confused.

Are Machines Necessary?

The quick answer is, generally, no, but you might want access to one for heavier grinding work to restore badly ground, damaged or flawed edges from time to time. They are useful for that.  Many things have changed the face of woodworking not the least of which is the industrialising of craft aspects we once took for granted to be hand work. In sharpening today most people use a mechanical system of grinding, be that a simpler electronic grinding wheel with two different grit-grade wheels, a horizontal grinder flushed continuously with water cooling, vertical and horizontal grinders with abrasive belts and discs of some kind and so on and so on. This of course opened a massive sphere of sales for sellers to sell the wares of the industrial abrasive giants like Norton and 3M and so when you add into this equation different stone types and sizes, different grits of every level and belts and compounds graded out too you can soon end up considering a hundred products those new to woodworking might think to be necessary. I think this is a good point to say that in general, when you have chisels and cutting edges in general good condition, you don’t need any kind of mechanical machine grinding to sharpen your edge tools.

Catalogs compete with the old brand names by  supplying knockoffs 

What has happened with machine grinding abrasives has also happened on other fronts too. Now we have natural water stones, diamond stones, a monstrous range of man-made stones in diversely different grits and particulate types too numerous to mention. Over and above that you now have everything doubled up. When Asia and the west opened up the interexchange trade routes to intercontinental and especially Asian factories, new trend began with the replication of established lines. In a few short years knock-off brands copying the originals was normalised with and without licenses. The quest to satisfy what was then Western consumerism at compelling competitive pricing,open new the floodgates all the wider and catalog companies across the globe began to swell their offerings. Even the reputable companies sold out the honour of their forebears to take advantage of the cheaper labourers. Spear and Jackson, Woodcraft, Rockler and Irwin. Machine makers too have goods and parts made in the anonymous world of “somewhere abroad”. The Brits and Americans and some EU countries became exceptionally good at copycatting ideas and having their stuff replicated somewhere in the expansed regions of Asia at half the price and less. That meant they could run both levels side by side to offer some price break to their customers but mostly to increase their own profits and compete. Everything made that at one time only came from what we might describe as say a reputable domestic maker suddenly became available from other ’alternative’ suppliers, but, now, under the catalog companies own brand names.

Hard grits, soft grits, hard steels and super hard steels

The reality is that different abrasives cut steels at different rates and speeds. The variance depends on the hardness of the steel and the abrading qualities of the different abrasives. Picking the abrading method introduces additional confusion into the arena of sharpening. Up until about four decades ago I recall that sharpening was really quite simple. Craftsmen always generally used freehand sharpening methods and most, not all, amateurs preferred to use risk-free honing guides as a sort of training aid until they gained confidence and competency free handing. Using Japanese stones, mostly natural stones back then, gained rapid popularity, mostly because western woodworkers were looking for answers. DSC_0003For some unknown reason simple sharpening methods were buried somewhere. It was as if the art of sharpening, no matter where, had suddenly become lost; forgotten. It was about that time that Japanese water stones and abrasive paper methods of sharpening (known for some reason as the scary-sharp method) became popularised. Both methods were seen somehow as revolutionary systems; an answer to all sharpening problems. On the one hand you had friable stones that cut steel fast but surface-fractured rapidly. This then led to severely hollowed out stones that supposedly needed permanent flattening and in some measure that might be true. We’ll look at that soon. On the other hand abrasive surfaces such as abrasive papers and films tore easily and were short lived surfaces needing constant replacement. This proves a very expensive system for permanent or longterm sharpening. Before this point most workmen used oil-filled man-made or natural sharpening stones throughout Europe and of course North America. Why people became disgruntled with them I don’t really know. These abrasive stones all worked and worked well and, actually, they still do. If you don’t have much money you can get a very good cutting edge with a Norton combination stone and a leather strop. Most working men I have ever known would be content that these edges are good enough for creating good work. 

So what am I saying?

Well, I’m saying that there are different camps. Some people like to spend an hour or two sharpening an edge to take pristine shavings that ripple from the throat of a plane and mesmerise the plane user. They want the plane finely adjusted and nothing more than shaving the edge of a piece of wood. To them it’s therapeutic and relaxing. Nothing at all wrong with that. Then there are those who love planing their wood as they work and create beyond or beneath the shaving. They perfect the wood and the shaving because they are interrelated for joinery, for panel making and for levelling and trimming and such. 

Honing guides

The fact that I never saw a master woodworking craftsman use a honing guide doesn’t at all mean they never did or do. In my purview there is nothing at all wrong with that in principle at least. I use one from time to time for different reasons and especially when experimenting for the research work I engage in. However, for me, not using a fixed angle honing guide gives me much greater speed, economy of movement and time and thereby efficiency. Equally important is I find it too restrictive in terms of the motion and movement I feel using a fixed angle guide. Now that’s in my general day to day work. As I said, honing guides do have their place. You see it’s too mechanical, yes, but then it also prevents me from honing either to task or for a particular preference I have that gives me the total versatility I enjoy and get from free-hand sharpening. P1010226Not relying on the honing guides does in some ways simplify the task as long as you see that it also demands the early development of skill. The problem usually is people don’t feel uncomfortable with it at least at first and therefore they often reach for the honing guide first. What’s my thought on this? Well, I never rode a bike with training wheels on that I can recall, and of course I came off from time to time in the early stages of learning, but once I mastered the balancing aspect it took I was very free. Knowing such freedom gave me the determination never to return to the training wheels. My recommendation is that you might want to buy one of the less expensive guides like the one and only one we use here at the school. It’s quick and easy enough to set up, reliable to use and lifelong. It can also be had for under about £10. I, as an apprentice, went straight to freehand sharpening at 15 and stayed with it for 50 years. It took me a few hours max over a week or so and I had it for life.

I hope that the next post on these issues will be more interesting and enlightening.

24 comments on “Sharpening Is Mostly An Abrasive Issue

  1. You say: “most workmen used oil-filled man-made or natural sharpening stones throughout Europe and of course North America. Why people became disgruntled with them I don’t really know. ”
    I think I might know why. I learned my woodworking at secondary school in the sixties, and always had sharpened freehand on oilstones. Then I entered the world of radio and electronics and eventually onto computers. When I came back to woodworking late in life, I had lost a lot of my skills in sharpening, and took to a honing guide. The edges I worked with were not as good, because although I had “learned” in school, I had not intellectually understood the concept of two polished faces meeting at an edge.
    I too, became dissatisfied with the oilstones, and explored the “scary sharp” methods etc., I read about on t’internet, although I never invested in Japanese water stones. It wasn’t until I read your posts and blogs that the penny dropped as to what I was doing wrong, and I started to freehand properly again.
    BTW, my strop is a piece of MDF with plain leather on one side, and on the other the leather is lightly oiled and then charged with dry jeweller’s rouge (the red stuff). This works well enough for me, I was not at the time aware of the green and other grades of honing wax.

  2. Like the previous comment I too have a piece of MDF with leather on one side charged with red jewelers rouge. I also have a traditional 2 sided stone in a wooden box with a panel pin in the bottom to hold it on the bench. The strop is never far from where I’m working, I simply strop a couple of times before I use a tool and a couple of times after I finish using it. I constantly have sharp edges and rarely need to use the stone. But I have often lustered after a certain wet grinder and wondered If I could do better with Japanese and diamond stones but (maybe thankfully) have always found the prices too prohibitive. Its almost as if you are made to feel guilty if you don’t have the latest equipment and that your work can never be as good as it should be ! I suppose in wanting these bits and pieces I’ve fallen victim of the propaganda too, even though I’ve never had any complaints about my work

  3. Having been around the block a few times in various careers and serious hobbies, I’ve noticed a pattern. As you get more and more into a subject, you learn about all the new, “modern”, “advanced”, “high tech” solutions and you spend a certain amount of time upgrading and upgrading again to the latest and greatest solution, sure that if you spend a little more money on the latest fancy gadget, you’ll finally get the results that the pros are getting. You’re sure that the only thing holding you back is that you don’t have the best… stuff. It’s always couched in scientific-sounding technical terms and there are all kinds of experts giving their version of the right way to do things, which just happens to coincide with the technology of the high tech product they are selling.

    Some people never escape this cycle. But a lot of people get to a certain point where they realize that 90% of that “new technology” is pure marketing designed to sell a particular line of products.The pseudo science doesn’t hold up. And then you get a certain segment of experts who become minimalists in the field, rejecting all the modern stuff and going back to older ways. Generally, the minimalist viewpoint stresses technique, training and practice over needing any particular set of high tech tools.

    The example of woodworking is pretty obvious. But another subject I’ve been through this cycle on is running and running shoes. Through the 70’s, 80’s 90’s and up to today, there’s been emphasis on high tech materials and gait analysis, lots of padding in the shoes, thick heels, springs and air pockets, motion control, supporting and stride-correcting forms, prescription insoles, etc. etc. Then the minimalist running school appeared. People started running in flat shoes with virtually no padding. There is even a highly popular barefoot running contingent.

    I think it’s just a natural cycle that any subject goes through. I was fascinated to discover that it was happening in woodworking too. But I’m totally on board with doing things the old fashioned way with a handtool only approach. It’s Paul’s posts and videos that opened my eyes to this for the most part.

  4. Seems like the summary of this is, “find something simple that works for you, and stick with it.” Good advice, as it always is from Paul.

  5. Paul,

    I watch you’re YouTube videos on my Smarter than me TV. I really liked your plane experiments in that they showed me a truth. I have an old #6 that was my dad’s and I have a significant humidity problem in the summer in my shop. The plane is not a Baily but it has all the dimensions and the number in the body casting. I really want to be able to plane a surface as you do.LOL! I know “practice!” I used the cider vinegar method to remove the rust , stripped the paint, leveled the body, and cleaned up the residue.

    I bought a WorkSharp a while ago as it seemed efficient and might help me as it has the various degrees. Oh yeah just found out it doesn’t work with blades wider than 2 inches. LOL!

    I started by pulling out my acquisitions acquired in my naivety and set about to sharpen them as I knew by reading “you have to tune them up” Took a couple of days sitting or standing and holding the chisels.

    I have since made a woodworkers bench from my old metal working bench. Would have liked to make the one you did in the videos but I am a hybred woodworker with no money at this time. And I’m again tuning up the planes and chisels.

    This is a great blog! Would you have time to do a video on sharpening so we can see how you do it?

  6. Do the reading and research then you go out and buy the BEST/FANCIEST car you came up with. Money is no object, you are Bill Gates.

    Next year when the new cars come out you are driving LAST YEARS model. No matter who you are or what you have, someone somewhere is going to out do you. Grow-up!

    All the Mona Lisa is is some old paint on I suppose old canvas backing put there with some old paint brushes. No high dollar paint, canvas or brushes. I can buy better paint, canvas and brushes the Leonard used however, it is the arrangement of the paint, on the canvas put they by the brushes (and De Vinci)…

    Now we have a problem, I can’t do that part and neither has anyone else been able to either.

    I get several woodworking magazines. Over the past several months or so I have realized that what most of them are doing is sell tools in their reviews. “You will do better woodworking if you buy this.” How about I’ll do better woodworking if I learn how to plane a board, make mortise and tenons or dovetails, plans for a new project. I need to learn the skills then I can create designs and pieces they never thought of.

      • I am an apprentice carpenter and I free hand sharpen using a cheap norton combination oil stone, a leather strop made form an offcut of leather I bought for a couple of dollars from a furniture maker mounted to a scrap of timber and some tormek compound. it cost me about 35NZD so around 17 pounds. I use your sharpening method and to myols seem to hold their edge well and will take all the hairs off my army. The longevity of diamond plates and being able to use water instead of oil seems to be a significant advantage, but as far as the quality of the cutting edge the difference seems to be minimal and beyond my current skill level to differentiate. The phenomenom of exponentially decreasing returns for your investment in tools and technology is apparent in almost all hobbies weather it be tramping, shooting, audio systems… Having someone like yourself who has the the experience and knowledge (credability) to put woodworkinng back in perspective interms of simple solutions which give results, intead of expensive and confusing technical solutions (I think) is hugely valuable in encouragging people who would have been scarred off wood working by the percieved barriers to give it a go.

  7. I’m afraid the thing I have the hardest time doing is cutting along a straight line with a saw. Not sharpening! I wish someone had a tutorial on how to do better at that.

    • PRACTICE. That is the key. Paul teaches the use of the knife line and it works well after you practice it. It is a fluid motion of the body in a straight line and the saw is an extension of your hand. Remember to use your pointer finger as a guide along the saw pointing down the line. It will help steer the saw. As a new student it is important to remember that you can plain down to the knife line for a dead straight result. Good luck and have fun practicing.

  8. Doc,

    If I’m not mistaken, Paul has at least 2 videos demonstrating his sharpening technique on YouTube. They are definitely worth watching. A couple of years ago I began following his methods and it revolutionized my woodworking. I spend 1/6 the time sharpening compared to mechanically assisted methods and 1/2 the time compared to the hand sharpening method I first learned. As a bonus my edges are twice as sharp and because it only takes me 30 seconds to sharpen a chisel I dot it more often. Having these sharper edges and keeping them consistently sharp has transformed my work. Good luck and search YouTube for “Paul sellers sharpen” or better yet watch all he videos on his channel. Trust me when I tell you it time VERY WELL SPENT!!!

    • I agree, his videos are all unparalleled. He’s a great teacher and it’s just too bad I didn’t have him in wood shop 40 years ago!

  9. Doesn’t sharpening need to be discussed relative to what is being cut? If you are a traditional Japanese carpenter working mostly with softwoods, you may have different needs than a traditional English woodworker working with oak. The two situations may have different optimizations in terms of edge hardness and sharpness vs. craftsman time spent sharpening. Somehow, the discussion has become abstract, divorced from the wood being worked, and I wonder if that is part of the source of confusion. Of course, confusion is a marketing opportunity. Paul’s methods have worked well for me in the woods that I work, but I am open to the idea that other situations might require other solutions.

    The historical context also seems relevant. Wasn’t it the case that hardened steels were scarce in Japan, traditionally, so they forged a hardened cutting edge onto a softer base. In this situation, perhaps having an ultra-hard steel for the cutting edge increases the life of the tool (when used in *softwoods*) and conserves a scarce or expensive resource? By contrast, Sheffield produced tool steel by the trainload and local craftsman worked hardwoods, so stay softer, make the whole tool be tool steel, speed up the sharpening, and reduce edge fracture in the hard wood.

    Different problems, different requirements, different constraints, different solutions. Paul’s interview with John quoted John saying that the best advice he got from Paul was to know what he wanted to do as a woodworker. Maybe part of the source of confusion is that most of us don’t know what we want to do and try to get tools that do everything. Of course, such tools don’t exist and lead us into abstract discussions of “the perfect.” Again, a marketing opportunity.

    • Sharp edges are sharp edges regardless of the woods being worked. Personally I might dismiss the first question because Oak or softwood are really determinate terms used for radically different references. I mean Balsa is a hardwood but it doesn’t put it in the same category as Oak with regards to density and hardness, which is also a hardwood. Regardless of hardness and density in the wood, sharp edges are always optimal and so too it would seem to me the hardness of the steel with regards to hardness of edge and edge strength. What you regard as abstract is absolutely relational frpm decades of working both steel edges and different woods.
      With regards to hardness; the Japanese are indeed renowned for their experience with steel, steel alloys and of course the formulation of laminating harder steels to stronger steels. Historically this is what they have been known for too.

  10. Great blog Paul. Talk about simplicity I have seen Inmates sharpen a blade so sharp it could cut through bone. And all they had was the concrete floor and powder or tooth paste. We all as students would do well to just do as the master does and not question. I find it much easier to just fallow what you teach and except the fact that I will never reach your level of experience. I am almost 60 years old and can only wish I could be working wood for 50 years. Again thank you for what you do. Merry Christmas to you and your team.

  11. Totally agree there is allot of information and lots of choices on products. I have bought items that have not turn out to live to its hype. I Love my tools and I have return a couple of things that I have been disappointed with from my list of things that I would like to have. Water stones have work well for me I have a set of diamond plates also and I have found great uses for them. I use all my sharpening gear, water stones, lapping plate, diamond plate’s I don’t do the leather with the charging compound I have a 10,000.00 water stone that I won’t advertise the maker it polishes to a mirror finish. I have not purchase the grinder because I have access to them if I wanted to use one. I don’t make a living selling furniture and I’ve learn many things from different sources that I come to trust, why? simply because they have giving me good results. I have learned and own several videos by Artisan Media, Artisan course with Paul Sellers I have a few projects that am completing from those videos. I am not into woodworking because of the water stones or the diamond plates but because woodworking gives me freedom, when am in my shop everything else gets reduce to its proportions. I read a Sam Maloof interview he said: The best tool for the job. I don’t get hung up on using all power tools or all hand tools. If you get too mechanized, you have to design around the capabilities of the machines, and your furniture won’t have the feel of handmade work. If you move to the other extreme and become a purist who won’t use power tools at all, well, that’s okay. But be prepared-you may starve to death. My philosophy is closer to Wharton Esherick’s. He once said to me, “I use any tool that’ll do the job. If I have to use my teeth, I use my teeth.”

  12. I have to add after three plus years of using these P. Sellers methods I too sharpen about as well freehand as he likely did as an apprentice! Now, it has to be said that I could barely sharpen a pencil before this so all in all things are looking up. Thanks for taking me from a confused adult woodworker who had never used much for hand tools to an adult with confidence who is now a woodworking fool and have loved every single minute of this journey. To think, this all started with a couple of shop videos about sharpening hedge shears and scissors, let alone a chisel or two. Thank you thank you to Mr. Sellers and his crew – you are worth your weight in gold and here is to a prosperous and fruitful new year – 2019!

  13. I know this is an older post but I wanted to get my two cents worth in here. I agonized for several years trying to sharpen hand tools on a budget – for those of us that are a bit older and may never see the use for price of investment, it has to be said that quality diamond plates and especially in the larger sizes are darned expensive! I finally broke down and bought the bog standard combination India oil stone, it still works like a dream. The coarse and fine combo work well for hand tools that are up to snuff. Where I run in to problems is fettling and grinding the used tools that are in rougher shape, doing that without some kind of power tool like a power bench grinder or bench belt sander is difficult. I learned to sharpen the old way without any kind of honing guide and when ordering the oil stone I gave in and also bought the basic eclipse style now generic guide. I had a couple of chisels and a plane blade that had gotten out of whack and could just not get them back as hard as I tried, it was strange going to training wheels after learning to sharpen without them. The honing guide had everything back in plumb in short order and I was glad to have the help but will continue to do this the way Mr. Sellers recommends, freehand as it is so much quicker and can be used to sharpen to tasks at hand. This subject should really be fairly straight forward but the waters are definitely muddied by all of the amateur experts out their giving advice and the manufacturers don’t seem to help matters either. Do not kid yourself as the older style oil stones still work for the majority of steels out there – maybe not the harder alloys or exotic stuff but for the most part those bench stones work just fine and are still affordable!

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