And don’t be scared!
If you’ve avoided sharpening because of uncertainty then it is likely that sharpening has a fearful uncertainty for you. Working with students, friends I came to know, such like that, I learned to listen. In most cases it was the fear of failure that held them back. Mostly it surrounded self-doubt as to their ability to get it right. Even watching them set a chisel or plane iron onto the sharpening plate seemed overly cautious; as though just touching the steel to the surface would somehow cause damage. It’s a common thing for any of us to fear anything unknown. Taking a first step means making a decision and it’s this apprehension that postpones what it is essential for us to do. Let me tell you! Placing the bevel of a tool onto an abrasive plate for the first time, then feeling for the bevel angle, then pushing forwards and backwards a few strokes will rarely do any damage at all. Lift off, flip over and look at the surface of the bevel and you will see where the pressures need to be applied when you return to the plate. You will also see where you are at the wrong bevel angle. Lift up a tad or lower and gently reengage. Most often it will be your dominant hand that enters the fray of sharpening the most confidently. It’s often this side that presses the harder. What you must find and develop is balance. Simple correction means pressing just a little more with your non-dom hand. Fears often dog us when we start out and we put off what must ultimately become a significant part of our everyday woodworking. I think most times people regularly expressed themselves to me thus:
“I just don’t want to mess up the good saw teeth by my not knowing how.”
“The plane came sharp straight out of the box but now I am reluctant to touch it because I don’t want it to get dull.”
My kitchen knives are always dull. They wouldn’t cut butter!
Truth too is that it is just about always time to sharpen up, even when we’re super-busy it’s important to take the time, detach from the making, and then see the task as being as important as that of making. Sharpening is making!
Sometimes I think the most negative influences came in recent decades, the past three at most, with the profusion of methods you might choose. It always amazes me that we welcome a world of choices yet the more choices we have the less apt or able we are to make a decision. Look in any tool catalogue selling tools and I defy you to make a good decision based on the descriptions therein. Mostly that’s because catalogue companies and online sales outlets only know what they have read or heard secondhand. Sadly, they come across as the experts they are quite frankly not. Their greatest experience is not in using but in selling.
Amidst the illusion of pluralism, where we think we have choice but cannot choose, we also have the infection that comes from those who do little more than create content for reading. At the workbench making, it is a different story. Spend a good hour a week bringing all of your tools up to scratch and then top them up as needed and you will enter the thralls of wonder as you work your wood. If you are intent on being a woodworker then you really do not need prissy systems of sharpening that need micrometers and bevel angles measured to fractions of a degree. Truth is this; you can sharpen any chisel or plane iron anywhere upwards of say 25-degrees and less than around 35 and it will cut very nicely. Oh, and don’t tell me you’re just such a perfectionist either. Usually, that’s little more than pride and to spend more than a few minutes sharpening a chisel or a plane iron is the luxury of those who just like to sharpen. When you’re a furniture maker and woodworker you find a well-balanced approach that will keep you up with the work and expedite sharpening to keep you going with the wood.
I of course understand that self-doubt in doing what’s not common to you can be intimidating, but you will soon gain the level of confidence you need. Use a honing guide to start if you feel better doing that, but ultimately you will want to take the training wheels off because you have developed the sensitivity and muscle memory to just go straight to the abrasive you use. Perhaps I should suggest here that there are many firsts that we’ve had to overcome before now, driving a car, starting a new job, new school, learning to swim and so on. The truth is we like our comfort zone. I have decades of experience under my belt and I do many things including sharpening without hesitation. Mostly that is because if you don’t master sharpening it might be best to become a machinist where you never have to sharpen a single thing because sharpening is service-based and you pay someone else to do it for you or use replaceable blades. But learning to and mastering your own sharpening is empowering and you can do it. You have to start soon and mostly it’s overcoming your fears of something that is fully a part of the handtoolist’s craft. I can indeed sharpen almost any of my saws in under 3-4 minutes and sometimes no more than one minute. Today I sharpened six saws, 5 planes, four chisels. It took me an hour or so but I didn’t rush it. I used each tool in the work I am on and it was pure joy.
I used almost all of the tools above subsequent to sharpening them and the benefits resulted in heightened accuracy levels, more ease of use (I did not say easy use), and a sense of enjoyment which is always immeasurable. Sharpeningnisna must and having personally taught 6500 people to sharpen their tools plus hundreds of thousands online I can safely say anyone can sharpen, saws, planes, chisels, spokeshaves and scrapers and once they have done it several times they will wonder why they did not ride that bike much sooner.
Nothing bad that you can do to any tool is irreversible. There is also a very good chance that you will indeed not mess up a good tool in any way at all.