Sharpen Up!

One and a half minutes to sharpen a 10″ tenon saw, 120 teeth. Phew! But whereas it is not necessary to move fast like that, I want you to know that if you sharpen your wits about sharpening it will become a quick and easy task without fear to sharpen any saw!

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.

32 thoughts on “Sharpen Up!”

  1. Jan Willem Kooi

    Wow, thank you verry much for this post. It awnsers my question from last week perfectly.

    Kind regards,

    Jan Willem Kooi

  2. It took me a while to learn from you that when you hold up some pieces of wood at the beginning of a video and you tell us that you’ve taken out twists and cups and bellies and squared up these pieces in your hand that these actions are a very significant part of the project you are about to discuss.

    Having let that finally sink in, I stopped my current project and did the these long overdue things:
    1. Bought three diamond stones and mounted them as you have done.
    2. Got some 2mm thick leather and glued it to a piece of plywood (I already had the aluminum oxide).
    3. Made a bench hook because I cannot yet make an unsupported square saw cut (called getting honest with myself).
    4. Made a shooting board because I need it.
    5. Broke in my diamond stones and practiced and practiced sharpening chisels and plane blades.
    I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that the quality of my woodwork has improved substantially.
    Thanks, Paul.

    1. I started doing the same thing
      And love using my really sharp chisels
      Thanks for the incentive Paul
      Michael in bx

  3. Godfrey Millinson

    Thank you so much for all the knowledge and incouragement you give. I would like to say before the advent of specialist inserts into machinist’s cutting tools the machinists problem was and is the same as the woodworker. Many machinists still grind and shape their cutting tools by hand from steel blocks all be it using grindstones and in some cases very complicated home built grinding machines.
    All to achieve the same end result – sharp cutting tools !
    Nothing can be done without getting that correct edge.

  4. This installment describes me well. I’ve been sharpening my planes and bench chisels by hand on diamond stones (as per the Paul Sellers method) for about 10 years now and I get consistently great results. Nevertheless, anytime I’m confronted with having to sharpen some new tool I’ve never sharpened before, I put it off as long as possible, and I dread even trying it. That was true for my router plane iron, my scrub plane, my spokeshaves, and my handsaws. I eventually buckled under necessity and figured it out, but it was terrifying. I guess I didn’t want to hopelessly ruin what had been a nice tool. And this sharpening phobia has not gone away. Although I am now comfortable sharpening the aforementioned tools, I’ve recently started doing some simple relief carving, and my V-chisel and many of my gouges now need sharpening. And I’m dreading it!

  5. As I once heard “If” is the middle word in “Life” and as such often one has to risk the potential for “Mistakes” in order to learn something and I think that school of thought applies to everything from romance to woodworking. At one time I was investing in very expensive waterstones and oil stones with mixed results but later when I watched your videos on sharpening irons and chisels using wetsanding and getting outstanding results, I never felt any regrets about spending money and felt very triumphant about learning a new method of sharpening.

  6. Thanks for a great post which resonates with me… Self doubt, the fear of making it worse than it already is, and procrastination need to be overcome, even though the benefits of sharpening are clear, and the risk of failure is fairly low!

  7. I have to say I was scared and intimidated to sharpen a saw. Well what happened was i got an old Harvey Peace backsaw for a good deal. But I took it to the guy that normally sharpens my saws and he said the teeth were too bad and it needed to be retoothed, and he didn’t have the machine. Well, I watched your video on retoothing a saw a couple times, ordered a file from Tools for Working Wood, and made the little guide in your video using a hacksaw blade and a scrap of wood. I didn’t have much to lose, since nobody could sharpen it. Once I retoothed it I had to sharpen and set it. And even though I did a so-so job I was surprised at how well this saw cut. I can only imagine how well it will cut as my sharpening skills improve! But the best part is I am not intimidated at all at sharpening.

  8. I’d put off buying diamond stones for a while due to cost – I didn’t see it cost effective buying the cheaper ones so saved up for a double sided ezelap one 250 grit on one side and 1200 grit the other. The plate arrived on Friday.

    I jumped straight into sharpening a second hand stanley blue handled 1 1/2″ chisel I bought from an auction site very cheaply that had been sharpened badly previously. I stuck it in a honing guide and dialed in the distance for a 25 degree bevel and took it to the 250 grit.

    30mins + later I had a chisel I could use. I did a 1/2″ chisel in similar condition in about 10 mins and a 1″ sandvik that I had previously sharpened in about 10 mins also.

    I also found I got better results by taking the honing guide off for finishing to 1200 grit.

    My arms and fingers still hurt now (i’m hoping this is down to me using muscles i haven’t used before)

    Is there any reason it took me so long for the first chisel? Is it the plate that needed breaking in?

    Am I applying the correct amount of pressure?

    The chisel i previously sharpened was definitely sharper then when I used my grandads old oilstones so i’ll stick with the diamonds. Just need to get the technique right.

    1. With the first chisel if it was in rough shape then you’d be grinding down at least 3 times the material on the 1 1/2 than the 1/2 which is probably why it took so long, but you probably got your rhythm down by the third one or it wasnt in such a bad state or the steel was a little softer (or a combination of any of them). I’ve bought a few rough chisels before and some of them are tough as nails and had been ground with a bunch of facets from a grinder and it taken a fair while to get them to a nice edge but a few strokes on the stones gets them sharp again now. If they are really in bad shape you can get coarser stones to take then down quicker or use 120 sandpaper on a flat surface, or if you are a heathen a belt sander to get them to a closer bevel first.

      1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

        Ha ha, the comment on belt sanders made me laugh hard! 😀 Indeed I must be a heathen, but only in woodworking, since I would not hesitate to use ANY means to get to the point where my diamond stones could do their work without having to remove too much material first.
        I mean, you remove the banana peel before eating the berry (bananas are actually berries), right?

    2. Mr. Sellers may not agree but a popular opinion is that tools should be hollow ground on bench grinders before they are hand honed. It saves a lot of time at the hone stones. Has other benefits too like less heel friction using tools. Mainly it is done for work efficiency. Does mean you need a bench grinder. That is the downside. Bit tricky to get a nice hollow grind on tools too. You need a grinder with an adjustable tool rest in my experience to do that. Which is another negative. The needing of more things. With this shop stuff that happens a lot. You need tools to maintain your tools. So a vicious cycle. Failing to go the grinder route you may find that bench stones do not last forever. They’re not cheap either. Plus there’s the time factor.

      1. I spent my lunch break yesterday re-watching Paul’s video on initialising and sharpening chisels.

        I went back to the diamond stones last night. This time with my plane iron which was due a bit of reviving after preparing all the stock for the wall shelf project last weekend. I cut all my housing dado joints but they are over tight so I need a fine shaving off the shelves and uprights.

        After watching the video I decided to ditch the honing guide and go freehand.

        I focussed on my technique pulling back to feel the bevel and then pushing forward lifting off the edge to give a slightly convex bevel on Paul’s advice.

        I also fashioned a bit of a strop from an old belt I was throwing out and polished out the burr properly. I think this made the single biggest difference to sharpness. I’ve never done this before. It cuts paper like butter.

        The surface of the stones is a lot less gritty now so I think a combination of poor technique and the stones needing breaking in have been the issue.

        I agree with the fact that I was moving a lot more material on the 1 1/2″ the last millimetre of bevel took the longest time to get to the edge.

        Hopefully someone else can find useful and learn from my mistakes.

      2. I for years have used a Record Power water “grinder” to achieve the hollow first “bevel”. As you say, it sets the tool up for the cutting bevel, and actually reduces the thickness of the chisel/iron, making for a more efficient cut (in my opinion!).

  9. Yes but Paul, every time I sharpen It never seems to be that I get the amount of burr coming off the cutting edge that you do. Why?

  10. I have been using the Eclipse honing guide for chisels and plane irons for 50 years (sad but true!). I maintain the edge between sharpenings by frequently running them along an aluminium oxide-charged strop. Periodically I try to get the cutting bevel sharp without the guide but invariably end up with the rounded bevel. I use the Ezelap, diamond stone and porcelain (?) stone. Time consuming but it works for me, though I accept that perhaps I have not given your procedure a fair chance. Saws – another matter. I am trying to get this perfected after years of sending them away – I live in hope! Your videos are great, on saw sharpening and all other woodworking techniques.

    1. I sharpened by hand for a long time and then I got an Eclipse guide. Using a guide I can practically sharpen chisels and plane irons with my eyes closed. The guide just makes it that easy. Behind the back! Guides are worth it for the stress reduction they offer alone. The results are incomparable too. Set your tool in the guide and you know you have the angle and you’re repeating it with unerring accuracy. I’m getting a level of sharpness now I never achieved even after years of hand sharpening experience. Not even on my best days. Guides rock!

      1. This may be the only way if someone who has low sensitivity to proprioception but then for those who can develop sensitivity to angles and such intuitively it will only postpone the necessary learning curve. For instance, I generally would not use a guide because I can indeed feel the 30-degree angle I want every time. I might use a guide for other reasons, to develop muscle memory and such, but generally, that is not the case at all. Freehand sharpening is generally much quicker and simpler. I think everyone should strive to establish freehand methods because once you have it you have it for life. This is a tremendous confidence boost. Also, it does not mean you never use a honing guide either.

        1. I started by using one of those guides and quickly got very comfortable with my new “training wheels”. It worked great on the average size planes and chisels. Then i tried to sharpen my 1/4” chisel…uh oh! Then my 1/8” chisel… uh oh! Then mortise chisels…uh oh! Then I got a router plane…uh oh! Then i got some gouges and molding planes…uh no possible way. I knew I had to get rid of training wheels. Also, the whole angle thing is a facade. We humans like to have some magical number, but the wood and the iron don’t really care.

        2. I bought a guide to start with but I’m getting fed up with using it – the setup process takes a while and then a good few mins to sharpen each of my 4 most frequently used chisels. Not quite the quick few strokes on the stones and back to work I’m aiming to achieve.

          Definitely agree with the issues on narrower chisels too. I bought a ‘Draper’ one and the level of finish allows the narrower chisels to rock.

          I’ll probably keep the guide for re-establishing squareness on my plane irons now and again. I have one that came in a box with my Grandad’s old No.4 and it was way off square. The honing guide will help me keep on top of that.

          My goal is definitely learning to sharpen freehand – as Paul say’s once learned it’ll last me a lifetime (hopefully another 50 years!!).

  11. I’ve found that the non dominant hand usually applies more pressure. Most of my old second hand irons have their right side protruding a bit.

  12. I think a lot of my trepidation was because of all the sharpening gurus who sharpen up to 8000 or even 12000 grit. It makes it seems so precise and expensive. Not to mention the time and learning investment. I always thought I was doing it half-ass until I saw one of your videos about one really only needing to sharpen up to 200 grit. Finer is better obviously but that’s all one really needs to get decent results. I now use sandpaper to mostly 400 grit. My tools are sharp and work great. You’re the best!

    1. You gotta watch them gurus. They’ll have you jumping through a bunch of barrels and hoops before you know it. 250 grit 600 or so and then 1200 and a strop charged with 10,000 buffing compound and you’re done. Forget hollow grinds and micro bevels, very dulling.

  13. I was doing some practice dovetails yesterday and had a chisel that I hadn’t really initialized yet but at some point gotten it good enough for whatever task I needed it for initially. I was working away and it wasn’t working great but I was just working through it, then I remembered the sharpening posts of the last few days and decided to stop and sharpen that chisel properly. I don’t remember how much time I spent on it but when I was done I went and pared down some end grain and was blown away. I don’t think I’d ever gotten that sharp or had so effortlessly pared down end grain.

    It worked so well the next time I’m in the shop I’m taking all my chisels and plane irons and re-initializing them and sharpening them until they all get the same results because I realized all this time I’d been getting them sharp-ish but not going far enough.

    In a similar story I was making a bookend and halfway through cutting the dovetails I decided to sharpen my saw, the first time I’d ever sharpened a saw, and the first cut after I almost went past my line because it was cutting so much better


    Well sharpened tools are not only more accurate and easier to use, they are also safer to use, mainly because a chisel for example, is less likely to slip as it requires less force to cut through the wood.

    1. Jeffrey A Dustin

      Mr. Dutton,

      You are the man with the greatest name!

      Totally loved the sharpening article. Really got me thinking about so-called super steels and if they are just marketing or if I should go back to stone tools. The marketing folks are good liars. They inject just enough doubt to creep in an make you think you need a magic Hogwarts wand to woodwork or do anything. Plus the hefty price tag. You need this magic wand to wipe your caboose. Meanwhile, people like Paul, youtube’s Mr.Chickadee, Stumpy Nubs, on and on get on with it while I’m collecting high priced tools and make only a small pile of shavings!

      Really thought-provoking theme, sharpening and puts to bed some of the fears the marketers conjure.

  15. Thank you for your excellent videos on sharpening hand tools. My tools are extremely sharp now and that has opened up a whole new exciting challenge to get away from my machines and build more projects with hand tools!

  16. This sharpening series is great. This weekend I was doing a little planning, and before I started I decided to “sharpen up.” After just a few passes my plane didn’t seem to be doing the job. I “sharpened up” again. I’ve concluded that during my stropping, I was liffting the iron at the end of my stroke and this was rounding over my edge, still trying to get the hang of hand sharpening. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, probably won’t be the last. Before I discovered I was doing this I would just go with it, and frustrate myself. Now I stop and immediately re-sharpen, making sure to pay attention. Its lots of fun identifying and working on fixing these types of idiosyncrasies.

  17. Sharpeningnisna !?! LOL

    popular opinion, Hollow grind, really?
    to hollow grind we need electricity, a bench grinder
    [a special $800 or is it $8000 model], a tool rest, ete,etc,etc
    do we really need that? don’t really need all that equipment,

    to jig or not to jig, that is the question. personally do both,
    use my home made jig to establish a say 25 deg angle
    [ buy used from local shop, ya outta see some of the hand jobs]
    then free hand for touch up.

    ps: used to work in precision machine shops. got into woodworking to relax
    from the rigidity of precision. some of these guys seem to confuse wood
    with high temp alloys. LOL also know from experience to value of jigs
    for proper work holding. won’t bother defining a jig, will say that “jigs”
    are used all the time in any shop wood, metal, granite, plastic or the kitchen.

  18. I was fortunate Paul when I started hand tool woodworking to really have only heard your thoughts on sharpening as well as woodworking in general. Since you weren’t selling anything and had done woodworking for 50 years as a career, I just trusted your thoughts came from experience and honest. As such, I bought the diamond stones (and a sharpening jig – sorry) and started sharpening.

    It was only a year later that I started to read what a lot of other folks thought needed to be done to sharpen. By then I was sharpening no problem. Why change? I had a system that worked just fine and was quick. The same was true in terms of how to cut dove tails, dados, etc.

    My reason for ignoring others had to do with another hobby I had (doesn’t matter what the hobby is). From age 10 to mid to late 30s I had done this other hobby and was happy as a clam. Only then, did I discover online forums dedicated to specific hobbies. Only then did I discover how folks obsessed over details that really didn’t matter. To the point where I think folks didn’t ever do the hobby because they were stuck in analysis mode and couldn’t make a decision.

    Based on that, when I discovered you and liked what you said, I figured that was good enough for me. No need to see what 10,000 other folks think. Glad I made that decision. Othewise, I would be stressed about product a, vs product b vs product c, etc.

  19. Paul, the responses already offered have already said &/or asked anything I could add to the topic. I simply want to say thank you for another great post.

    Oh yeah: greetings from Central Texas.

Comments are closed.

Privacy Notice

You must enter certain information to submit the form on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you provide any information on this form.