As I have grown older I have grown less tolerant. I think this to be symptomatic. Sharpening seems to me to have become an abrasive subject discussed by expert sellers and those seeking ever more knowledge. As an apprentice, the men had whetstones in boxes without grade-knowledge per se, but they often had two, one coarser and one very fine. Mostly they used the coarser one and then got back to work; they just on with it. Experts these days, teachers and salesmen and often a combination of the two somewhere along the line, will tell you of this method or that. Usually, it’s the one or ones they can sell for the higher profit. Mostly they confuse what is simple. The reality is that it is mostly about abrasive and so that is where we should start this discussion.

By its very harshness and unwillingness to yield under pressure, abrasives of every kind then crumble under pressure. Crushed particulate changes things on the surface of the abrasive panel no matter the type. Applying steel to abrasive causes the abrasive to inevitably self destruct. Though particles are categorised by any particulate sizing developed to make the sheet, 250-grit, 500-grit, whatever, as soon as you apply pressure to the surface with a cutting edge tool this grit will be changed. it cannot not be. This is mostly of little concern to us, but it needs saying all the same. Sometimes we forget that that’s what’s happening beneath every stroke and that is why with sheet abrasives we must change the sheet regularly according to the amount of use. Ultimately this leads to poor economy.

Oilstones, water stones in general last a thousand times longer than abrasive papers and film. Diamond plates rely on the reality that they re the hardest known abrasive material and they last well enough. These are the ones I rely on most. I do use a coarse abrasive, cloth-backed, to reestablish a damaged bevel and so on, or if I have gone out of square. It’s the fastest way without resorting to a mechanical grinder of some kind. Why not just use a belt sander then? Well, not everyone has one, not everyone can handle one, not everyone can afford one and no one needs one. This alone is explanation enough, aside from the safety issues surrounding them for grinding steel, like the festering heat source inside a cloth bag that becomes a fireball and sets the shop alight four hours later, or the spark that hits the eyeball. I doubt that anyone can sharpen faster than I do without a machine or even with one when I am in the zone sharpening. It takes me around 5-7 minutes max, to sharpen 7-10 hand tools surgically sharp, no more, usually.

So, what else is wrong with mechanical grinding?

I think that mostly, people do it because it is what they were told starting out in woodworking. Of course, grinding on wheels dates back through the centuries, to a point I suppose where no one recalls nit using some kind of wheel grinder. Sandstone wheels 24″ in diameter and 4″ wide, hand-cranked or treadled, water-driven and geared, gave us fairly silent grinding for decades and years. These mechanisms rarely moved fast enough to cause sparks and didn’t burn the steel either. Many rotated through a bath of water to keep the steel cool of course. You would often see them around farms and workshops as relics of the past, but worked they did! The electric motor made them redundant. Progress! Then on the back of the Industrial Revolution came the electric motor in small and powerful form and it was the power source that changed everything. In woodworking and for woodworkers the hollow grind has been with us for at least three hundred years, be the arc on the bevel barely detectable from the 24″ wheels or the 6″ Black & Decker ones that became so ubiquitous after the 1950s. Problems with them? Not for just grinding off mild steel, tempered or not, but for edge tools, there was always the high risk of burning the steel and of course, they take off fifty times more steel than is usually needed.

48 Comments

  1. Hasan on 1 April 2020 at 10:45 am

    Last time it took me about an hour to sharpen 12 tools, I have to practice more to become faster. I will buy a set of those diamond plates one day when I can afford them, right now I’m using sandpaper on glass. Tried two oil stones but they were junk and good ones are very hard to find here and expensive too, and they don’t stay flat.
    Thank you for all your teachings Paul.

    • Tom Wood on 1 April 2020 at 1:32 pm

      You can almost certainly afford the cheap Chinese diamond plates Paul mentioned a few weeks ago, and they seem to work well: https://paulsellers.com/2020/03/edge-sharpening-under-10/

      Whether or not you will be able to get hold of them until the world returns to some semblance of normality is another matter.

      • Jim on 2 April 2020 at 9:18 am

        I ordered mine in March and got them in two weeks. I have made my plywood plate holder, although cheap plywood made this harder than need be. They re the best £10 I have spent in a long time. I have sharper tools than I have ever had and it does make sharpening a pleasure, not a chore.

    • Gareth on 1 April 2020 at 3:57 pm

      You should look at the diamond plate post I’m sure I saw a few weeks back – Paul was talking about using inexpensive thin diamond plates to get ‘good enough’ results without the outlay of the larger diamond stones/plates.

      • Gareth on 1 April 2020 at 4:03 pm

        11th March “Edge sharpening for under £10” is the one

    • Hasan on 2 April 2020 at 6:33 pm

      Thanks guys, I will look into it.

  2. Jon on 1 April 2020 at 11:33 am

    My problem is practice. I have a hard time setting aside that 1 or two hours a day for woodworking, so I find myself rushing, cutting corners and putting off. I finally devoted an uninterrupted hour to carefully watching Paul’s saw sharpening video, setting up and sharpening then setting my spear and jackson econo saw. Lo and behold, I could suddenly rip a 3 foot one inch board almost perfectly straight and quickly! A skill that’s eluded me for years!

    I think the main sellers lesson is care — attention to detail. That comes from practice.

  3. Stuart Heathcote on 1 April 2020 at 11:43 am

    I have taken hand tool working further back in time during my retirement and now try to use old wooden planes, ploughs, fillisters and old chisels and considering the sharpening angles and curves they have been subjected to in the past it is possible to say that the consideration for many past craftsmen had been nothing more than “Does it cut” and if it cuts “Get on with it.” We amateurs tend to spend far to much time worrying about perfection instead getting on with it. I am, I think, improving with time but it is only by practise, practise and more practice.

  4. Tom Bittner on 1 April 2020 at 12:32 pm

    Most of the electric grinders have the wrong kind of wheel on them and spin too fast. They are meant for metal work and rough grinding although you can do fine grinding work with them.
    They throw grit and sparks all over the place so you really should wear a mask, glasses of course and some sort of wheel safety shield, not the cheap ones that come with the machine.
    I’ve actually pitted window glass from the hot sparks hitting them.
    Wheels can break throwing chunks all over and can blind you, if the gap between the tool rest is not adjusted correctly you can get a finger jammed while operating or the steel your grinding gets stuck or launches across the room. You need water nearby to continually quench the steel your grinding which gets very hot and can burn your hands.
    Other than that they are just fine!
    My dad used to terrify me grinding lawnmower blades in the shop with nothing but an old pair of ( open sided ) glasses. He had great skill however and could put a fine edge on the blades free handed. I use mine to sharpen my mower blades, usually I wait and sharpen a dozen at a time because of the mess it makes and the hazard the process produces. All of this is done outside!
    Not my favorite tool or process.

    • Marshall Murrell on 13 April 2020 at 4:15 pm

      I have a high speed grinder and I hate using it. I much prefer to use coarse sandpaper on a flat surface ( I have mine attached to plywood) to establish or re-establish the primary bevel. I bought a dual grit waterstone (2000 and 6000) which works well, but I don’t use it as often as I should because I have to submerge it and let it soak for 5 minutes first. Maybe there is a better way to utilize it. The two sided stone ultimately succumbed to being submerged and came unglued. I now have two stones instead of one double-sided stone. I think I like it better that way. I do keep them flattened with a diamond plate. I strop with compound on a piece of mdf. Need to get a leather to glue to it.

  5. Mario Fusaro on 1 April 2020 at 12:35 pm

    I have to laugh at the “experts” who insist that you have to have 8 to 10 stones to sharpen your tools. Add to that, you must back bevel to a certain degree and spend 45 minutes to an hour per tool. If you don’t do all this, you will not have a good edge. I use the 3 diamond plates that Paul shows and learned to sharpen up in minutes. I keep a strop on the bench for touch ups as I work to keep the edge for as long as possible. The only time I take a tool to a grinder is if it is damaged or I bought a rescue from eBay and then I keep the cup of water close by for cooling. Believe me, if you don’t know how to sharpen, watch Paul’s videos and practice what he teaches. You’ll have razor sharp edges that last and in time you will sharpen in a few minutes and get back to work quickly. After all, you are there to work the wood and make projects, not spend the weekend sharpening one chisel!

    • Andy on 6 April 2020 at 8:49 pm

      I finally succumbed to buying a grinder. After careful research I found a Rikon slowspeed one with very nice white stones. Still use a cup of water so as not to damage the temper. I use it to cleanup damaged blades and to sharpen my lathe tools only. I don’t believe in the sales promo that it replaces manual sharpening. I have the trio of diamond stones recommended by Paul for this

      • Paul Sellers on 7 April 2020 at 7:35 pm

        I own a grinder too, Andy. I use mine for all kinds of general grinding jobs and for my turning gouges and lathe chisels because these are HighSpeed steel (HSS) which cannot generally be sharpened without a grinder. Also, lathe tools are impacted by speed and heat and generally need repeated regrinding every few minutes. I would just say that no one has ever said not to use such equipment, just that it is not necessary for sharpening edge tools that’s all.

  6. John Purser on 1 April 2020 at 12:40 pm

    I don’t worry about how long it takes me to sharpen. I enjoy the process and have some confidence so it’s the one thing I do in the wood shop where I have the least anxiety.

    For one time jobs like flattening and radical jobs like larger corrections and reshaping a plane iron I’ll resort to a certified flat granite block and some heavy duty sand paper. It’s a valuable tool and technique and I wouldn’t be without it.

    There are a few jobs that crop up once in a while that make me think I should sacrifice some shop space to a grinder. Most recently I wanted to make a scrub plane blade AND I had a couple of lawn mower blades to sharpen so I got a used grinder. I lost a day or two educating myself and fiddling with it before I decided having the ability would be nice but it came at too high a price. And there was no joy there.

    That’s the right decision for me today. Your mileage may vary.

  7. nemo on 1 April 2020 at 12:53 pm

    About a month ago I finally succeeded in freehand sharpening on an old oilstone. It’s a double-sided oilstone of unknown grits but the fine is indeed very fine. It belonged to my father and was in his possession for as long as I can remember. It was slightly dished but I notice that the more plane blades I sharpen, the less the dishing becomes.

    The stone is pretty hard, I know not which grits, I suspect it’s silicon-carbide (carborundum) but don’t know for sure. What I do know is that I get consistently good sharp results and that I can now sharpen freehand in very little time (3-4 minutes; I consider that fast compared to what I started from with the sandpaper method and all the jigs I needed; half an hour was nothing, so I usually sharpened several tools at once when it was all set up). The sense of liberation and empowerment freehand sharpening has caused is indescribable. I was in the past reluctantly considering diamonds but think I’ll never bother with them now. This single stone seems to be enough for all my requirements, combined with the leather strop.

    I’m still not sure why freehand sharpening on an oilstone suddenly worked for me. Could be the stone itself or trying the ‘figure-8’ method you use on your diamond stones. Either way, the results speak for themselves. It took a few years of persevering (and making do in the mean time with the sandpaper method). Sharpening plane blades has now indeed become something you do quickly without too much thought, unlike the past where it was a dreaded chore (all the setting up it required).

    In the attic I found a large, motorised slow-running sandstone grinder in a waterbath. My father had meticulously restored it but somehow never put the parts completely back together. The last 5% of work was left unfinished. Last evening I was thinking I should put it together and start using it. This afternoon I read your blog and see you say that they simply ‘work’. That settles the matter for me.

  8. Michael Ballinger on 1 April 2020 at 1:03 pm

    Great read, I was half expecting an April Fools post – God knows we could do with a laugh in the current covid19 situation.

  9. Stephen McGonigle on 1 April 2020 at 2:01 pm

    It may be a sad thing to admit, but I truly love sharpening anything that requires sharpening. I simply enjoy it and find the process deeply satisfying.

    • Paul Sellers on 1 April 2020 at 5:15 pm

      Nothing sad about that. I do too. And I like the results in the od as well.

    • Thomas Olson on 1 April 2020 at 8:51 pm

      I also love to sharpen. One of the greatest ways I know to relax.

  10. Steve D on 1 April 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Paul,
    This is either the least funny April fools post in many years or it’s “British humor” that I can’t understand here.

    • Paul Sellers on 1 April 2020 at 5:14 pm

      Sorry Steve, it wasn’t meant to be funny.

    • nemo on 3 April 2020 at 5:44 pm

      Same here Steve, I started reading the article with certain expectations, such as ‘After years of study and cooperation with Bruce from the University of Woolloomooloo I now have in my shop a prototype of their recently developed 3D woodprinter. Still in its development infancy but the first results are very promising. This machine will take all the tedious joinery out of woodworking! It’s so fast, quick and easy, and you can do any wood you like, from pine till cocobolo, and combinations of these woods in any flavour you like. No more need for those outdated chisels, planes and saws and all their maintenance. No more mucking about with knifewalls too. Woodworking is now finally entering the 21st century!’

      Alas, nothing of the sort. Initially I thought there was a joke in this sharpening post and it simply flew over my head. It happens.

  11. Samuel on 1 April 2020 at 5:17 pm

    In relation to sharpening Paul has taught me the word “acuity”

  12. Jerry Stark on 1 April 2020 at 6:00 pm

    I certainly agree with Paul on this one.

    The more time I have spent wood working, the more I have realized that it is better to build skills than it is to buy machines. (I could have saved myself some money if I had learned that lesson earlier.)

    Now, the only time I use a sharpening jig is to re-establish a square edge on an iron or chisel. Even then, I only use a coarse diamond sharpening plate.

    I have been sharpening freehand for years now. The only thing I have changed in my sharpening routine in the past decade is that I now use a leather strop to hone my tools after and in between sharpening. That has really made an important and positive difference in how I sharpen my tools.

    And sharpening tools is no longer “time out” for me. It is an integral, enjoyable, and quick stage in the work process.

    My mantra is now is simple: Fewer machines. More skills.

    Thank you, Paul.

  13. Brandon Wilson on 1 April 2020 at 6:05 pm

    Paul: *is an expert and a Sellers and talks about sharpening*
    Also Paul: *complains when “expert sellers” talk about sharpening*

    (yes, I know I’m not the first and probably won’t be the last to make a dumb joke about his last name)

  14. Patrick Sadr on 1 April 2020 at 6:36 pm

    “I do use a coarse abrasive, cloth-backed, to reestablish a damaged bevel and so on, or if I have gone out of square.”

    Paul could you please go on about this? I do vaguely remember a video you did on fixing a plane blade or chisel that has gone out of square it haven’t it specifically yet.

    The plane (Stanley Bailey no. 4 smooth) I have been using is just less than a milimeter out but I have been able to compensate for that with very slight adjustment of the lever control.

    Should I continue to just use it this way, almost seems more trouble to correct it.

    I have been tempted to get it square freehand on the course diamond plate on my sharpening pad. It seems like a minor swipe holding the plane vertical swiping across the edge that is longer would take it down and then I could just sharpen up from there to bring it back to speed?

    • John Dougherty on 2 April 2020 at 4:23 am

      I’m not sure how Paul approaches a new bevel, but putting a new bevel on a tool by hand grinding is often laborious. I have tinnitus though, so I do it that way anyway. I have a granite plate I bough decades ago. The surface is flat within 1/1000th. I get out a really coarse paper, 80-100 grit, dampen the surface of the stone, put the paper on it and grind away. I sometimes use a honing guide. Once there is a wire edge, then brush off the wire, and proceed with finer abrasive (600 diamond is what I switch to) and proceed as you normally do.

  15. Joe on 1 April 2020 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks Paul. I followed your advice regarding diamond stones. Have my three and have never looked back. They work well and I’m blissfully ignorant of any other way and happy to remain so.

    When I was a kid, my grandfather hand a nice foot powered sandstone. I loved using it to sharpen yard tools as a kid. The sand stone wheel and metal bits are still there. Sadly the wood has rotted away. Some day I’d like to restore it. Mostly for nostalgic purposes.

  16. Dennis Sheehan on 1 April 2020 at 7:52 pm

    As a plumber I drilled or cut many round holes usually anywhere from 1/2” through 8” and the benefit of a sharp bit and new worm was self evident at the end of the day . The master that I apprenticed with taught me how to keep our bits and saw blades sharp. I find the need for that pristine edge you so often mention to be even more critical in wood working.

  17. Dave Larson on 2 April 2020 at 12:17 am

    The more you sharpen the less you need to. Think about it.

    • Jeff on 2 April 2020 at 2:27 am

      I suppose Dave, except when I started out sharpening, I tended to end up with an edge more dull than I started with since I was not so good at it. Glad to have folks like Paul to learn from. I have improved.

  18. Vincent on 2 April 2020 at 4:01 am

    Paul,

    I really enjoy watching your videos and reading your posts. Especially the ones where you write as if you’re doing some self-reflection. Nobody talks or writes like that anymore. Which begs me to ask:

    Are you so taken amongst Brethrens and Fellows?

    Sincerely and Mahalo,
    Vince

    • Vincent on 2 April 2020 at 4:02 am

      *Brethren

      -apologies for the error.

  19. Salko Safic on 2 April 2020 at 11:42 am

    I admit that I’m not very fond of sharpening because it takes so bloody long . The reasons are and I shouldn’t use the plural as there is only one reason; the A2 blades are thick and therefore takes too long to sharpen. The only way I have somehow quickened the method somewhat is by starting off with 80 grit wet n dry sand paper to reestablish the bevel. Then I work a secondary bevel there after. If I’m sharpening O1 blades I do not have that problem, within a few minutes I could be done.

    • Joe on 2 April 2020 at 4:47 pm

      I have chisels that are A2. They certainly are harder. What I ended up doing was a similar approach to yours. In my case, I bought an extra extra coarse diamond stone and start there for A2. Then I move onto the coarse, fine, super fine. If I were buying again, I would avoid A2. Live and learn. It’s not the end of the world.

    • Harlow Chandler on 3 April 2020 at 1:32 pm

      I don’t understand why, if you have a secondary bevel, you are reworking the primary bevel every time you sharpen. Or perhaps you don’t and I simply didn’t understand what you said. Can’t you just touch up that secondary bevel until eventually it gets wide enough to become the “primary bevel”? It seems as though it ought to be thin enough to take hardly any time to resharpen even with harder steel. What am I not understanding?

  20. Jeffrey A Dustin on 2 April 2020 at 1:41 pm

    But ypu cant find thin plane blades new in USA. You have to get thick ones or used ones and the ones i have bought used dont fix my wooden bodied planes.

  21. John S. on 2 April 2020 at 6:27 pm

    Paul,
    Thank you so much for sharing your skills and expertise, while a auto mechanic by day, I long for the time and experience to build my home furnishings to suit my own taste, I’m very intrigued with your “ Spill Plane” any chance you could do a video on making one.? Thanks again and stay healthy.

  22. Mike on 2 April 2020 at 9:58 pm

    I have a really old sharpening stone just like the really dark grey ones in the photo at the top. I picked it up at a reclamation yard. I’ve not really used it yet but would like to try it out. You mention water stones and oil stones. Are they the same thing or does the type of lubricating fluid you use depend on the type of stone that you have?

    • Harlow Chandler on 3 April 2020 at 1:19 pm

      Both oil stones and water stones can be either natural stone or synthetic. The classic oil stone is a natural stone quarried in Arkansas in the USA. Man made oil stones are generally aluminum oxide or silicon carbide. They vary in grade and hardness, but generally speaking they all cut more slowly than comparable grades of water stones and diamond stones, they need flattening and using oil to clear swarf is pretty messy in my experience. Generally they are the least expensive stones and in my opinion reflect that in use–not that you can’t get excellent results; it’s just harder and takes longer.

      Water stones are generally made of silicon carbide, but in such a way that they break down faster under use than oil stones made with the same abrasive. Consequently they reveal fresh abrasive sooner and cut faster, but require more flattening. When I switched from oil to water stones I was amazed at how much I liked them. But they require upkeep–soaking in water, frequent flattening and like oil stones are messy, but at least it’s not oily mess.

      When I switched to diamond stones it was again a joyful revelation. They cut fast, stay flat, and can use different lubricants to wash away swarf. Mr. Sellers uses a window cleaner. I have used plain water, but now use rubbing alcohol. I have no good reason to offer for using alcohol, but it works for me. In my opinion the higher initial cost of diamond stones is a great investment not only in lower long term cost, but in time saved both sharpening and maintaining, a more pleasant experience, and excellent results. Additionally, having properly sharp tools is in effect the same as having “better” tools. So if you upgrade your sharpening stones you have, in effect, upgraded your edge tools at far less cost than buying more expensive, “better” tools than what you already have. Diamond stones seem expensive, but I think they are one of the least expensive ways to have a major impact on the quality and enjoyment of your work–second only to improving one’s skill level.

      • Mike on 3 April 2020 at 5:44 pm

        Thanks Harlow. That’s very helpful info!

  23. joe on 3 April 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Hi Paul,
    I know you have a lot of videos showing sharpening. I was thinking that in some of your Master Class videos, it might be helpful to include you doing some sharpening of a chisel or plane blade. No commentary, just doing it at the pace you normally do.

    I think the more folks see it, the more it will sink in at how natural and quick it is. I don’t want to watch a dozen tools sharpened at once but if you are sharpening say one or two chisels and a plane blade, it might be worth adding. You did this in some of the early videos.

  24. Mike on 3 April 2020 at 5:47 pm

    Joe. Have a look at his Instagram post from 7th March.
    All the best

  25. David Gillam on 6 April 2020 at 6:15 pm

    Paul,
    Well written article. I remember at school 50+ years ago, the teacher showing us how to use a small carborundum block and water to sharpen tools. No power driven appliances then. The only requirement for grinding wheels is is a tool has been badly damaged.
    Thanks for you blogs.

  26. Jacob on 6 April 2020 at 7:32 pm

    I’ve tried almost everything in my 60 or so years of woodwork. Gone the full circle and back to freehand and oilstones just like we did at school. Quicker cheaper faster. A double sided medium/coarse (like the Norton IB8) will do for everything but a grade finer could come in handy for fine finishing i.e. pretty much the oilstone equivalent of Pauls 3 diamond plates.
    You can grind too on a coarse oilstone – the main thing is to put in a lot of energy, fast and furious. Small powered grindstones and honing jigs cause a lot of probs and best avoided. Took me years to find out!

  27. mark leatherland on 7 April 2020 at 12:12 am

    I’m lucky, i had a good teacher who taught me to sharpen freestyle by hand. It was not all that easy to get the hang of it, but once you’ve got it, its easy and it saves all that faffing around putting in a honing device as one of my friends kept saying was the best way. It’s the best way for him as it’s the only way he can do it as he won’t invest in the time to learn. I’ve told him to go to my teacher, all he has to do is type Paul Sellers sharpening on YouTube….

  28. Mark - Gower on 21 April 2020 at 1:13 pm

    Sharpening memories……Does anyone else remember their Gran sharpening her knives on the back doorstep, or the guy ringing his bicycle bell in the street once a week and putting his bicycle-sharpening machine into ‘park and grind’ with queues of mums lining up for their knives to be sharpened and for only a few pennies?

    Thanks again Paul for your wisdom, you inspired me to better develop my sharpening skills about 4 years ago. Alas thin diamond plates were not available here then and the EZE-Lap/ DMT were too expensive for me.

    I started to find a sharpening ‘system’ that was affordable to me; a quick visit to the granite worktop unit on the local industrial estate provided a dead flat ‘plate’ ( I was able to buy a large sink cutout for £5), a 10 metre roll of 250 grit x 100mm wide abrasive paper and two ‘Hermes’ 5 metre rolls of self-adhesive film (800 and 1200 grit from Axminster Power Tools) set me up for less than £25 all-in.

    36 months later I have super-sharp tools; sharpening also takes me only a couple of minutes (thank you so much for the sharpening video lesson Paul!) and I am now about half way through the abrasive stocks – I am looking to get the thin diamond plates soon though to compare.

    Paul’s tip of auto glass cleaner as the lubricant is brilliant, cheap and easy to manage.

    Taking a few moments to re-sharpen is a fillip, always makes me smile because I know how good the next cut will feel………….. almost as good as sharpening a pencil, eh Paul?

  29. Mike Z. on 28 April 2020 at 2:49 am

    I always hated trying to sharpen on a machine, no matter what the type or how fast it was moving I never failed to dope off just long enough to burn or ruin something. There had to be an easier way, I just knew it was out there. Several years ago I stumbled on Paul Sellers sharpening an old pair of hedge clippers and I was sold! Since then I have been practicing long and hard to get the mechanics of manual free hand sharpening down – I love it. Thanks again as I knew it really was down to learning a small handful of basic techniques, rather than buying one more machine. Oh the money we can spend trying to get out of learning to sharpen the way our fathers and great grandfathers did every day of the year!!

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