I’m Sharp

I sharpened up my sensitivity and discovered that accuracy is always tolerable by degrees. How can this be? I asked myself this question as I walked towards the sharpening plates for the fourth time with the three plane irons I’d been using all morning for about four hours.

“Well,” I said to myself, “the more sensitive I become, the more I return to the sharpening plates and the more I return to sharpen my tools the more accurate my work becomes.” Conversely, I think that it is no strange thing that when we are dull – that’s in our levels of engagement and cognisance – the duller the tools we are using become too. I have seen time and time again how crafting artisans, even experienced ones, seem always so unwilling to stop working to sharpen their cutting edges on edge tools and then too their saws. Is this true then in other areas of life?

I took the morning to level up the surfaces on rails and stiles of three frames. That’s 24 surfaces each adjacent to another with all the problematic grain oak carries within its coarse, interlocking grain. Three planes, four times, twelve sharpenings. Thankfully, sharpening a plane iron is under a minute for me. I just do it, but how many of us relate our lean toward laziness to the level of dullness we tolerate in our tool edges and therefore our work?

The frames are all done. The surfaces level, smooth, accurate. I am ready for the next stage in my making, but my reason for this blog is to prelude an article I am pulling together to counter the culture of being too lazy. We” see what happens!

54 thoughts on “I’m Sharp”

  1. I think it may be less about laziness and more about that sensitivity you always mention. With your level of experience, you probably are less consciously aware of how sensitive your hands and body are to slight dulling of your irons/chisels. You then hone them and go on with your work.

    With someone such as myself – not experienced and without continuous hours in the shop with tools in my hands, there is a lack of sensitivity to dullness. I pick up a plane and think, ‘It feels sharp!’. I plane with it and it feels fine. Then I hone the iron and it feels entirely different.

    Now, I just hone my irons and chisels before I start working. Since I rarely have more than an hour of time to spend in the shop at one go, I wind up with relatively sharp tools every time I work.

    1. I think I am extra perceptive, not at all less consciously aware of sharpness, Yohann. I might be so intent in the making as to refuse a need to sharpen for two seconds and two strokes and not want to break into my energised making at the minute and so push the blade two strokes more than I should. This is neither laziness nor incognizance but more economy of motion and ofmood.

      1. John Morrison

        Another new woodworker here. I just about have sharpening sorted out. What i don’t have is a “test” (or the experience and thus knowledge) for when I should sharpen.

        I’m guessing, in my ignorance, that a test would involve a piece of scrap wood (same or similar to my project wood) and i would do, say, 3 strokes of a plane across that and get a certain result. If i come back in X minutes time and do the same thing again on my piece of scrap wood and don’t get that result, I would know it is time to sharpen.

        Maybe I’m not thinking about this in a useful way, but can you envisage a test that a woodworker (newer one in particular) could use to identify when they need to sharpen a plane blade?

        Alternatively, are there good rules of thumb instead? e.g. go sharpen plane blade after every X minutes of use? Thank you.

        1. In my work, the plane should always engage the wood without hesitation. When the tool is sharp you will be able to push it with your fingertips and the blade will engage without any downward pressure or force forward. A dull iron will ride the dull bevel without shaving.

        2. Paul Frederick

          15 minutes seems to be the average between sharpenings. After using a tool in wood for 15 minutes touch it up then. Might not seem dull but you shouldn’t wait until tools are dull before you touch them up. You never want to use dull tools. They yield poor results. Sharpening itself shouldn’t be such a chore you avoid it at all costs either. Sharpening makes work go better. But if your sharpening is not efficient it can be a bother. So you do have to make an effort to make sharpening itself as effortless as possible. Hone your sharpening system. I diverge from Seller’s methods but what I do works for me. You need to develop what works for you.

      2. Christopher Castor

        Momentum is the thought that comes to mind when reading these messages. We can get caught “in the groove” and refuse to break our stride when working; much to our own detriment when sharpening up would save our energy, produce a finer finish, and reduce the chance of tear-out.
        Sensitivity is the most powerful tool I have learned to use through Paul’s virtual teachings, and I am a better man for utilizing sensitivity. I am better at breaking my habit of “being in the groove” so I save time by stopping to sharpen. I am also more likely to use sensitivity when listening to my wife, nephews, and when teaching teenagers Geometry. I was a much more efficient and effective teacher this year as I employed sensitivity in the classroom; I got more from my students when I was in tune with their “vibrations”. There’s so much to which we can apply the lessons learned in the workshop. We must be sensitive to the present so we can apply the lessons learned in the past, and we must reference the past so we don’t repeat our mistakes in the future.
        Thank you, I now have a box full of priceless intangible tool that have been gleaned from your videos and posts. Thanks to you I also know how to utilize my tangible tools to fullest as well!
        Enjoy the long days of Summer and please continue to share your passion, experience, and gift.
        -Christopher Castor

        1. Christopher your post spoke to me this morning. As I read it I began to think about how I can become more sensitive in my daily goings on. Being mindful and present are two ways I can think of that I believe go to the core of what’s being discussed here. I can do this not just with my desire to plane a perfect surface (of which I’m woefully under practiced) but also in other areas of life as you so thoughtfully described. Thanks for this insight.

          1. Christopher Castor

            Thank you, I needed to be reminded of this today. I am stoked to have your response!
            -Christopher

  2. I too sharpen my tool often and I agree with you that sharp tools increase the quality of your work. It crossed my mind once only a few days ago how much more accurate and cleaner my work has become and I knew it then it was due to my tools being sharp. The second I sense I slight degradation when planing I immediately stop to sharpen. Recently I acquired a Stanley no.5 and use that as my scrub plane. The 3mm thick iron is a pleasure to sharpen and quick to, but I cannot say the same for my thick irons. They take much longer to sharpen, but the A2 steel does stay sharp that much longer. I don’t know why tool makers refuse to make thin blades and curved cap irons.

    1. Paul Frederick

      Modern abrasives can handle modern tool alloys pretty good. I use diamonds and ceramics. I also hollow grind all of my straight edged tools like chisels and plane irons. Not having to grind down a whole bevel helps me out a lot.

  3. One should get pleasure and feel pride from all the processes in woodworking be it planing, sawing or sharpening and not merely see them as means to the end result.
    A craftsman should be as proud of the beautiful shiny chisel, the orderly working space as well as the finished wood product
    Making dovetails and sharpening instruments should be equal sources of pleasure.
    There is a problem if the emphasis is on quickness be it making a dovetail or sharpening. Speed is part of commercial production but should not be a source if pride for hobbyists.
    To say that work is interrupted by sharpening is to subscribe to what is IMHO an incorrect paradigm. We don’t say it took 3 minutes to saw the board now we can go back to work.
    Paul, thank you for your legacy
    Ken S

  4. I have been making my own wooden hand planes for a while now. It started with a set of hollows and rounds, then rebates and tongue and grooves. It progressed to bead planes, and now I am delving into dedicated molding planes. In my builds I also make my own irons and heat treat each after careful filing and sharpening. It always comes down to how keen the cutting edge is. A 2″x 4″ pine block of wood made into a plane performs great if the iron has a keen edge…it may not last as long, but will last me for the rest of my life, as long as the iron is kept sharp.

    1. There is nothing more beautiful to use and behold than a wooden plane. It is the king of tools to me.

  5. I was reading an article that made me question whether or not I can possibly even possess what was characterized as an almost unobtainable skill of sharpening.
    Having followed Paul’s methods for years now, I should know better than to fall for it. My results have spoken for themselves.
    Anyway, the article included an account of two “top industry professionals “ who concurred among a room full of novice woodworkers that in so so many years they have encountered but one or two people who could actually obtain a proper keen edge.
    Really discouraging and can make one second guess what they have learned. Thank goodness we have Paul Sellers to keep us on the right track.

    1. The arrogance and condescending speech of, so called, Profesionals, can put off anyone. It doesn’t matter what the craft or skill is that they are speaking about. Good on you sir, for not listening to that garbage and keeping on with your pursuit of skill.

    2. It’s not true. Elitist snobs!!! They should be ashamed of themselves, ashamed! I have heard of one self-appointed guru who kept sending a man back for two days and he never got the sharp edge this silly man wanted. In one hour at my bench he got it and then went on to make five pieces of furniture in two weeks and the last one was a very fine rocking chair. If in doubt, use a honing guide. That cannot fail to get a pristine edge in under five minutes tops.

    3. I have encountered this attitude as well, both in person and online. People have claimed to my face that unless I get razor-sharp edges on my tools (planes, chisels and even axes), then I will not be able to make fine furniture and I will be damaging the wood.

      Of course, according to them, I can only get these edges if I spend a lot of money on very fine hones. In fact, they claim that using cheaper tools will result in poor work. Luckily, I have seen what Paul can do with a vanilla Stanley #4 and some Aldi chisels. Watching Paul’s videos has prevented me from overspending on tools and instead I spend more time honing my skills (and yes, also my plane irons and chisels). I know from previous experience that the limiting factor is my own skill and experience and money cannot buy that. 🙂

      1. B.R. Clifton

        Let’s remember that these so called “experts” are beholden to multiple tool manufacturers and suppliers and their job is to steer you towards the toys they hawk.

  6. Hi Paul,

    What are these frames for? The wood looks fairly thick for a cabinet, but the frames look small for a door. Excuse my ignorance, just curious.

    Thanks.

  7. Speed is for product manufacturers to get their wares to market, so speed should be left to them to hopefully producing a quality tool not requiring much,if any, ‘tweaking’.
    Speed has no place in workshop, its dangerous and produces rubbish results.
    Check relevant tools for job are in condition of sharpness, saws, chisels & plane irons. Remember the rule ‘ Measure twice. cut once’ and that blunt chisel can cause accident or ruin a piece of timber.
    Just remember your not in a race and the only medals you win are for quality work.
    Shoddy work brings sniggering comments or a slap for not paying attention to this post😁

  8. Sharpening is a neverending tedious war I don’t always win, and I’m not like those modern Youtube woodworkers that need to go over 25k grit for a simple project. My lasts steps are 5000 shapton and then the strop, so unless the iron is really damaged I can do it on 3 steps and little time. But I have to admit that, with limited time to enjoy woodworking, sometimes sharpening discourage me. Yeah, I feel a bit ashamed.

    I think the key to success is to keep the process as simple as we can (according to our goals) and try to avoid whetstones because of its messiness, or at least build a sharpening station that leaves no residue on the bench.

    1. That last point is one I should a bit more often! I just need an old bit of carpet or something, but I regularly take out my stones and make a bloody mess (literally, bloody, sometimes!). I like the shapton stones, as they just need a short spray of water and don’t need to be soaked. I have a 16,000 one instead of a strop, which I prefer (mainly because I got it as a gift I think). There’s something about the feedback you get on the stone that I like. My biggest problem is that I spend too long on sharpening when I know I only need a minute to get near perfect edge. I keep looking for mistakes in my sharepning when, in reality, I’d tell pretty quickly if I’d made a mess when I start planing or chiselling.

  9. Hi Paul, thank you for the post on sharpening! Looking at the photo of your sharpened blades, it looks like they have a secondary bevel. Is that correct? I don’t remember you using a secondary bevel in your sharpening tutorials. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

  10. Thomas glover

    To be honest Mr Sellers, if the masses found out that you don’t have to spend x amount on a tomerek wet stone wheel sharpener or theses fancy overly rated sharpening methods the big companies lose out, I got one had a wet stone sharpener at the start, but the faffing around took to long for me so I just use diamond plates and a strop, ir if I feel more adventurous I may use a 10k wet stone but rarely do. More time working with wood rather than sharpening tools

    1. If Paul & Co. threaten their profits appreciably, they will smear him, dox him, and lie about him. Right now he’s in the ignoring stage. I could set a clock to it, guaranteed. They’ll go into his past and find dirt on him and twist his words. They’ll put rubbish on YouTube from “grassroots” woodworkers giving “testimonials” about how evil he is, how he contradicted himself once in 1984, how he cheats by using machines and pretends to do handwork. A lie travels halfway round the world before the truth gets out the front door.

      On the upside Paul is a man of character and his courage will out. Like the truth, skill will outlast a smear. People can spot a pile of “compost” a mile away.

    2. Paul Frederick

      I use high speed dry bench grinders to hollow grind my chisels and plane irons. Doing that saves me an appreciable amount of time honing them on diamond plates. Or I wouldn’t do it.

  11. B.R. Clifton

    There’s a pervasive mindset that says “half fast is fast enough”. That spills over into tool sharpness, “half sharp is sharp enough”. I was taught many decades ago that the most dangerous tool you can have is a dull one. Keep ’em sharp!

  12. Some people are just more perceptive, more aware of their environment, more open to input. But all of us can learn to be cognizant of our surroundings, especially for environments we visit regularly and activities we perform with repetition. If we are not the type who naturally question our senses, then the keys to that awareness are errors and mistakes. It is these events, if we analyze them on a regular basis that eventually build that sensitivity and understanding that comes with long experience.
    … or, we seek out and pay attention to gurus like Paul Sellers.

  13. A few minutes of sharpening, save you tenfold the time in sanding and all sorts of other surface repairs that are needed when you work with a dull blade. And it is a pleasure to work with sharp tools.

  14. Paul,
    As to the question about “laziness” to the point of affecting the work. Yes it does exist in all artisan disciplines. I am a 40 plus year veteran toolmaker. We had a tool that needed to have .002 removed from the bottom of 16 4″x6″pieces to get parts in tolerance.
    The job was started on a previous shift. When I arrived I got the follow. I soon found out that their setup was leaving the bottoms out of parallel by .0015. The questioned that was posed was, Why did I change the setup and redo all the pieces. I said if .002 was bad and you have .0015 taper on the bottom with a net gain of .0005, Why even bother? Enough said.

  15. I recently got into a “discussion” about sharpening in a Facebook group…
    There were a few guys banging on about how one could nevr get an edge on irons and chisels without a fancy machine and 50 billion grit CBN wheels :)…
    And here was me quietly saying all you need are a few diamond plates up to 1200 grit and a leather strop.
    Well, didn’t that start them up! The best argument, well, the funniest one was one chap saying how he wasn’t going to waste time sharpening by hand because it took too long!
    In the end I posted a five minute video of my dull plane in action through to iron out, three or four swipes on the 1200 diamond plate, 40 stokes on the strop and back in the plane and back to work..
    Meanwhile old mate wouldn’t have even managed to get his fancy pants machine setup.
    Quite often with woodworking the old ways are actually more efficient and also create more of a connection between the tool and user.

  16. RODNEY MAGEE

    I have seen some of the “gurus” on Lie Nielson videos show how easy sharpening and using a tool can be and I say Kudos to them. The ones I don’t understand are those who push water stones as the only way to go. I watch them and think they are very expensive, need a lot of reconditioning and are quite messy. To those who say that the tools need to be ultra expensive, and sharpened on 30,000 grit stones to be able to sharpen, I want to know what they would do if sent back to 1790 with what I’m sure was sketchy, at times steel, and all they had was natural stones that really are all that fine, the craftsmanship from that era is, for the most part, is not surpassed.

  17. I would like to share a mistake I used to make while sharpening: I used to put to much camber. On plane irons it was easier to detect, as the heel of the bevel prevented the tip of the blade from engaging the wood. Meanwhile my chisels had difficulty cutting dovetails or mortices with wide crosscut sides, especially in soft woods; the chisel didn’t cut the fibers, instead it tore them away.

    I rewatched Paul’s videos on sharpening, I corrected my concepts and the bevel angles and started to sharpen again free hand. Now the irons take a bit of a camber, but I don’t have any problems in making (almost) perfect endgrain cuts with my chisels. …and I sharpen more often.

  18. When I was much younger, I heard that ‘all those clichés are true – that’s why they’re clichés’ . Don’t know how much woodworking Ben Franklin did, but a stitch in time saves nine, or more. Besides, the time out that I get while sharpening gives me a chance to review and evaluate my work, and make mental adjustments in my process. Thank you, Mr. Sellers.

  19. On the subject,, is it better as a crafter with 8-10 hours of workday to sharpen multiple irons the night before and swap them out or to stop to sharpen but one iron from an efficiency point of view.

    1. In my work, I tend to use three or four planes fairly consistently and throughout a period of say two hours. Periodically, in any given day, I will sharpen up and do all the cutting irons and then chisels if I am using them in the current work all at the same time. In times past I would sharpen up at the end of a day but that is not anywhere frequently enough. I do not ever let the chisel or plane tell me its already dulled, I sharpen just ahead of that.

  20. Geoff Thompson

    Hi Paul
    I’m not new to working with wood but new to furniture making and other fine wood working. Bought card scraper and burnisher wanted try my hand into using this new tool for me read instructions that came with it from very popular wood tools company and following instructions Precisely and it took great shaving but a rough surface and watched your videos you get surface just as good as a No4 smoothing plane frustrated I was going to try and contact you to figure out what I’m doing wrong is it me the way I’m sharping it I redid it several times over and over then found your video on it and did it your way and wow these so called professional making instructions for people new to this should be ashamed thank you for everything Paul my dad and grandfather was great craftsman but unfortunately past away before they could ever teach me thankfully I have you to help me instead of these so called professionals wish I could return what you’ve done for me thanks -Geoffrey

  21. It’s Sunday afternoon. Listening to music and planing the Southern Yellow Pine that will make my first workbench. It occurred to me that my #4 and cambered #5 blades are sharp and adjusted properly. they edge looks like yours. But the sound is the same as well. Thank you. I have had nothing but satisfaction leading up to this moment. Finding a plane, putting it into working order and learning to sharpen and then learning to use it. Enjoyment the whole way, and a sense of peace once I found my rhythm. Thanks again my friend.

  22. I recently decided to fix the bevel on a 1 1/2″ framing chisel that I picked up from a junk shop. it had a plethora of different “bevels” rather than one. I used a cheap, cheap diamond plate that I picked up from B&Q when they decided to sell them off. The plastic backed type. It took about a 1000 strokes using a guide to get it to a 25deg, bevel. Then I went to oil stones and finally stropped it. Now have a 1 1/2″ hairless stripe up my forearm from trying it out.
    I used one of the diamond plates to see how well they worked. if I recall correctly I paid 50p each. it surprised me that the same plates under a different brand name were being sold for a much higher price. the plate was marked as medium cut, I guess a course one would have been more efficient.

  23. Hi Paul,
    Is the top iron in the first picture thicker than the other two or is it sharpened to a different angle? the bevel seems very wide and I wanted to know if there’s a reason for that.

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