A brief interlude on sharpening

While coming to grasps with my new router plane I started wondering about my sharpening setup. I got seriously into hand tool woodworking after spending many years in the power tool space. I started by building custom cabinetry and got hooked into woodworking. A few years ago I got bit by the “hand tool bug” and have been spending most of my time there ever since. I think perhaps the largest difference between power and hand tool woodworking is sharpening. In the power tool space when a blade gets dull its most commonly just replaced with a new one. There are exceptions of course and I did have some of my blades sharpened here and there but in most cases the blades were treated as disposables. In the hand tool space, blades are anything but that.

I took my first hand tool wood working class from Mike Siemsen and was immediately hooked. I think the first class was on hand planes. At that time I didn’t really own any besides an old Stanley Handyman #4 that my Dad has passed down to me. Mike showed me how to clean it up, sharpen it, and turn into a really useful tool. Fast forward 4 or 5 years and I havent really looked back. My hand tool collection has increased dramatically. One of the things I really enjoy about hand tool woodworking is that it forces me to slow down – to be patient. Those of you that know me probably know that patience is not my strong suit.

One of the things I have learned to do – but never became great at – was sharpening. Mike taught us how to do it on a piece of glass with carbide sandpaper glued on it. After doing that for awhile I bought a reversible 300/1000 diamond stone and stuck with that. I also made a leather strop which I’ve been moderately successful at using for final sharpening and quick touch ups. After a brief interlude of trying to do this all by hand I finally broke down and purchased the Veritas MK2 honing guide which took the system I had from bearable to mostly usable. I was able to get serviceable amounts of sharpness on plane and chisel irons. That said, it always felt inconsistent to me. Then the frustrations of sharpening the Veritas router plane bits finally pushed me over the edge and I started second guessing my process.

After taking a night to reset – I remember reading Derek Cohen’s blog about sharpening. The primary and most current article can be found here but he has a whole slew of sharpening related articles here as well. What I liked about reading all of this posts was that he had clearly been iterating. He had been through most of the sharpening systems during his time in woodworking and had finally settled on a system that he thought was the best. More importantly – he has said many times…

I love using handtools and I dislike sharpening. I dislike sharpening so much that I became as expert as I could on sharpening just to find the most efficient shortcut.

http://www.inthewoodshop.com/WoodworkTechniques/UltimateGrindingSharpeningSetUp.html

A man after my own heart! I can’t find it now – but I’ve also heard him say things like “Pick a system and stick with it for at least a year before you change anything”. I have a tendency to want to change things to get where I want to be but I’ve taken this advice to heart with my sharpening setup. Part of me wonders if that was out of laziness or out of me actually trying to stick with it but in any case…

After reading his most recent article I started looking at Spyderco bench stones. They were reasonably priced and available on Amazon so I decided to give them a try. Well – they arrived today and I gave them a try. First off – Derek points out that no stone (even ceramics) will arrive truly flat. I used my best flat edge to check them and I couldn’t seem to find either of them to be out of flat. That said, Im sure they are slightly but flattening these stones is not something I have read enough about yet so that will have to wait a bit.

I did a quick test. I took two chisels and sharpened one the old way. That is I flattened the back up to 1000, then put it in the MK2 and flattened the bevel at 1000 as well. Then I went to the strop and polished the back and the bevel again. The 2nd chisel I did the same with, but instead of heading to the strop I started with the medium Spyderco stone. Then I went to the ultrafine. I was expecting the ultrafine to leave a polished, almost mirror like finish and while it was certainly shiny, it wasn’t quite what I expected….

It’s hard to see above, but I could still see the marks from polishing. I was surprised, but perhaps not entirely shocked as I really didn’t know what to expect here. What was interesting was that while using the ultrafine stone I was able to see the manufacturing marks on the stone itself…

You can see above the diagonal lines I presume from the manufacturing. At this point, Im honestly not sure if it’s a real problem or there by design to help with the cutting of the steel but I have to read more into that. The front bevel ended up looking like this…

Again – hard to see. It’s fairly mirror like but I’d say not totally perfect. In any case, after sharpening both chisels I took them over to a piece of scrap pine I had sitting around and tried cutting the end grain…

The cuts on the left side of the board were done with the chisel sharpened with the Spyderco and the cuts on the right were made with the chisel sharpened my old way of doing it. I have to say that I couldn’t tell a huge difference. My usual means of telling if an iron is sharp is to try and push it lightly across my fingernail and see if it would catch. Sharp irons will instantly grab but dull one will slide. In most cases, with my old system, this wasn’t always obtainable after going to the strop which was pretty frustrating. However, in the case of the iron sharpened using the Spyderco stones I was able to get to that state instantly. So I guess they are working, but I am unsure of if they’re making a huge difference at this point. I have some chisel work to do later today in some hard maple so I’ll try the chisels out there and see how to they work. If the Spyderco’s deliver a quicker way to get to sharp (without the need of the strop) they may still be worth it. I always felt like I was using the strop incorrectly and maybe even dulling the blades.

The other thing I’d like to try is moving to hollow ground blades. Derek swears by this and after reading and rereading his descriptions (and how he doesn’t like sharpening) I think that’s the next step for me as well.

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