The Facts of Sharpening

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I’m like a woodworking bartender. Folks come up to me and spill their guts about their woes with hand tools while I lovingly polish planes. I appreciate people doing this because I’m always up for a conversation about hand tools, but these talks always go the same way.

Distraught Woodworker: I don’t know Vic…I’ve tried everything but I still can’t get good results with (insert hand tool name here).

Me: How are your sharpening skills?

Distraught Woodworker: Ummmm…

The reality is that dull tools are the main reason why woodworkers struggle with hand tools. There is no way around it. If you don’t have sharp tools, then you won’t be successful with hand tools. The problem with sharpening is that there are far too many resources and opinions on the matter which can make it difficult for a neophyte to know what to do. In today’s climate, there is a constant struggle between opinion and fact, but make no mistake, what I’m about to tell you is fact.

When you sharpen any tool, regardless of what it is, you only have to do one thing: create two, flat and highly polished surfaces that meet to create an edge. That’s it! No more, no less. Some of those flat, polished surfaces may be tiny like in the case of a micro-bevel but those minute surfaces have to be flat and polished or you won’t have a sharp edge. Further to this, the higher the level of polish, the sharper the tool. It’s also a bonus if you can do this over and over again to make your life less of a struggle.

How you get to that point is where the opinions come in. There are many ways to get to flat and highly polished whether that is with oil, water, or diamond stones. You can also sharpen with a power system, with a jig or free-hand. All of these methods and sharpening media will get the job done. Some will be faster, some will more repeatable and some are just downright bananas, but in the end, if you are getting two flat, highly polished surfaces that meet then you will have an edge.

Personally, I use a lot of different methods because of the amount of travel I do. In my shop I use a Tormek, when I travel I used a Veritas Mk2 Honing guide and water stones. If I’m traveling by plane then I use oil stones because they travel better. I get excellent edges with all of these methods and equipment because I never loose sight of the goal: You must create two, flat and highly polished surfaces that meet to create an edge.

Now before all you readers with a leaning towards the minutia of life fire off a comment, I know that a Tormek doesn’t create a flat bevel but I can assure you that it still works. Save your arguments for an online forum.

I’m neither right or wrong in the practices I choose, it’s just me doing me. If you have a different opinion on technique and equipment, that is your right and I certainly won’t argue with you. The facts however are the facts, and they are irrefutable. No amount of foot stomping, grumbling or trolling will change this. So my sharpening advice is always: don’t sweat the technique and equipment discussions and just do what gets you two, flat and highly polished surfaces that meet to create an edge. Follow this advice and you can never go wrong….or you can research it on an online forum and see what you get. Suit yourself.

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