Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sharpening merriment

Some of the responses to a recent post about sharpening on a forum I read were very amusing.  One was to go get the popcorn.  The best was one that analogized choosing a sharpening method to dating.  This observation made me laugh and it also served a useful purpose in putting passionate arguments for this or that sharpening method as the only way to go into perspective.  Your friends' opinions about how you should sharpen are like your friends' opinions about the people you are dating:  worth considering but in the end you have to choose the one best for you based on your own preferences.

If you look at the different ways the real experts sharpen, you soon realize that there are numerous ways to sharpen well.  Some use jigs part or all of the time, some don't.  Abrasive paper in sheets, belts or on powered disks, oilstones, waterstones, diamond stones, grinders fast and slow, diamond paste, honing compound  . . . are all employed successfully.  A single bevel, a secondary bevel, a tertiary bevel, concave, convex ... you find advocates for each.  Many experts use hybrid methods.  There are valid reasons why each prefers his or her own method.  There are tradeoffs.

As best I can remember, dating was more fun than finding a sharpening method I liked.  Apprentices had it easier:  the master had a sharpening method, that's what you learned and that's what you did!  End of discussion.  Sort of like an arranged marriage with no dating I guess.  I wasn't able to sort through the expert opinions, evaluate marketing claims and decide, so I tried five before settling on a method I like.  From what I read, I am not alone in this.  An alternative is to pick an expert and fully adopt his or her method.  Saves time and money if you can do it.

All of this diverts attention, in my opinion, from the real issue: technique.  It's like golfers focusing on what clubs to buy when the issue is their swing.  I'll give you an example.  I've just bought a beautiful one inch gouge from Ashley Isles.  It came sharp and works incredibly well.  Problem is, I can no longer avoid the challenge of sharpening curved edges.   A candid and amusing post by The Village Carpenter about sharpening gouges highlights the issue:
I loved using the tools, but like an exquisite dessert that you savor 'til the last, all the while dreading the sorrowful clink of your spoon at the bottom of the empty dish, I'd limit myself, using them only bits at a time.
What sharpening method(s) do I use? Not tellin. I do have some personal observations though. When I was first buying new premium tools, I had to decide: O1 or A2?  Not being sure, I ordered some in each steel. My experience confirms this statement by Ron Hock:
[A2 is] a little harder to sharpen and bit more expensive but if edge life is paramount, you can’t go wrong with A2. But if ultimate sharpness and ease of sharpening are more important, high carbon steel will allow you the sharpest edge possible.
Lee Valley has recently introduced a new tool steel, PM-V11, that it claims has an edge life twice as long as A2, is durable at bevel angles down to 20 degrees and is about as difficult to sharpen as A2. Here are the test results. Whether this new steel fundamentally alters this tradeoff remains to be seen; in any case, it is very expensive. Of course, for some woodworkers the choice of steel is a byproduct of another decision: to use vintage tools and blades. There's no denying the attraction and they are easier to sharpen once restored. Whatever each of us decides, though, there's no escape from learning to sharpen well and doing it frequently.

If it isn't quick and convenient, the "best" method isn't for me because I won't stop to touch up my edges when I should and that has a significant impact on the quality of my work. I have organized my sharpening equipment so that I can stop when I feel an edge getting dull, get it sharp again and get back to work in very little time. Right now, I have everything I need on a large, lipped metal tray, stored a step from my bench, that I can take down and put back in seconds. A small, dedicated sharpening station near my bench would be even better. The point is this: when you are choosing a sharpening method, it is important to think about how you are going to arrange your shop so sharpening is quick and convenient. The methods differ in their requirements.


  1. A very well written and presented post on sharpening. You hit just about every point I can think that is negative or positive - depending upon how one looks at it.

  2. Great post and very great content here. Enjoyed reading it and learned a thing or two about wood working :)