Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My latest approach to sharpening

I am apparently like many woodworkers in wasting time and money pursuing various sharpening approaches, being dissatisfied and starting over.  There are others who pursue sharpening as an end in itself, but, personally, I'd rather drink craft beer.  I do seem to be circling in on what works best for me though.  I think that the right sharpening approach for a particular woodworker depends on a lot of things, personal preference among them.  This is what I have settled on for me:
  1. I am interested in getting a workably sharp edge quickly and easily and am willing to forgo ultimate sharpness if it takes time or requires fussy equipment.  Actual sharpness experienced in use is more of a function of regular honing. 
  2. I wish all of my tools were O1 steel, but they aren't, so my method has to be able to handle the harder steels.
  3. I don't mind taking time to sharpen my tools between projects but I resist stopping in the middle of a project to hone a tool, yet regular honing is crucial, so my honing method has to be right at the bench and very very quick.
  4. Spending time flattening my sharpening and honing media is intolerable.
  5. I'm done buying machines and gizmos.  If I've got it and it works ok, I'll use it, but I'm not buying any new ones.   
Adapting the Paul Sellers method by using coarse, medium, fine and extra fine diamond stones followed by a strop was a definite step forward for me, but I found I didn't want to go through all the steps every time my tool got dull.  Part of the problem is that I bought two-sided stones, which are very inconvenient, but I also don't see the need for sharpening from scratch every time and I like secondary bevels.  I want to be like a barber who hones his straight razor between each haircut at the chair, maybe even with the same drama that the old timers used to achieve.  (By the way, they now use disposable ones in my area).

These considerations led me to a two-stage regimen.  I start a project with all of my tools sharp.  During projects, I hone regularly at the bench.  The fastest, easiest, most reliable method I have found is to use these steel honing plates and diamond paste followed by a strop.  I use the 6 and 3 micron paste but I don't use the 1 micron paste because I strop.  The plates are cheap but the paste is expensive.  However, you use much less paste than you would think.  You just put on a very small amount and it lasts a long time.  There's no water and all you have to do is wipe the edge between grits.  It works well on all steels.  Someday I might get rid of every non-O1 tool I own and use oil stones.  Until then, I expect to stay with this honing method.  I do not use any kind of jig or guide when honing.  It takes too long and I don't have the patience.

Between projects or if honing isn't enough, I sharpen.  Depending on how much I need to do, I either use my Worksharp or I use my diamond plates.  For narrower edges like chisels I sharpen with a guide but for wider blades like plane blades I sharpen free hand.  I have owned a number of guides but I have gone back to the first one I bought years ago, this one.   It is quick and easy to use, works well with skewed blades, clamps solidly to every tool shape I have and is durable.  I've had a number of other guides that were fancier and more expensive but I just didn't like them.

I think that if I were teaching an introductory woodworking course, I would urge the students to only buy O1 steel tools and use oilstones and a strop for sharpening and honing.  Alternatively, I would suggest that they get the basic guide I use, three honing plates and the three grits of diamond paste generally available.  For sharpening, I think sandpaper on a piece of glass would be fine.  For aggressive material removal, as when restoring a tool, sandpaper is the way to go in my opinion.

None of this is to challenge in any way the wisdom that waterstones are the way to get an ultimate edge, just to say that they are too much trouble for recalcitrants like me.  Maybe if I had a heated shop with a stone pond and running water, but that is what it would take to get me to consider using them.  None of this is to challenge sharpening systems like the Tormek, but to me the cost and complexity are just over the top.  None of this is to challenge hollow grinding, which has a lot of appeal for sharpening.  I avoided it originally because I feared ruining my tools but hollow grinding has a lot of appeal.  I don't have a grinder and I am not going to buy one.  The Worksharp is good enough.

As I said at the outset, I am after a workably sharp edge as quickly and easily as possible.    


  1. I think this is the way to go. I find that most of the time I can get away with just going to the strop a bit mid-project and it sharpens up enough. I think its a good habit to sharpen up on the stones at the end of the day so when you pick it back up, everything is sharp and ready to go. A little extra time at the end of the day saves that much at the start of the next when you just want to jump in and go.

  2. I've been woodworking for about a year and am tackling this issue as a beginner. For now I've settled on the Paul Sellers method with three diamond plates in plywood. I bough the Dave Barrows bubble guide as a crutch still I instinctively can hold at 30 degrees. So far so good. I'm trying hard not to buy other methods.

  3. Andy,

    Good on you. In the pass and I expect even some in the future I am guilty of thinking with all the smoke there has to be fire. The truth is water stones vs. oil stones, or diamond is just that mostly smoke. If you want polish go with water stones, they will polish better than any other I've found. For a working edge any of the three work. Then it becomes a question of which works with your tools and shop set up. My answer keeps coming back to oil and strop, if I were working A2 or PM he answer would be diamond. Water stones are just too damn messy and fussy for day to day sharpening. Of course as you pointed out EMMV.


  4. Can you use a regular honing compound on steel honing plates?

    1. Lee Valley only describes using it with diamond paste and I don't know. I have had good luck with regular honing compound on a leather strop and a piece of baltic birch plywood. I know some people put it on mdf.

  5. Steve at Close Grain did blog on free hand sharpening (Sellers) using registration blocks... best method I have found. Honing chisels often is so easy. Honing plane irons is a pain in the a... as I have to reset the plane (10 minutes). Interesting comments on O1.... is A2 and PM12 just marketing?????

    1. I will give you my opinion, but it is only that. I think A2 was an attempt to make edge tools that would hold an edge longer and, although, it did that, there were unacceptable tradeoffs so that it just isn't a good choice. PM-V11 is different. It takes a nice edge and has enough increased durability to justify the extra effort to sharpen it. Nevertheless, I prefer O1 because it takes such a nice edge and is easy to sharpen.