Friday, November 28, 2014

Sharpening Follies

Chris Schwarz wrote a blog post the other day that included this observation:
I have found that when you ask yourself if a tool is dull, the poor pathetic thing is way past being dull and is on its way to getting chipped and trashed. I think you need to sharpen an edge before it actually occurs to you to sharpen that edge.
I thought about this advice this week while I was doing the final smoothing on the half-lap pieces for the back of the galleries on my son's desk. I could tell that it was time to sharpen but I thought I could finish up with light cuts when ... You know the rest of this story: really substantial tearout. I lucked out, it was in one spot that will be behind the drawers so it doesn't matter, but it was highly irritating. I do this way too often because I just hate to stop what I am doing to sharpen. It's dumb, I know better and I resolved then and there to mend my ways. Of course, we all know about resolutions.

As a first step and as penance, I decided I would thoroughly reshape, sharpen and hone my primary edge tools. Sixteen chisels, seven bench planes, five card scrapers, two cabinet scraper blades, four plow plane blades and four router plane blades later, I have had about all the fun I can stand. (Why I have this many tools, obviously unnecessary, is a subject for another post.)

How to stay on track? Good habits obviously, but good habits are encouraged by a process that is quick, convenient and easy. I have been making strides in this direction anyway but, obviously, more are required and some compromises are appropriate. Paul Sellers points out that an extremely sharp edge will break down almost immediately in use, so the real goal is to be able to achieve a workably sharp edge very quickly and easily; then you are more likely to keep it workably sharp all the time.  He has a good method that does that for him but I think a variant will work better for me. I'm taking some time to refine my approach.


  1. Andy,

    BTDT and while I threaten to cull the herd I always end up adding to it.

    I'm in the sharpen often and quickly camp. The biggest help for me is a sharpening bench that is only a step or two away from the working end of my main bench. A chisel touch up takes about the same time as a sip of coffee or water.

    BTW, I hate doing a bunch of irons at a time. I try to never put an iron, chisel or plane, back in the rack unless it is sharp and ready to use.


  2. No need to rush into this Andy and get it wrong.

  3. Last week I did a marathon session flattening the backs of all of my LN chisels (the large set that includes 4 or 5 that I never use). That was a workout.

    I put Chris' advice to use yesterday and sharpened a chisel earlier than I might otherwise have done. And a plane blade.

    For tools that I have "scienced out" and can reliably sharpen them, this is easy enough to handle. My spokeshave blades and skew bladed planes, not so much. I don't have a jig for these, and freehand sharpening depends too much on the phases of the moon and planetary alignment for me.

  4. It depends maybe a little on what kind of planes and chisels you have, but I have found that picking up a spare iron often costs very little and just switch out the iron when one starts to get a little dull. But I do like to gang sharpen my tools - spend a couple of hours on a sunday afternoon listening to music and making a mess, and then it's done for a while, depending how much I am working at the time.