…and stick with it

I try to stay away from politics on this blog and for the most part I succeed, but today I felt the need to write about something that’s been on my mind: Sharpening.

There are intractably polarizing aspects in every realm of life and among hand tool woodworkers few topics command the religious devotion of sharpening. It is harrowing to see how quickly and insensibly we begin to divide ourselves between wispy shavings and groats over a few microns.

And to strop, or not to strop…

The best advice that I have encountered about sharpening (and there is more than you can imagine) is a concept that Chris Schwarz refers to as sharpening monogamy: pick one system that works for you and stick to it.

More often than not, I think we read the first part of that sentence and then rush off to the internet to “pick” something new before reading the second half. I know I’ve filled virtual shopping carts with all manner of sharpening apparatus (which is why I have a self-imposed 24 hour waiting period before clicking “checkout”) in an attempt to fix a problem I didn’t have or achieve an edge that doesn’t exist.

A few months ago I was seriously thinking about going back to oil stones. My grandfather used them. I grew up sharpening pocket knives on them. Chris raved about them once on a blog post. All of a sudden I realized that I had a shopping cart full of black, white and translucent stones but my plane blades were no sharper in the meantime, so I shut my laptop and went out to the garage.

One beef with water stones is that they dish. They do. You can deal with this through regular maintenance. Get over it.

One beef with oilstones is that they’re messy. They are, sort of. You can deal with this with a rag. Get over it.

One beef with _____ is that they’re _______. They are. You can deal with this by ______. Get over it.

See a pattern? Here’s the thing. You never get to the dealing with it and getting over it stage until you’ve committed to stick with it.

Here’s the other thing. Not to sound pessimistic, but everything in life is going to disappoint you in some way, and you’re going to have to figure out what to do with that. There will always be a newer, better and different thing and guess what? That thing will have “problems” too. You need to live with it long enough to realize that the “problems” either are, or are not, irreconcilable differences.

Sometimes, you learn something in the process.

Over the past year of sticking with water stones I may not have achieved the “perfect” edge, but I’ve learned how to find a perfectly usable edge on them and get back to work. My process is simple. I hollow grind and hone a primary bevel at 25° and then I hone a micro-bevel at 30° and I’m good to go. The micro bevel is easy to touch up and gives me more time making shavings than swarf on the stones. I might not have found this if I had been more interested in learning the intricacies of a new system than overcoming the shortcomings of the current one.

When I wear my water stones out I might try something new, but I’ve got a while to go before that happens and at least I always know I can come back.




9 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim, Its a very interesting point and one we are all tought the same through school woodworking classes or from books.
    When it come to me i use both.
    Because restoration/conservation and cabinetmaking (dont do enough off) i use two sets of chisel.
    First i got when i started training Maple with plastic handles they are for restoration as we come across bad workmanship of hammering nails to repair joints. So the do get damaged alot. Hence i use a water diamond stone then finish with the finest oil stone. Always sharp but not mirror edged.
    The cabinetmaking tools are boxwood handled chisel which i first oil stoned the keep the edge fine by water this way the stone stay in shape for longer.
    Plus one big mistake people make is with a water stone you draw it back towards you when using. This way you dont dig into and leave ridges.
    My other difference is its all done by eye becasue in the workshops after training we didn’t have time to set up a sharpening angle tool.


    1. Timothy, sounds like a good system. I feel like I’ll probably go back to oilstones someday when I wear through my current stones, but I’m in no particular rush. I like the feel of oilstones and I’ve found water stones to be at least as messy. The enlightenment for me was seeing that each method has its ups and downs and those drawbacks can only really be compensated for when you know what they are through practice.


  2. Jared Tohlen says:

    Good word. I haven’t “bought into” and committed to a certain method just yet (only started woodworking this summer), unless you count grabbing some sandpaper on sale and tracking down a granite tile… It works for now, but I already know that it’s less than ideal for continued, repeated sharpening (will get pricey quick!).

    I suppose my issue hasn’t been which method to jump into, but which ‘brand’ or version to buy when I do choose a method (leaning toward oil… for now haha). I’ve also filled up the digital shopping carts and wishlists with all manner of different brand, type, and grit of stones. But since this will be a big purchase for me (I don’t spend much, nor have much to spend—scarcity mindset hurts), I always find myself reading and re-reading reviews thinking “I don’t know, maybe this one is better? Will this work out?” There are so many options and variations, even within a given method, it is mindboggling (at least to a newcomer like me).

    There’s also the issue of needing to regrind some edges and not having a grinder or any other way to do that…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can certainly establish a bevel with sandpaper but it is tedious. A belt sander can be used (as Tim mentioned) but you need to watch your heat and keep up with the bevel so it doesn’t get mis-shapen. For me, I don’t actually find belt sanders all that useful in general, but I wouldn’t want to be without a grinder. Even a cheap one is a fine place to start.

      I prefer to hollow grind. Some people will argue this weakens the edge. I have not found this to be the case. What I have found is that the hollow grind leaves you with two narrow contact points to balance on when you sharpen making establishing an edge quick and almost foolproof.

      As to the investment aspect, here’s my opinion. You can get more mileage out of inexpensive water stones than cheap oilstones. Cheap water stones tend to wear more quickly, but they work. Cheap oilstones are hit or miss. If you go for oilstones I would advise investing in a better set. A two sided Norton water stone (like I’m using now) and a flattening stone will take you a long way.


    2. Jim, I like your statement about everything having some disappointing aspect. It’s best to pick a solution that gets a person closest to the ideal result. I use water stones for flat irons like planes and chisels because they cut fast and will give a slightly higher finish quality. However, they are not suitable for contoured blades like the moulding planes I make because they are too soft and easily wear. This is were I use oil stones. Regardless of the stone type, be disciplined in maintaining stone flatness. Sticking to a specific method will help to develop an efficient technique, and the user will become comfortable with knowing how to use the system and what it can do for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. I use oilstones on my moulding planes and curved blades too.


  3. I dont have a grinding wheel because it concave the edge of the blade or chisel so i use a belt sander. This leaves me a flat angle across the sharpening area. Once happy then i go to oil stone to make sharp. Once this stage is completed on the chisels i polish with the water stone.


  4. countercosta1952 says:

    Jim, I admire your stance on refraining from politics of woodworking and religion of sharpening but if you were a real standup guy you would at least address the festering issue of pins first or tails first. 🙂

    Great blog, I’ve been watching for a while.


  5. John Griffin-Wiesner says:

    I’ve been struggling with sticking to my chosen system lately. I’d been on water stones for several years. Didn’t like the mess of that (getting all the steel wet) so I switched to oil stones. But a number of my friends switched to all diamond stones. I strongly agree on getting good oil stones, because they wear slowly and you’ll be stuck with them for quite a while. So make sure to get stones you’ll like for a long time. One interesting side effect of oil stones is that they cut (too) slowly on A2 or anything harder so that causes me to lean toward tools I can get in O2 steel.

    For the commenter above with the small budget and no grinder – antique hand-cranked grinders can be found fairly cheap and work great for hobbyist woodworkers who just occasionally need to repair or hollow-grind an edge.

    Finally, to strop or not to strop? There is no question …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s