Sharpening my Tools

I’ve never been particularly adept at sharpening my edge tools (chisels, plane irons, etc.). It’s not that I couldn’t get them sharp enough to work, it’s just that I’ve always experienced inconsistent results. One time, I’d get a blade so sharp, it simply glided through hard oak and maple. The next time I sharpened that blade, I’d be lucky if it didn’t tear its way through soft pine. Freehand sharpening always seemed like something that would take decades to get right (an opinion no doubt influenced by the fact that the best tool sharpener I know has made nearly 95 trips around the sun). The trick seems to be locking your wrists and fingers as you pass the tool over the stone, to keep the honing bevel at the same angle during every pass. Fail this, and you end up with a rounded bevel face and an edge that’s none too sharp. Yes, hollow grinding helps, as the tip and heel of the bevel are easier to keep flat on the stone. But unless the tool has a wide bevel, like a big chisel or heavy plane iron, even hollow grinding is no guarantee.

Speaking of guarantees, I finally found one for sharpening: Using a honing guide. These devices hold a blade at a reliably accurate angle and can, indeed, repeatably produce razor-sharp edges on all your chisels and plane irons. Such guides have existed for a long time; I remember seeing the English-made Eclipse guide in woodworking catalogues a handful of decades ago. But I always thought these were just gadgets that desperate woodworkers bought when they got fed up with their own failed sharpening attempts (I guess I never got desperate enough…).

Boy, was I wrong. Currently, I’m right in the middle of checking out nine different honing guides on the market. These range from the latest iterations of the Eclipse-style side-clamping guide, which sells for less than $15., to the innovative (if pricey at $170) “Sharp Skate III.” Some of these guides, such as the Veritas honing guides made in Canada by Lee Valley Tools, come with their own angle registration jigs, designed to make it easy to set a blade to an accurate bevel angle. Others, like the M-Power PSS and Pinnacle honing guides, are part of systems that come with their own sharpening media .

One of the things I love about this collection is that most of these guides are very different from one another, so comparing them is rather an apples-and-oranges affair. I’ll be sharing all my observations and opinions in an upcoming issue of the Woodworker’s Journal. But until then, I’ll tell you this: All the guides have advantages as well as quirks and limitations. But, once you get used to them, each is capable of producing a smokin’ sharp edge. The best news for me is that, after weeks of testing, the edge tools in my shop can now produce shavings so clean and paper thin that you can practically see through them!

Sandor Nagyszalanczy

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  • Tom Reichle

    Over the years I have read a lot of articles on sharpening. I too, have had the same experiences of sometimes sharp and sometimes almost wanting to throw the tool away, because of the way it performs.

    I have just recently started to really get involved with sharpening and trying many different methods and materials. I have tried stones, wheels, diamond stones and disks. There seems to be many different theory’s as to what to use and how to use them. And I guess that I must be learning the hard way. The materials can be expensive and sometimes I think it would be cheaper to pay someone to do the sharpening. Yesterday I received another shipment of sharpening materials, and
    Friday I have two more shipments more arriving.

    I have purchased and using the Veritas honing guide. I have tried many others and the Veritas seems to be the best, easiest, and has to most features. I have used them with stones, diamond sharpeners and wet/dry sandpaper.

    I have sharpened two set of chisels and two planes (one of witch is over 100 years old. It was my Grandfathers(late 1800 to early 1900’s cabinet/furniture maker) passed down to my father and then to me. After flattening the bed and sharpening the blade, I used the plane and to be honest; it brought tears to my eyes knowing the history of the plane and being able to use it and it worked beautiful. The first push of the plane brought up a beautiful thin pealing of wood, just like it was suppose to do.

    I look forward to reading more from you. Good luck and keep the tools sharp.