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Restoring Chisels, Turning Gouges and Other Edge Tools

  How do you know when your tools are sharp? by Zach Dillinger  


The necessity of having a sharp chisel or plane iron with which to do your work is almost universally recognized (a very rare thing in the world of woodworking!).


Sure, you can muddle through a job with half-sharp tools, but sooner or later a dull-ish tool will negatively impact your work (or your finger!) as you try to force the tool to do work for which it is not prepared.

I won't engage in the ad nauseum debate over sharpening systems or the use of honing guides that is so prevalent in the woodworking media as a whole. That topic has been beat to death and resurrected so many times that I seriously consider packing a zombie apocalypse bug-out bag every time I venture to an online forum. Pick a system, learn it, use it. I use oil stones freehand because that works for me. It might work for you. It might not. End of topic.

The faces of the sharpening thread apocalypse.

My concern here today is knowing when your tool is sharp enough for woodwork. With all the discussion of which system to buy, to what level must a tool be honed, and what stone can I buy to make my edges better (remember, its the archer not the arrow...), there is very little attention paid to the idea of knowing when a tool is actually sharp enough to do the job.

With a simple tool like a chisel, it is no big deal to finish honing, try the tool on your work piece, and rework the edge if necessary. However, with a plane, it can be a real pain to sharpen the iron, reassemble the tool, set the iron, and then test the tool only to find out that the edge needs more work. What is a woodworker to do?

My solution to this problem is to obtain a piece of the softest, nastiest white pine you can find. With this wood, the faces and edges are stupidly easy to plane and pare cleanly, but the end grain can be a challenge.

The wood is so soft that it simply tears out ahead of a dull-ish tool rather than being cut cleanly, as you can see the following pictures of my sharpening test block after a few cuts with a dull W. Butcher chisel. Please note that this chisel will still shave the hair on my arm and will take a fingernail shaving, two of the much-bandied-about ways to test an edge.

This will not be a good edge for woodwork.

Torn up early wood.

As you can see, there is significant tearing of the soft early wood in this piece of white pine. This chisel is not currently sharp enough for fine work, but it is sharp enough to cause a serious injury to the user should the chisel be forced to do work, based on the equation Dull Edge x Force = Blood. No exceptions. It gets all of us at one point or another.

It doesn't have any chips in the edge, as I caught this edge before it started to degrade, so it will not need serious attention. After less than 30 seconds of honing on my translucent Arkansas (not an endorsement of a sharpening system, this is just what I use) and about 5 swipes on a strop, this is the same chisel cutting the same piece of pine. Note that the cut is clean as a whistle with no torn up early wood. The effort required to make this cut was virtually non-existent; the chisel wants to do the job!

So, no matter what you use to sharpen your tools. I encourage you to try the "paring end grain white pine" test on a chisel that you consider to be sharp. I've never found a chisel or plane iron which passed this test and then failed to do good work for me in my actual workpiece.

Zach Dillinger
May, 2014
My blog:  The Eaton County Woodworker
My website:  The Eaton County Joinery

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