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
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.
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
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
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
The Eaton County Woodworker
The Eaton County Joinery