Though many woodworkers find the sharpening process a
pleasant pre-work meditation, most of us would just as soon
get it out of the way and get busy woodworking.
There is more to
sharpening than I can cover here and I refer you to any of the many
excellent books on the subject. What I offer here, in extremely
condensed form, are some ideas and methods to help make the task
First, The Goal: A sharp edge only exists where two planes
(i.e., the back and the bevel of a plane iron or chisel, or the two
bevels of a knife) meet with zero radius. Of course, “zero
radius” is a theoretical ideal that eludes us as we move to the
next, more powerful microscope.
There will always be some radius to an edge but The Goal is to
minimize it. (Our fine-grained steel helps you here; the hardened
particles in our steel are very small, allowing a smaller radius to
Next, Getting There: Any of the popular abrasive
devices can and will sharpen your blade. The choice is yours. The
venerable “Arkansas” oilstones are legendary and keep their shape
and flatness with little maintenance.
These are a natural, quarried
product that will last a lifetime. Man-made waterstones were more
recently introduced from Japan, having a long history there as a
natural stone. These stones sharpen more quickly because they are
softer and thus wear faster, exposing fresh, sharp particles as they
wear. However, their softness requires they be flattened often to
avoid their tendency to “dish,” which makes accurate blade
flattening and honing impossible.
Many woodworkers use a series of sheets of wet-or-dry
sandpaper as their abrasive medium. A piece of glass serves as a
flat base-plate and the sheets are simply switched as the blade is
honed through successively finer grits. The low start-up expense,
ease of use, and variety of grits (up to 2000-grit or finer from the
auto supply) make this a great way to get started. Then there are
diamond stones (great for coarser work), lapping plates (those who
know them, swear by them), ceramic stones, leather strops (excellent
for final finishing), and an overwhelming selection of powered
machines all designed to make this task easier. Whew!
If you have a method that you like, that works for
you, stick with it, use it. The following steps are mostly generic
and you can follow along regardless of your abrasive proclivity. If
you're new here and “grit-less”, head to the store that sells
automotive paints and related supplies and buy a sheet or two each
of 180-grit (180X), 320X, 400X, 600X, 1200X, and 2000X.
like to use 3-M #77 spray adhesive to stick down the sandpaper
sheets; they sell it where you buy the sandpaper. Next, to the glass
shop for a piece of 1/4” glass about a foot square. A marble floor
tile, or scrap piece of monument or countertop granite, works well,
too. Now go clear a spot on a workbench for the glass or tile. With
a new blade, start with the 600X paper. If the back needs a lot of
flattening, don't be afraid to use a coarser grit to save time. When resharpening a blade, if the edge is chipped or horribly dull you
may need to start coarser: 320X or 180X may be necessary.
Honing guides are useful things. If you have one,
now is a good time to use it. Most block and bench plane blades are
ground to 25° but some smart folks argue that there need only be
clearance under the heel of the bevel. In other words, since the
average bench plane blade is bedded at 45°, any bevel angle less
than that will provide the needed clearance.
And a thicker bevel is
stronger so the edge should last longer. Bench plane and block plane
blades have traditionally been beveled to 25°. Our blades for the
handmade wooden planes were specified by James Krenov to have a 30°
bevel. Chisels get different bevel angles for different tasks: 25°
or lower for paring, 30° or so for chopping. Experiment a bit with
different angles to see which one works best for the wood and your
style of work.
A honing guide helps with all this by establishing an
angle and sticking to it. It can also shorten the whole process by
letting you raise the blade a degree or two so that you're only
honing the very edge. The angle of the bevel is determined by how
far the blade sticks out of the honing guide.
At least one brand tells you right on it how far to extend the blade
for a 25° or 30° angle. If your honing guide doesn't tell you how
far to extend the blade, you'll have to experiment and measure to
get what you want.
Not the end of the world, but it makes apples-to-apples
comparisons between woods, steels, tools and bevel angles
impossible. You can cut an angle template from a piece of cardboard,
or whatever, and use that to check the angle as you go.