Teaching yourself to sharpen

I learned to sharpen by reading books, magazine articles, and internet posts. It was a long road. Actually, I should say “it is a long road” because I’m still learning, but I can consistently produce sharp edges.

Below is my advice if you are trying to teach yourself to sharpen through reading.

Choose a mentor with a complete system

You need to emulate a complete sharpening system described by one person. By a “complete system,” I mean you need a method for

  • heavy material removal (grinding)

  • preparing the back of the blade

  • honing the edge and

  • registering the edge to enable repeated sharpenings

Each component of the system is likely to interact with other components, possibly in ways that will not be immediately obvious.

For example, I followed Brent Beach’s method, but bought a 4” belt sander rather than a 1” belt sander. It turns out that didn’t work, because the 4” belt doesn’t allow you to grind an edge as accurately as a 1” belt.

As another example, simply buying a Tormek is not a complete system because there’s no way to flatten the back of the blade. Some say you can use the side of the wheel for grinding the back, but there is no way to true the side of the wheel.

Joel at Tools For Working Wood provides another example. He is a big proponent of sharpening without a jig. His system relies on an accurate hollow grind to register the blade against the stone. If you try his system using a belt sander or you don’t know how to grind accurately, then it probably won’t work.

My point is that if you are trying to teach yourself, don’t mix and match different components. Find somebody who thoroughly describes a complete system and then follow that. I suggest Brent Beach, Christopher Schwarz, or David Charlesworth as possible “mentors.” I used Brent Beach.

Stick with it

You know sharpening is hard and requires skill because there are nearly limitless jigs and doo-dads that are supposed to solve all your sharpening problems. Some night you are going to come in from the shop thoroughly frustrated. Waiting for you will be a catalog from Woodcraft with some new sharpening doo-dad that is supposed to solve all your problems. Stop! Don’t buy it! As long as you have a complete system, what you have will work. All sharpening systems require some amount of skill and practice. Don’t give up!

Some other night you will again come in from the shop, frustrated. You will fire up Google and start searching for solutions. Somebody will say, “I started using ‘highly polmerized diamond impregnated silicon carbide waterstones and they work great!’” Stop reading that stuff. Go back and read what your mentor wrote. Remember that you can’t necessarily mix and match components in a sharpening system.

Stick with the system you chose. As long as you have a complete system, resist the temptation to throw money at the problem, even if you have the money to throw. Sharpening takes practice. Stick with it. Once you have it, you will be elated and your hand tool skills will be forever changed.

Don’t trust the internet

This may sound harsh, but I suggest not trusting internet posts and little websites like this one. (Ironic, huh?) There are just too many folks out there describing incomplete systems without the experience to back it up. I fell into this trap early on.

The original Veritas sharpening jig received very high praise initially. All the posts on rec.woodworking and reviews on Amazon.com said this was the jig to buy. It cost 2.5x other jigs, but this was the jig to buy. It was the best. This was the first Veritas jig, with the single screw that holds the blade. I bought the jig and the little angle setter. Neither worked! As you tighten the screw, the blade moves. The angle setter wasn’t positive enough to work. I gave up on hand tools for years because I figured if I had “the best” and still couldn’t do it, then it was too hard. I didn’t have enough skill to know that the jig was my problem and I bet 95% of those Amazon reviewers didn’t know that, either.

Don’t trust the internet. Trust your mentor.

Don’t worry about speed

A common refrain I read is, “I can sharpen an edge in 2 minutes or less.” Ignore comments like this, especially as you are learning. They are not helpful. Yes, once you master the skill, you will be fast. However, first you have to master the skill.

When you are learning first focus on getting a sharp edge at all. Once you do that, focus on consistently getting a sharp edge. After you can do that, you can work on optimizations. The optimizations should come last! Don’t get frustrated because sharpening is taking longer than 2 minutes. Focus on getting the edge consistently sharp. As you can do that consistently, you will naturally get faster.

Practice

Finally, you are just going to have to practice. What I did was take a hiatus from building projects and focused on nothing but learning how to sharpen. It took me months because I kept trying different systems and tried to optimize them before I mastered them. If you pick one complete system and follow the instructions of your mentor, it won’t take you months.

Remember: Just stick with the system you chose!

Daddy,  Can We Play in the Workshop?

If hand tool woodworking is your passion, you may enjoy my children's book, Daddy, Can We Play in the Workshop?