The joy of learning to use hand tools to refine your work is rewarding. But that joy can be offset by the perceived "hassle" of needing to occasionally sharpen those tools in order to maintain peak performance. For the uninitiated, sharpening things like knives, chisels and plane irons can be intimidating because there are so many differing opinions on how it should be done; if I had a dollar for every post on a woodworking forum about sharpening, I'd be Bill Gates rich.
I've noticed that many sharpening discussions focus on which sharpening stones, jigs or newfangled gizmos to buy—but there's almost nothing written about basic sharpening technique and the need to practice. And that's a problem. So let's fix it here.
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I was taught woodworking by Maurice Fraser, and in the very first class he had us brand new students sharpen a dull chisel to razor sharpness with very little trouble*. To get good at it took practice, but after that first class it wasn't anything anyone thought twice about—except maybe to reread the notes and do some more practicing.
Some think that effective sharpening requires years of practice and that only "experts" can do it free hand. THIS SIMPLY ISN'T TRUE. In old-school shops, sharpening was something you learned really quickly as a first-day apprentice—or you found another line of work. Woodworking is about learning dexterity, and training your hands to sharpen is the first step in training your hands to cut straight, chisel to a line, and not drop tools on your toe.
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I see a link between training your hands to sharpen freehand and developing manual skill that helps you wield tools more effectively. Some instructors teach newcomers to sharpen using a jig, with the thinking being that students will get sharp tools right away, avoiding discouragement and getting right back to their project. Maybe there's some truth to this, but I think students would also end up with sharp tools and the ability to progress if they were taught that freehand sharpening was a basic skill they could master. They'd be able to trust their hands for more and more complicated work earlier on.
If you don't believe me, take a look at some early woodworking and woodcarving books. Beginner projects were far more involved in days past, and honing guides weren't really on the market in the 19th century. And by the way, if anyone tells you that the people back then weren't as efficient sharpening as we are now with some guide, tell them to look at the furniture made back then. I think the tools were plenty sharp enough.
If you still don't believe me and are within range of New York City, we here at Tools for Working Wood are offering free three-hour sharpening classes at our space in Brooklyn. These will usually be on a Saturday. Right now I am taking a break from teaching, but the next Sharpening 101 class will be noon, January 14, 2017. More details are posted on our events page here. You can also keep abreast of our classes and events here.
*You can read about the way Maurice taught sharpening here. Also, a few years ago Norton Abrasives commissioned Maurice and I to do videos on these methods (Maurice did the oilstone version and I did the waterstone version). The technique is the same on both versions, just the technology is different.
________________________________________________________This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.