Bevel Envy - Sharpening by hand, the essential tools


Sharpening induced anxiety is better known as Bevel Envy. A debilitating condition that affects a broad range of woodworking practitioners. This may seem like a joke, yet if you are unable to sharpen well for whatever reason - it will limit you in the craft.

Donna suffers from bevel envy. She loves woodworking yet is not confident with sharpening. And not having the confidence to sharpen her tools is a major mental barrier for Donna. Don’t get me wrong, she has worked on this core skill. But the truth is, Donna is not sure exactly what she is trying to achieve, and she is quite unsure on how to achieve it.

The sharp chisel – a sublime experience

Using sharp hand tools is delicious. Slicing through wood effortlessly with a truly sharp chisel is a sublime maker experience. And the result is equally as sensuous. No pulled grain, no chipping, no tearing. Just the soft hone and smoothness of freshly sliced wood, particularly if it is end grain. This is your reward for learning how to sharpen properly.

Oh, the pain!

Conversely, the use of blunt or less than sharp tools bear down hard on the mind of a woodworker. Firstly, the tools don’t work well and so the results are not great. Also, the experience of using the tools is equally as disappointing - it’s just hard work. And finally, the physiological pressure is real. You know your tools are blunt and are embarrassed by them. They don’t work properly, and it shows. Others are supportive, “that looks great!” yet in your heart you are dying. Bevel envy is real.

Donna’s workshop

Donna does her woodworking in the laundry. Unfortunately, the garage is dominated by cars, kids, and junk. The space available for sharpening is on a small bench top beside the laundry tub, measuring 600mm square and 900mm high. Donna has considered the sharpening options in view of the workspace available to her. And hand sharpening is the way to go.

The amount of space available is not really the driver of her choice. After all, a small wet stone grinding machine would fit quite easily on the benchtop. No. The decision was made based on the methodology of hand sharpening itself. Donna likes woodworking because it relaxes her. Its pleasurable. After a day of work, kids, and a husband – Donna wants to clock off. And there are few better ways to clock off than sharpening a chisel by hand.

Sharpening by hand – the essential tools

To sharpen tools by hand you need some kit. The basic kit consists of a sharpening stone, either diamond or a waterstone. The stone is what you use to grind steel. You need a sharpening jig otherwise known as a honing guide - this is the device that holds whatever you are sharpening at the required angle to the sharpening stone for grinding. You also need a leather strop, like a barber, the strop is used to hone your tools and polish the cutting bevel. Let’s go through these items in more detail.

The stones

If you can’t get no satisfaction, sharpening by hand using simple flat stones will deliver. In the mainstream, there are two types of flat sharpening stones available – synthetic waterstones and diamond stones.

Synthetic waterstones

Synthetic waterstones are typically manufactured in Japan. In recent times North American suppliers are coming online as well. Synthetic waterstones are generally made from an abrasive material such as aluminium oxide suspended in a clay matrix or similar. The advantage of waterstones is that they sharpen very quickly. This is because as you rub tool steel against the stone, the clay matrix breaks down exposing fresh abrasive material. As a result of this wear, waterstones do go out of shape relatively quickly and require regular flattening to produce a suitably flat sharpening surface.

Flattening waterstones

Flattening waterstones is relatively easy and there are several waterstone flattening stones available. Extra-coarse diamond stones can be used to flatten water stones, more about these below. Some woodworkers use a piece of sandpaper stuck to something flat such as a sheet of glass. To flatten your waterstone all you need to do is rub the stone against the flattening stone until its flat. Best demonstrated rather than explained I suppose.

Soak or not to soak

Waterstones must be soaked in water for up to twenty minutes before use. The water that is suspended in the stone helps to create the swarf slurry that aids the waterstone to grind the tool steel. When sharpening you can clean the slurry away periodically, especially when flattening the stone. Additional water can be applied to the stone surface using a spray bottle.

The old argument is whether waterstones should be permanently soaked in water or not. Personally, I prefer my stones to dry and resoak when next required. I feel constant soaking could damage the clay matrix and allow mould to grow. Some will no doubt disagree. It’s a personal choice at the end of the day.

Diamond stones

Diamond stones contain small diamonds attached to the face of a metal plate. Diamond stones can also sharpen very quickly, particularly models that have holes on their surface to capture the swarf. The advantage of diamond stones is that they will remain flat for all time. The main disadvantage of the diamond stone is their upfront cost. They will however last a long time, so the long-term cost is comparable to other stones.

Lube or not to lube

Do you use a lubricant when sharpening with diamond stones? There are many opinions on this. Some say yes use water. Some say use fine machine oil or mineral oil. And others say use nothing. I have used diamond stones and found nothing was adequate, maybe a quick wipe with a clean cloth periodically to remove the swarf. If anyone can advise otherwise, let me know.

What is swarf?

I have mentioned swarf a few times now. If you are not familiar, swarf is the finer filings of metal and other material produced when you are sharpening your tools. When using waterstones, swarf is obvious, actually its more of a slurry as the swarf mixes with the degraded clay. It is not so obvious when using diamond stones. You may wonder if anything is happening at all.

Stone grades

Stones, like sandpaper, are graded. In other words, sharpening stones have a range of grits that run from coarse to smooth. You use coarse stones to quickly grind metal to reshape a bevel or remove chips. You use finer grade stones to sharpen and then hone. Like all things in woodworking sharpening is a process. This means you need more than one stone to sharpen. A typical setup of stones is 800 to 1000 grit to grind, 3000 to 6000 grit to sharpen and 10000 grit plus to hone. This setup will vary according to brand and style of stone. Flattening stones are typically 120-320 grit

Sharpening jigs

When sharpening by hand using a flat stone most people use a sharpening jig. There are those gifted individuals who prefer to complete this process free hand. The majority including myself are mortals who rely on assistance from sort of jig. There are a very wide variety of sharpening jigs available so it can be hard to choose. For me the sharpening jig / honing guide must be able to do three things:

1. It must be easy to use

It needs to be easy to setup and use. There are some elaborate options available whose designs are overly complex. Complexity is usually unnecessarily expensive and means difficult to use.

2. Create repeatable results

The jig must be able to create repeatable results. If you can’t easily repeat results, mainly, the ability to achieve the identical angle of bevel when last time you used the jig - chuck it in the river and get another one.

3. Be versatile

Versatility means it can sharpen a variety of tools from narrow chisels through to wide plane blades. You don’t want to own more than one jig if possible.

The strop

You will need a leather strop to hone your cutting bevel. Once you have finished grinding away at your tool, you need to polish the bevel and remove any burrs. Sharpening, in simple terms, is the grinding of a tool to produce a cutting bevel and cutting edge. This grinding process scratches on the tool while removing steel. As you move through the grades of stones, the size of these scratches becomes smaller and smaller until ultimately, they are super tiny or removed completely. At this point the bevel will shine like a mirror, you can use your strop to polish the bevel, removing the last of the tiny scratches. Grinding the tool will also create a burr. Using your strop, you can remove the burr. This, along with polishing the bevel, reveals a truly sharp tool. When using a strop, it’s smart to also use a honing paste of some kind. This paste is a fine abrasive lubricant that will assist the honing process.  

What’s Donna thinking?

As we know, Donna is sold on hand sharpening. She loves the concept of using waterstones, though the mess created is a drawback. Then there are diamond stones, and the upfront cost to consider. After all, we are busy saving for the kids Christmas presents, and then there is the ever-present mortgage. Donna is at a crossroad, what method should she employ?

And besides this, how is this equipment used? There are a billion You Tube videos on sharpening, yet Donna is still confused. Not necessarily by the process, more by the lingo the video presenters use. What the hell is a back bevel? What angle should my bevel be? Who is right and who is wrong? Confusion, another documented side effect of bevel envy.

Learning is doing

Sharpening, when you know how to do it is relatively easy, though it is hard to explain. And unfortunately, way beyond the scope of this article. So far, we have covered the essential kit, yet there is a way to go yet - how do actually sharpen a chisel using the tools described above? And poor old Donna, she is having trouble deciding on what tools to use in the first place!

Read the next post: Bevel Envy - Sharpening By Hand - A Simple Step-by-Step Guide


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