Bevel Envy – The Source of Woodworker Anxiety


Sharpening creates anxiety. Known colloquially as Bevel Envy. Sharpening related anxiety is a curse upon the new woodworker and somewhat experienced enthusiast alike. To be fair, not all woodworkers suffer from this debilitating condition. There are after-all plenty of ‘pros’ out there who have successfully mastered this discipline and can sharpen a blade that will cut through time and space itself. How do we know this? Simple, they will tell you.

And then there is the rest of us. Rubbing away hopefully, expectantly in our workshops into the evening. You have all the gear. Grinding machines, waterstones, jigs – you even have some of those good old oil stones Poppy used. You spend time watching videos, reading articles, and scanning the forums for inspiration. Pursuing that moment when you too can join the “razor club” by proudly shaving your forearm from wrist to elbow in one sensual pass of your freshly sharpened plane blade. Your friends will stand there in awe - you have now reached bevel Nirvana.

Back to reality

Sharpening is not easy. Masters forget how confronting sharpening can be for the enthusiast. They make it look easy because for them it is easy. Years of practice and subconsciously acquired knowledge that will allow them to whip up a razor-sharp edge without cracking a sweat. However, even if you do exactly what they do, you seem to fail. Yes, you manage to bring up an edge, yet in less than a day’s regular use your chisel is dull and bevel envy returns. Are you doomed to endure this vicious cycle forever?

The sharpest blade imaginable

Don’t be too hard on yourself. A lot of the people who have the sharpest blades imaginable have a few advantages over the average enthusiast, here’s a list.

Firstly. The master has probably have been doing this forever. And they have tried every possible technique. Over the years, most approaches they tried failed and were discarded until a way of sharpening that suits them was found. The master then honed that technique down and developed such touch that sharpening is simply effortless.

Secondly. Master sharpeners sharpen all the time. None of this “gee that looks a bit blunt, better sharpen my chisel!” Their chisels are always fundamentally sharp, and they merely touch them up as they work. Woodturner Guilio Marcolongo is an excellent example of the perpetual master sharpener. Guilio’s setup comprises of a bench grinder fitted with a CBN wheel and buffing wheel placed just to the left of his lathe. Guilio sharpens so often that the grinder barely has a chance to stop spinning before he switches it on again to touch up his gouge. Within seconds Guilio is back at the lathe ripping shavings with a razor edge.

And thirdly. Master sharpeners have great tools. Not just the sharpening gear itself - the tool steel they are sharpening. If you want to achieve a truly sharp robust edge, then you need to buy quality tools. There is no doubt that Dave Gilmore could bring you to tears with a two-dollar guitar, yet when he plays with Pink Floyd, he definitely reaches for his black Stratocaster.

A few preliminary tips

So where does this leave you? If you are a woodworker who wants to improve their sharpening skills and maybe play Wembley stadium, then here are a few tips.

No one sharpening system suits everyone. Yes, there is a core process that must be observed, even obeyed. Yet great sharpeners will find the process within the process, matched with the right sharpening equipment. This combination delivers them from bevel envy.

You don’t need a complicated expensive sharpening setup. As In the case of Dave Gilmore, no matter how poor the guitar he plays may be, he will still sound like Dave Gilmour. If you spend a fortune on sharpening gear, it won’t necessarily guarantee you a super sharp edge. Sharpness ultimately flows from technique developed through practice and mindfulness.

And sharpen all the time. Avoid setting Saturday morning aside for sharpening. Like Guilio, set up your workshop so you may sharpen all the time, conveniently. A process that suits you will emerge from this repetition.

A few notes on some old favourites

Oil Stones

A lot of the establishment still rave about oil stones. You probably own one. Greasy wooden box. So worn out of shape that you could go skateboarding. These stones were all the go in past but no longer. They require cleaning using some sort of solvent or an oil based cleaner - yuk. They lack the grading that other stones such as Japanese stones offer, I will talk more about that soon. And they don’t wear out quickly. That’s great I suppose, yet this does mean they sharpen more slowly costing you time. So, move on from good old oil stones. If you are feeling sentimental, maybe store it in the china cabinet as a memento to the person who gave up and passed it to you.

Bench Grinders

Who doesn’t love an old skool bench grinder? Especially one with a super high RPM fitted with a coarse grey stone wheel. The one at Mum’s house sounds like a jet fighter winding down when you switch it off. These setups are great for sharpening hoes, shovels and other gardening implements but are no use in a woodworking shop. Less agricultural versions are definitely now available, just ask Guilio.

Free Hand Sharpening

Some dudes can sharpen a blade blindfolded without any form of honing guide or jig. These sharpeners fall into category one above. They stand before you. Hands like wrinkled claws. Possibly a saturated rollie hanging from the corner of his mouth. And it begins. Like a ballet his hands work effortless while he mumbles instructions. You are transfixed. Not just by the speed and elegance of his work, but also by his cigarette, wondering why it doesn’t fall from his lips. Has he forgotten he is even smoking?

The edge this gentleman produces is questionable. The bevel is layered with overlapping edges, like a road cutting through sandstone country. If you dare to question, it falls on deaf ears. Afterall, this technique is worshipped by hordes of wannabes who will back the master. Check the forums for further evidence. Confused, you are convinced you will be long dead before you can sharpen free hand like this guy. But it’s ok. Free hand sharpening. Some people can do it. Some pretend they can do it. Either way it doesn’t mean you have to do it.

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