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A Lesson in Sharpening. 2012 

Sharpen.jpgA perennial subject in woodworking magazines and forums is that of sharpening techniques. No other furniture making topic seems to generate so much tedious verbose nit-picking and circular bickering in woodworking forums, along with the publication of innumerable 'sure fire' and 'infallible' methods in blogs, video demonstrations on YouTube, and articles in magazines. For some reason most of these espoused methods for getting a sharp edge on a tool seem to take an inordinate amount of time, and require a large array of bits and bobs to do the job-- I sometimes wonder if the process of sharpening is the main objective of the exercise for the people that describe them, rather than the means to working wood effectively. 

Naturally, the subject is of interest because blunt tools aren't much use. The opening preamble to many of these articles often cause a wry smile for they bring back memories of my initiation into the 'dark' art. Many authors make points about those that struggle at it, and possess a workshop full of dull tools. Conversely, it is sometimes said that those that can do the job tend to be fanatical about grits, slurries and bevel angles.

My experience is that there are really only two types of people when it comes to sharpening:

  • Those that can’t.
  • Those that can.
In the first group, those that can't, you'll sometimes see every sharpening system known to man arrayed around their workshop gathering dust. They have fancy grinders, oilstones, water stones, ceramic stones, diamond stones, guides, pieces of sandpaper, jigs, etc. Sometimes just about every hand tool they own is chipped, dull and mostly useless.

In the second group, those that can, I haven’t observed much fanaticism about slurries, grits and bevel angles. In all the workshops I’ve worked in the only concern is to get the job done. It’s a case of, "Plane’s blunt, better sharpen it." Dig out the stone, sharpen the blade, shove it back in the plane, and use it. The equipment is minimal. A grinder, a stone of some sort and lubricant along with a few slips for gouges and the like, and perhaps a bit of oiled leather charged with a bit of fine powdered abrasive for some final stropping.

Going back to the early seventies when I trained, learning how to sharpen tools was undertaken within the first few days. I don’t now recall precisely the order of my instruction, but it went something like this. I was handed a plane by the cabinetmaker I was assigned to and told to "Get that piece o’ wood square." I didn’t know why, but I’d done a bit of woodworking at school, so I had a vague idea what to do. I fooled around with that lump of wood for twenty or so minutes, and got it something like. All this under the watchful eye of the crusty old guy and his ever present roll-up hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

"Okay, I’ve done that." I said, "Now what do you want me to do?"

I was told to hang about for a minute whilst he picked up his square and straight edge and proceeded to scrutinise my handiwork, which was followed by a non-committal grunt and some desultory foot sweeping of the plentiful shavings on the floor; the wood was probably only about ninety or so per cent of its original volume.

"Now sonny, let’s do the next job," he announced. "Pull that jack plane ye’ve bin usin’ apairt and let’s have a look at the iron." I did.

"Hold the iron up so’s ye can see the cuttin' edge," he instructed-- he was a Scot. Again I did as I was told.

"Now, can ye see it? Can ye see the ‘line-o’- light’ at the shairp end there?" he wheezed, as he tapped a line of ash onto the floor and stood on it. He was referring to the shiny reflection visible when cutting edges are dull.

"Aye," I said, after a little eye squinting, and other pretence of intelligence.

"How shairp does it look to you boy?" he enquired.

I thought about this for a moment or two, seeking the right response to my tormentor, for I hadn't really got a clue what he was talking about, and finally replied rather hopefully and a bit brightly, "Pretty shairp, I’d say."

He laughed out loud, and hacked a bit. "Dinnae be the daft bloody laddie wi’ me son. If ye can see it, it’s blunt. I could ride that bloody iron ye're holdin’ bare-ersed to London and back and no cut ma’sel’. Get o’er here an’ I’ll show ye something."

You can probably guess. Out came the oilstone from his toolbox and quick as a flash the iron was whisking up and down the stone, flipped over, the wire edge removed, and finally it was stropped backwards and forwards on the calloused palm of his hand. You could shave with it. I know, because he demonstrated how sharp it was by slicing a few hairs off his forearm. On went the cap iron and the assembly was dropped back in the plane. This was followed by a bit of squinting along the sole from the front whilst the lever and knob were fiddled with and that was it. He took a few shavings off a piece of wood and it went back in his toolbox. It took, oh … a few minutes.

"Now son, that’s a shairp plane. It’s nae bloody use blunt. Ye may as well sling a soddin’ blunt yin in the bucket fer all the use it is to me," he explained with great refinement. "I’ve aboot ten mair o’ them in that box, an’ they’re all blunt. Ah’ve bin savin ‘em for ye. There’s a bunch a chisels too. Let’s get ye started."

For what felt like forever I sharpened his tools for the one and only time he allowed me to under his rheumy eyed and critical stare, and things gradually got better. After a while he stopped telling me what a "completely daft stupit wee bastit " I was, and a bit later he started offering grudging approval. I had to sharpen two or three tools more than once because he kept using and dulling them ... or maybe I just hadn't sharpened them very well the first time? When I’d done the lot we stopped and surveyed the day's work.

"Aye, nae too bad fer a daft laddie's fust effort," he commented darkly, sucking hard on his smoke, "I think ye’ve goat whit it takes. Time’ll tell sonnie. Remember, ye’ll never be a bloody cabinetmaker if ye cannae even shairpen yer f*ckin’ tools. Lesson over. Dinnae ferget it."
I haven't.

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