Hand Tool Headlines
The Woodworking Blogs Aggregator
This "aggregator" collects all of the woodworking blogs I read every day - or try to anyway! Enjoy!
Thank you to everyone who contributed towards Walt Quadrato's battle against cancer! Their fundraising goal was met. Our prayers are with you, Walt!
It’s always exciting to see friends get featured and recognized for their woodworking projects, but it’s even more exciting when it’s something you they asked you for a little help with when they were first building it.
If you’re a subscriber to the Highland Woodworking Newsletter you probably already saw Dan’s Hockey Stick Bench, but if not, it’s a fun project to take a look at.
Dan originally sent a question into Wood Talk back in August 2013 asking for a little advice on attaching the goalie sticks (which were being used as the stretchers) to the sides of the bench. I can’t remember if we gave him the answer he was looking for, but regardless, the benches were so amazing that someone took notice and hired him to make quite a few more.
So congrats Dan! You did a great job and the benches look amazing. What’s next, one made from broken curling brooms?
I have written a few blogs about bodging and being bodged. My most favorite were My Mother was a Soviet Bodger and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Bodgers. Bodging as I use it means doing what must be done to make things work the best you can. Often modifying hardware to make it work.
The last blog was mostly about using bail or pull escutcheons for keyhole escutcheons. Like this:
Last week, I saw a chest that had escutcheons that seem to be designed to work either way. This is an escutcheon used with a bail.
And the keyhole version:
It works. Keeps down your escutcheon inventory.
And it looks better than just banging in a hole.
This video is another example of a blacksmith making chisels by forge-welding a harder piece of steel onto softer wrought iron using a charcoal fire, and who judges the temperature of the metal by observing the color and characteristics of the tool as he goes along. These videos are always have a bit of a freak show element, because everyone knows only Japanese blacksmiths would go to all this trouble and obsess over the changes in color that they see during this process.
Oh, wait. It’s Peter Ross. My bad.
It’s been a while since I last posted, but not for lack of material. I have no shortage of ideas and topics, but time has been in short supply over the last several months. Between moving to a new, dedicated shop, then moving to a new house and riding out some turbulence in my personal life, my time has been consumed by keeping up with orders. As things settle down, I will get back to writing.
I am taking a break next week to visit family, so all orders placed from this point forward will most likely ship out in January when I return and resume production. You will still be able to place orders, but shipping will be delayed until my return.
Bob Van Dyke sent some photos of the seventeenth-century chest we’ll be working from in the “one-weekend-a-month-for-five-months” joined chest class we’re holding at his Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in 2015. The first session is in March, (these are the weekends we have booked: March 21 & 22, April 11 & 12, May 23 & 24, June 27 & 28, and August 8 & 9.)
The chest (above, peeking out of a tight spot) is at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. There will be a field trip sometime during the class to examine the chest in person; but Bob & I will go to measure and photograph it before the class begins. It’s not one I know well, but it has many relatives. Usually these chests have carved panels, and moldings and applied turnings on the framing parts, the drawer fronts are usually carved, with a surround of applied moldings. Here’s a center panel and the muntins of one of these creatures.
Here’s a two-drawer example, with applied decoration from the Yale University Art Gallery collection http://artgallery.yale.edu/
The CHS example has a vine motif all around the framing, like one that’s at Historic Deerfield, that I have copied before. Here’s my first version – I have another underway now.
One big difference that I see right off the bat is the vine’s layout. On the CHS chest it is a full-half-arc that then reverses direction every time it hits the centerline. So the centerpoints for these arcs are on the centerline. I used a compass, then wiggled when I darkened the lines with a pen. But you get the idea.
On the HD chest, the centerpoints for the arcs are not on the centerline; these are segments of arcs that flow into one another in a different way than the CHS examples. This one gives you a broader area for carving the various flowers/leaves. Either one works, no big deal. one requires a bit more thought in planning.
Here’s a detail showing this version:
The lid on the CHS chest with drawers is replaced in oak, the HD one is yellow pine if I remember right. We’re going to truncate the chest some, ours will have only one drawer below the chest instead of two. Our secondary wood will probably be white pine – floor boards, drawer bottoms, rear panel, & lid. All else is oak we’ll split from the log. Then plane each board – by hand. About 35-45 boards, somewhere in that range. Eat your wheaties. Sign up now, this is the one where you’ll learn and execute all the steps in making a joined chest from a log…
Bob has an article in the new SAPFM journal about his school’s collaboration with the Windsor Historical Society – this chest is a continuation of that collaboration. If you’re not a member, you didn’t get the journal – here’s their site: http://www.sapfm.org/
Small beads – 1/4”, 3/16” and 1/8” – are ideal for creating shadow lines and transitions between flat boards. The classic example is with tongue-and-groove backboards. If you add a bead on the face of every board with a tongue, the back will look finished, instead of something that has oddly spaced cracks.
But beads aren’t just decorative. They also protect corners. If I have an arris (a mid-falutin’ word for “corner”) that is vulnerable to damage, a bead can strengthen it.
Shown above is a classic example: These runners in this tool chest are going to get a lot of wear, and their corners are going to get whacked by tools and wood. By beading each corner, it is much less likely to splinter in service.
The beads also look nice.
And now that I have three beading plane sizes, I can even scale my beads – wider ones at the bottom and smaller ones at the top. Joy! Nerd!
— Christopher Schwarz
Filed under: The Anarchist's Tool Chest
Part one of 300. (Kidding…I hope)
I saw a comment on a recent Schwarzpost about purging your excess tools, complaining about how hard it is to find vintage / used backsaws. That’s true to a certain extent, but it occurred to me that it might actually be about the same amount of effort and cash outlay to build a saw from parts as to restore a vintage saw. Sure, the fresh-built saw won’t have the same vintage appeal (or rust pits) but it ought to work every bit as well. I restored a Diston backsaw a couple of years ago, and re-shaping the teeth with a file wasn’t any picnic. I didn’t get them perfect in the end, and my saw set was too coarse to get the set quite right. I’ll go back and tune that one up as part of this post.
There are a couple of places that sell saw nuts, slotted or folder backs and pre-punched plates, both ala-cart and as “kits”. Some you might want to check out are Two Guys In A Garage, Bontz Saw Works and Blackburn Tools. There are probably others. I purchased some parts from Isaac at Blackburn, he shipped the parts out quickly and has been very responsive to my naive questions.
The goal is to make a saw in the style of the 12″ carcase saw that is listed in Smith’s Key.
Unlike a typical carcase saw with crosscut teeth, this one will have fine rip teeth for dovetailing and small tenons. It also has somewhat less saw plate under the spine. I ordered a .025″ plate with 13 tpi. It should be a really handy all-around joinery saw.
As a side note, if you haven’t downloaded a copy of Smith’s Key it worth visiting the link above and downloading the whole thing. There are a number of interesting tools shown.
I also got a bronze slotted back and saw nuts from Blackburn Tools. The actual alloy of the nuts and saw back are different – Brass/Bronze ends up being a very loose definition of Copper-based alloys, and many different alloys are sold under similar sounding names. In this case the saw back is “Architectural Bronze” (57% copper, 3% lead, 40% zinc) and has a yellowish-white cast, looking more like Brass than (say) Copper. The saw nuts have a much redder cast and are probably Commercial Bronze (90% copper and 10% zinc). The higher copper percentage in the alloy is clear in the coloring.
Finding alloys that match in color and have the right properties for machining is no easy feat. I think the reddish nuts will look good against the Walnut I’m planning on for the handle.
Isaac has handle patterns for many different saws, in different sizes, on his website. Actually, “Two Guys” has a lot of interesting handle patterns on their site tool. I’m using the pattern Isaac drew up specifically for the Smith’s Key saw. I really like that he has each pattern scaled for different size hands.
I am actually going to cary several blanks through the handle making process. In part, because I’m concerned about getting the slot for the saw plate in the right place. I’m also thinking of making more than one of this saw eventually, so ending up with two or three handles would be just fine with me.
I have two handles going right now, one is a bit of figured Claro Walnut and another in a piece of Marbled Claro Walnut. I started by attaching a copy of the pattern to the wood with 3M Super 77. I drilled all of the holes as indicated in the pattern, then sawed the rest of the waste off on the bandsaw. I stayed off the pattern lines, so there was some hand work to do to get the handle down to the right shape.
I think for the second blank I’ll try cutting it on the scroll saw instead — I think I’ll be able to closer to the line and save some time filing and shaping. This handle looks kind of dicey in the pictures – partly because the pattern is fuzzy and obscuring what you can see. In person the contours are smooth and crisp. I filed everything, and worked most of the edges with a scraper.
It’s worth noting that I shouldn’t have have drilled the marker holed for the saw nuts — on this blank I’m now locked into putting the saw nuts there.
Next up I’ll bring the Marbled Claro Walnut blank up to this same point — and maybe one more blank just for good measure. Once that done I’ll cut the slot for the saw plate to make sure that goes properly.
The dressing table, or lowboy (and the terms are interchangeable in my book), is the perfect piece to study design. Much like a chair, it’s a complete microcosm of the elements that make up each style (and the transitions that take place between them). You not only get the basic flavor of the style, but there’s also tons to discover about regional variation.
In this country you don’t find dressing tables come into prominence until the William & Mary period. You also don’t find the highboy, or high chest (again, interchangeable), until the same basic time period, and lowboys tend to mimic the base of a highboy. Many lowboys were made as one half of a matching pair; a high chest and dressing table. But they are much more than just a highboy without the upper chest sitting on top. In fact, they are completely different than their grander counter-parts in many ways.
To begin with, their scale is smaller. A lowboy just doesn’t need to support as much weight, both physically and visually, as the base of a highboy. When you consider that most 18th century furniture design is based on the five classic orders of architecture, designing a low, horizontal piece of furniture that has both storage and visual lift is a challenge for any craftsman. How do you balance the desire for verticality with the need for drawer space? When you look at period examples, the answer is apparent – some with success and others, not so much.
While William & Mary (may or) may not be your favorite period, but it’s hard to deny the visual success of the Yale lowboy at the right. Compared to the base of the highboy at the top of the post (if we use the design as a baseline, even though the pieces were made in different regions by different cabinetmakers), the maker of the Yale lowboy achieved a lighter, more vertical look in several ways.
First, the reduction of the two center legs to finials helps reduce the visual weight of the piece. Six legs on such a small piece would have looked cluttered and bottom heavy. Opening up the space in the middle of the lowboy allows the outer legs to draw your eye upward from the floor making the piece appear taller.
The next change that modifies the look of the piece is a change in the proportions of the outer drawers. By narrowing them in width, the cabinetmaker continues to draw the eye upward from the legs. Putting more space between the drawers also makes them appear taller and narrows the overall look of the lowboy.
The final changes that help keep the piece from becoming a bloated box are the deep cutouts in the apron and the large overhanging top. By bringing the cutouts so close to the bottom of the drawers, the cabinetmaker again pushes your eye upward, whereas the apron on the highboy has more space giving the piece extra mass (necessary on a visual level given the weight it carries above). The generous overhang on the top makes the case appear narrower than it is, accentuating the tall, narrow legs.
Contrast the lowboy above to the Massachusetts example to the left. Although the cabinetmaker eliminated the two center legs, the heft of the remaining legs pulls the eye down and gives the lowboy more bottom weight. The space below the drawers to the bottom of the apron cutout adds even more visual weight to the piece. The broader drawers and smaller overhang all contribute to a piece that is less graceful overall.
That’s not to say the lowboy at the left isn’t a beautiful, well-made piece, it’s just that one is slightly more successful as an overall design than the other. I thought for my first “Design in Practice” post here on 360, I’d try to do a little comparison to get you looking at the various elements of a piece and how cabinetmakers combine them to achieve different looks. Essentially, both lowboys are made up of the same elements – a case, four legs, some drawers and a top. When you start working on your next piece, consider how all the parts play together and tell me which direction you’d rather go.
Something I've been involved with over the last year or so is the latest volume of "Working Wood" by Artisan Media. I bumped into Dave and Simon at the last "European Woodworking Show" and I obviously made the right impression on them. I've been involved with the chapters on wooden planes, it being my area of expertise, and as a general sounding board - it's been a real pleasure to have been a part of things in a small way.
Now I've finally got a copy of the book in my hands I'm extremely impressed with it - the photography is quite wonderful and the book is laid out gloriously. And Simon has done a wonderful job of putting over so much information in such an accessible way - the book is truly impressive!
This volume covers the workshop and the more advanced hand tools and jigs, as well as how to sharpen and maintain these. There is a huge amount of tricks and tips and the beautiful photography clearly compliments the text. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book!
As a final treat I was asked to right the foreword - there's even one or two photo's of me strategically placed throughout the book. You have been warned ;)
Available direct and from Classic Hand Tools in the UK.
Lester Griswold, Handicraft, 1951
I've noticed lately that there are several wood workers in the world of Internet wood work blogging that are bragging about being "vise-less".
Well, good for you!
I've used hold fasts almost exclusively on my bench for that last twenty years or so, hold fasts are cheap compared to a metal vise and I never got along well with leg vises. I don't make boxes or cut dovetails anymore, I make classical guitars which need much different clamping devices than say, oh, a Federal highboy.
Don't get me wrong, I do need to use a vise for some tasks.
One thing I enjoy about using holdfasts is how quickly you can hold a piece of wood and you don't have to use a pretty piece of wood as a clamping caul.
Hold fasts are efficient for most tasks, they are great for holding guitar necks!
I do own and use a Shop Fox brand vise that I bought from Grizzly some ten-eleven years because it was cheap and I needed a better way of holding certain objects. Personally, I think this vise is a piece of junk and isn't worthy of being a boat anchor-I have to use excess torque on the vise screw to hold the work piece and even after that the vise will turn on its tower, etc., etc. I am too cheap at the moment to replace it with something else.
Funny how deadlines can get in the way of doing things.
While carving the heel of a guitar neck the other day, I notice how the steep bevel of my one inch chisel kept bumping the chisel out of the cut. I was using the chisel with its belly down.
Most of my chisels are ground to a 30 degree bevel, this is left over from the days when I did chop dovetails and mortises, so I thought I would take one chisel and experiment with a 20 degree bevel.
I took my 7/8 inch Stanley No.720 chisel to the grinder and then locked it in my old Eclipse 36 Made in England honing guide.
The 20 degree bevel worked like a charm, now I want to experiment with a 15 degree bevel, but, again, the amount of time I have in the shop grows short.
I have two orders for custom classical guitars, a router table is waiting to be built so I can make muntin, rail and stile stock for eight sashes for the new porch enclosure which that also needs to be finish before winter really sets in.
Did I mention that our water heater developed a good leak the other day?
It's going to be a busy winter!
Another YouTube of Isabella Selder, enjoy!
Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to carve a half-size creche scene for Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, SC
It was carved in Paulownia wood – a very lightweight, but strong wood.
Mepkin Abbey has a yearly Creche festival where they collect 40+ Creche scenes from around the world – mostly hand made. If you ever have an opportunity to see the festival, it is really quite beautiful.
The carving was a real challenge because I only had about a month to complete all 3 figures. Grinders removed most of it. And then I used an electric carver to get closer to the final shape. Then I hand-carved the final details. I really enjoyed the challenge of the whole project. Since I do not carve figures much, that added to the adventure.
Here is a link to a recent newspaper article.
Recently three people e-mailed me to ask the same question, so it seemed like a worthy topic for a blog post. In essence there are two questions. Question number one is “why don’t the walnut pieces in the Gamble house bedroom look like walnut?” And the follow-up is “how can I get a piece I build out of walnut to look like that?”
Here is a snippet from Larry in North Carolina:
I recently purchased a bundle of books that included your book, Shop Drawings for Greene and Greene Furniture. I want to make a piece from black walnut and would like to achieve the color of the Gamble Chiffonier and Gamble bed, both shown in your book. These are described as black walnut, but with a very different color from the black walnut that I am accustomed to. I have a bunch of black walnut rescued from a barn in West Virginia, but it is very dark, almost black as the name implies. So, the first question is – can I achieve the color that I am looking for and if so, how? Did they use the process that you describe in your book for achieving the desired look for the mahogany pieces – the potassium dichromate and stain process – or some other process? Or, is the walnut used in the Gamble pieces different and I just will not be able to get there using the wood I have on hand?
My answer: The Gamble bedroom is 106 years old, and in my opinion that accounts for the color of the walnut. Where lighter woods tend to get darker over time, walnut tends to lighten in color. With old pieces it can be difficult to tell the exact species of wood as the colors tend to become similar. The primary wood in the Gamble bedroom is walnut and to the best of my knowledge, the finish on those pieces was either oil or shellac, possibly a combination, but I don’t think a stain was used.
So what can you do if you want the lighter color, other than wait a century for the wood to lighten up? Don’t use the potassium dichromate, it’s a strong oxidizer and will make the walnut darker. You could possibly bleach the walnut to make it lighter. With any of these chemical treatments you are rolling the dice as the color changes depend on a reaction with the bleach (or oxidizer) and the chemical composition of the wood. That’s the wild card as there is a lot of variation from tree to tree.
You might consider using butternut instead of walnut if you can find it. The grain is similar to walnut, but the color is lighter. Larry got back to me, and he decided to use cherry instead.
If you like Greene & Greene furniture, check out the online Greene & Greene Virtual Archives. Don’t say I didn’t warn you if you don’t get anything done for the rest of the day. Maintained by USC the archives contain thousands of images (both period and contemporary) of Greene & Greene projects. If you click “Search” from the home page, you can browse all the images project by project. This link leads to the Gamble house images.
I was feeling pretty good about myself. My son's desk had been in the corner of our warm, dry laundry room for a few weeks while I worked on other projects. The laundry room is small enough that I couldn't finish all of the pieces at once, so I did the base and the desktop first, with the gallery to come next. Finishing is frustrating for me, in part because you get to find all the defects you missed and in part because I have a real knack for runs and drips, but it went well and by Friday I was ready to move on to the gallery. I was putting it in place when, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a CRACK and no reindeer:
- Insert medium viscosity CA glue into the crack and then sand sawdust into it;
- Make a filler of 5 minute epoxy and sawdust, let it dry and sand it flush.
I mixed up some epoxy and folded in what seemed like the right amount of sawdust. Then I applied it to the crack, which I had masked off, and forced it in with a little spatula:
Five minutes later, this is what I had:
After about an hour (it would have been better to wait longer) I scraped and sanded it. After a coat of stain the next day, here is the result:
Hopefully this will never happen again but, if it does, I think I will try the CA glue and sawdust option. The thing that makes the epoxy show is its uniform color and smooth surface compared to the wood around it. I think the sawdust might be more like the wood surface.
Interestingly, it seems like expert finishers don't regard defects like this as particularly uncommon or serious. I have resisted learning about finishing, preferring instead to use the simplest, most foolproof finishes I can find. With this project, I tried and to a significant though not complete degree succeeded in crafting a piece of furniture that would meet high-end professional standards. This defect taught me that a part of the process of improvement is to learn more about finishing.
When I finally get to point where I’ve answered all my e-mail (sometime about July 2026), I might write a supplement or revision to the last bit of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” to include more construction information on different chests and the principles of their interiors.
When I wrote that book in 2010, I considered the chest in the book to be more of an idea than something that a reader would really build. I love (that’s the correct word) working out of a full-size floor chest and have since about 1997. But most people I talk to think it makes as much sense as using a gerbil to pull a plow.
This week I’m fitting out a traveling chest for an upcoming article in Popular Woodworking Magazine and am designing the interior to take advantage of every millimeter. Here are a few of the thought processes I use when designing the vertical space of a traveling chest (floor chests are different). Here’s a crude, shop-made sketch of the chest’s elevation in section.
The Bottom Well
With a typical traveling chest, you aren’t going to be able to store your moulding planes on their toes – that would take up about 10” of your vertical space. So you store them on their soles so they eat up less of the chest’s height.
If you use panels saws – which is typical if you use a traveling chest – you need to be able to accommodate the full height of the saw’s tote. The saw tills on my traveling chests grab the panel saws at their toes. The heel of the blade rests on the floor of the chest.
And you need to be able to put your bench planes on the floor of the chest with their soles on the floor of the chest. If you use tools with a high cutting angle (moulders or bench planes), you have to be careful and measure their heights.
So when I design the bottom well, I start with a height of 6-1/4”. Unless you have any unusually tall bench planes or panel saws, that’s a good starting measurement.
The Top Till
After drawing out the bottom well, the next step is to sketch the top sliding till. This is the till that usually gets all your small tools that you use constantly – layout tools, block planes a mallet, wax, knives etc. So this till is generally not very tall. I have found that a till that is 2-3/4” is a good overall height. When you figure that the till’s bottom will eat up 1/4” of that height it leaves you with an interior height of 2-1/2”. I really like this height.
When positioning the top till in the chest, I like to leave a 1/4” (or so) bit of airspace above the top till. This gap prevents damage to your tools or chest if you slam the lid and a couple of your tools are accidentally piled on top of each other.
Then you divvy up the space between the top till and the bottom well. If the overall chest isn’t tall, I might put in another 2-3/4”-tall till. But I’d rather have a deeper till that is good for storing tool rolls, boxes of augers, my brace, hand drill and the like. If I can get a till that is at least 5” tall in there, then I’m pretty happy. If I can get a slightly taller one in there, even better. Once you approach 7” deep, however, it becomes a junk drawer.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Apologies for the crude sketch.
Filed under: The Anarchist's Tool Chest
Well I added another lathe. I admit it, I have a problem. The last thing I needed was another treadle driven lathe, but I long told myself that if I ever got the chance to own a Barnes lathe I would do it. And so I did. I’ve been turning on this lathe for more than 5 years when I have been volunteering at the Steppingstone Museum. It is a thing of beauty and I view it as the pinnacle of the foot powered continuous motion lathes. “Powered” lathes were already in use when these Barnes models hit the market, but this was targeted at small shops and rural users where steam power was not an option. Essentially this lathe was the last stop in the evolution before motors became standard equipment and thus I believe it to be the most refined design. It was only natural that despite the lathes I had already built, the Barnes would take a place of honor in my shop.
This video details how it goes together, what I did to restore it to beauty, and my initial turning on it.
Improvements To Do List
There is still a gap between my experience working on the museum lathe and my own, and in the coming months I’m going to see if I can meet and exceed that performance mark.
- First I need to shore up the base to stop the movement. I’m going to start by building a rigid frame that the lathe will sit on and be captured inside the mobile base frame. This should stop the shimmy action. If that fails I may have to ditch the mobile base idea. I’m open to other suggestions.
- Add an adapter so I can use the current threaded accessories like my chucks with 1×8 tpi threads.
- Build a dedicated turning stool that incorporates the original tractor style seat. As cool as the integral seat it, I’m just too tall for it.
- Incorporate some dust collection. I think I can reverse the seat arm and use it to attach a dust port.
- Install a disco ball
About a month after I joined the Popular Woodworking staff (so three weeks after I learned to spell “rabbet”), I traveled to New Jersey with then Senior Editor David Thiel (he’s now in charge of our videos) for a woodworking show. I remember three things about that 2005 trip: I’ve never been so ill yet still ambulatory than I was that weekend; Harrelson Stanley taught me his side-sharpening method; and […]
My new favorite Japanese woodworking project.
The title of this post seems almost a contradiction of terms. Sharpness and abrasion; how does that work?
Sharpening most cutting tools and cutting blade edges is not particularly complex but it will take practice to establish patterns of guaranteed success for the freehand sharpening methods that make you expertly fast and effective. Oftentimes we start out sharpening using a honing guide and that does work to get to the cutting edge we need. Eventually though, you will want more, you will want to get the edge faster so you can get on with the real work you love to do. As I said, sharpening cutting tools and cutting blades is not really complex, but it can be made more difficult when you move into harder steel types like high-speed steel and hard steel alloys or cutting edges made with superimposed tips and edges like tungsten carbide. That’s when you must cross a line to use more industrial methods. Then commercial abrasives and diamond cutters combine with power and speed and take over to project you into the less pleasant world of industrial abrading and metal cutting. So, it’s here that I’ve decided to take some time out, to present thoughts and feelings as concisely as possible. Opinion is one thing and there’s always lots of that, experience another, so let’s see what happens in the reality of daily, at-the-bench working.
Experiencing makes a difference
What I’ve seen over my five decades of daily sharpening and of course teaching others to sharpen by the thousands is mostly confusion. Yes, there’s lots of head knowledge, but that seems not to have really helped because it’s relational knowledge that dispels confusion. What I have experienced as normal is just how confused people seem to be when it comes to what was once simply a simple sharpening process. My quest then is to see if we shouldn’t look at what it takes to get to the cutting edge and circumvent the confusion by myth-busting some of the mystery. In the age of information overload I found it quite challenging penetrating the excesses of information purporting to be technical advice. What the information doesn’t give you is experiencing the stones and the abrasives and the compounds, so what I want to try to do is use 50 years of sharpening at the bench to bridge the gap and give advice I hope will make sense. I think I can cut to the quick and we can return to the simplicity we all need.
I’m sure I’ll be ranked amongst the information overloaders by the time this post is read, sorry for that, but it has to be said. A student this week asked me about sharpening equipment and I pulled out a popular catalog of tools to help her understand which systems or stones would work best for her. To compare what was offered and guide her into making educated decisions. Try as I might, here was no way that that was even possible.
The lady’s budget was around £30 max. Thumbing through the pages it didn’t take long to see that £30 doesn’t go very far if you read what the salespeople and manufacturers have to say on the matter. Fact was, if you listened to them at all, you’d spend hundreds more than you really need to and end up with many times more than you need into the bargain. A little more thumbing through the pages and she stopped me and asked, “How much of this do I need? With so many pages on just sharpening she asked how would it ever be possible to understand so complex an issue with so much equipment necessary to sharpen a chisel and a plane. It was at this point that I stopped her and counted the 21 packed pages and I realised the confusion was the array of unnecessary stuff available and were I a beginner I too would be confused.
Are Machines Necessary?
The quick answer is, generally, no, but you might want access to one for heavier grinding work to restore badly ground, damaged or flawed edges from time to time. They are useful for that. Many things have changed the face of woodworking not the least of which is the industrialising of craft aspects we once took for granted to be hand work. In sharpening today most people use a mechanical system of grinding, be that a simpler electronic grinding wheel with two different grit-grade wheels, a horizontal grinder flushed continuously with water cooling, vertical and horizontal grinders with abrasive belts and discs of some kind and so on and so on. This of course opened a massive sphere of sales for sellers to sell the wares of the industrial abrasive giants like Norton and 3M and so when you add into this equation different stone types and sizes, different grits of every level and belts and compounds graded out too you can soon end up considering a hundred products those new to woodworking might think to be necessary. I think this is a good point to say that in general, when you have chisels and cutting edges in general good condition, you don’t need any kind of mechanical machine grinding to sharpen your edge tools.
Catalogs compete with the old brand names by supplying knockoffs
What has happened with machine grinding abrasives has also happened on other fronts too. Now we have natural water stones, diamond stones, a monstrous range of man-made stones in diversely different grits and particulate types too numerous to mention. Over and above that you now have everything doubled up. When Asia and the west opened up the interexchange trade routes to intercontinental and especially Asian factories, new trend began with the replication of established lines. In a few short years knock-off brands copying the originals was normalised with and without licenses. The quest to satisfy what was then Western consumerism at compelling competitive pricing,open new the floodgates all the wider and catalog companies across the globe began to swell their offerings. Even the reputable companies sold out the honour of their forebears to take advantage of the cheaper labourers. Spear and Jackson, Woodcraft, Rockler and Irwin. Machine makers too have goods and parts made in the anonymous world of “somewhere abroad”. The Brits and Americans and some EU countries became exceptionally good at copycatting ideas and having their stuff replicated somewhere in the expansed regions of Asia at half the price and less. That meant they could run both levels side by side to offer some price break to their customers but mostly to increase their own profits and compete. Everything made that at one time only came from what we might describe as say a reputable domestic maker suddenly became available from other ’alternative’ suppliers, but, now, under the catalog companies own brand names.
Hard grits, soft grits, hard steels and super hard steels
The reality is that different abrasives cut steels at different rates and speeds. The variance depends on the hardness of the steel and the abrading qualities of the different abrasives. Picking the abrading method introduces additional confusion into the arena of sharpening. Up until about four decades ago I recall that sharpening was really quite simple. Craftsmen always generally used freehand sharpening methods and most, not all, amateurs preferred to use risk-free honing guides as a sort of training aid until they gained confidence and competency free handing. Using Japanese stones, mostly natural stones back then, gained rapid popularity, mostly because western woodworkers were looking for answers. For some unknown reason simple sharpening methods were buried somewhere. It was as if the art of sharpening, no matter where, had suddenly become lost; forgotten. It was about that time that Japanese water stones and abrasive paper methods of sharpening (known for some reason as the scary-sharp method) became popularised. Both methods were seen somehow as revolutionary systems; an answer to all sharpening problems. On the one hand you had friable stones that cut steel fast but surface-fractured rapidly. This then led to severely hollowed out stones that supposedly needed permanent flattening and in some measure that might be true. We’ll look at that soon. On the other hand abrasive surfaces such as abrasive papers and films tore easily and were short lived surfaces needing constant replacement. This proves a very expensive system for permanent or longterm sharpening. Before this point most workmen used oil-filled man-made or natural sharpening stones throughout Europe and of course North America. Why people became disgruntled with them I don’t really know. These abrasive stones all worked and worked well and, actually, they still do. If you don’t have much money you can get a very good cutting edge with a Norton combination stone and a leather strop. Most working men I have ever known would be content that these edges are good enough for creating good work.
So what am I saying?
Well, I’m saying that there are different camps. Some people like to spend an hour or two sharpening an edge to take pristine shavings that ripple from the throat of a plane and mesmerise the plane user. They want the plane finely adjusted and nothing more than shaving the edge of a piece of wood. To them it’s therapeutic and relaxing. Nothing at all wrong with that. Then there are those who love planing their wood as they work and create beyond or beneath the shaving. They perfect the wood and the shaving because they are interrelated for joinery, for panel making and for levelling and trimming and such.
The fact that I never saw a master woodworking craftsman use a honing guide doesn’t at all mean they never did or do. In my purview there is nothing at all wrong with that in principle at least. I use one from time to time for different reasons and especially when experimenting for the research work I engage in. However, for me, not using a fixed angle honing guide gives me much greater speed, economy of movement and time and thereby efficiency. Equally important is I find it too restrictive in terms of the motion and movement I feel using a fixed angle guide. Now that’s in my general day to day work. As I said, honing guides do have their place. You see it’s too mechanical, yes, but then it also prevents me from honing either to task or for a particular preference I have that gives me the total versatility I enjoy and get from free-hand sharpening. Not relying on the honing guides does in some ways simplify the task as long as you see that it also demands the early development of skill. The problem usually is people don’t feel uncomfortable with it at least at first and therefore they often reach for the honing guide first. What’s my thought on this? Well, I never rode a bike with training wheels on that I can recall, and of course I came off from time to time in the early stages of learning, but once I mastered the balancing aspect it took I was very free. Knowing such freedom gave me the determination never to return to the training wheels. My recommendation is that you might want to buy one of the less expensive guides like the one and only one we use here at the school. It’s quick and easy enough to set up, reliable to use and lifelong. It can also be had for under about £10. I, as an apprentice, went straight to freehand sharpening at 15 and stayed with it for 50 years. It took me a few hours max over a week or so and I had it for life.
I hope that the next post on these issues will be more interesting and enlightening.